Colors in music with pianist Leslie Amper

Synesthesia is a condition in which a stimulus invokes a perception of color tone or color taste. On Feb. 22, Leslie Amper, an acclaimed pianist and Assistant Professor at Wheaton, gave a piano recital and lecture entitled “Blended Senses: Synesthesia in Music, Art, Literature and Fashion.” The event started at 7:30 p.m. in Mary Lyon Hall and focused on color synesthesia called chromesthesia.

The first half of the program included piano performances of compositions by Olivier Messiaen, Mozart, Amy Beach, Franz Liszt and Gyorgy Ligeti. The composers of the pieces performed were identified to be synesthetes and conducted the orchestra based on their synesthesiac perceptions. “Some of these artists have synesthesia, so the idea of connecting music to art was the inspiration,” said Amper.

The piano performance was followed by a lecture on how individuals with synesthesia have incorporated their unique condition in different realms of fashion, music, literature and art. Leonard Bernstein, a musical composer and conductor; Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita”; Iris Van Herpen, a fashion designer; and David Hockney, an artist, were among the prominent personalities who used their synesthesiac characteristics to introduce their audience to a different perspective of the world. “This was a new angle for me,” said Amper. “So it was really putting them side by side that got me excited.”

Amper also talked about the synesthesia battery, a series of evaluations that test for synesthesia. Although synesthesia mostly has a genetic link that affects one out of 23 people, Amper said that context also plays a role in synesthesia. Notably, the sound of the word tends to influence the associated color with the word. Susan Hanno said, “One of the things that was most interesting was how prevalent it really is. I mean, I have never come across a person who has synesthesia before.”

Next, a question and answer session with the audience was held. The program concluded with a piano performance of Ellington’s “Dancers in Love” by Amper, in which the audience joined as well. Camilla Pederson ’18, a biology and music major, said, “I liked the associations of what you hear and how the other senses are evoked of hearing different things.”

For Susan Hanno, the piano recitals were the highlight of the event: “The information was fascinating but listening to her play, it almost seems impossible to me that someone could do what she does. It is so beautiful and complicated. That is simply truly a gift.”

The music department is scheduled to hold a follow-up concert, “Blended Senses II: Companion Student Concert,” starting at 5 p.m. on March 7 in Mary Lyon Hall. “It’s a real treasure – the things that happen in the music department,” said Susan Hanno.