Grimaud Hears Music As Colors

From “Her Way,” D. T. Max’s profile of the classical pianist Hélène Grimaud:

Grimaud quickly surpassed other children who had been playing piano for years. “By nine, I was already obsessed,” she remembers, in love with “the pure pleasure and evasion of being at that instrument.” But, rather than spending all her time at the keyboard, she did much of her “practicing” in her head. “Some wonderful pianists practice eight hours a day,” she says. “I was never really that person.” She notes of her childhood, “I don’t remember ever having had a piece that I found hard.”

She was helped along, she says, by having synesthesia—the conflation of one sense with another. She first noticed this phenomenon, at the age of eleven, while playing the Prelude in F-sharp Major from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”; she has described seeing a “shapeless stain … between orange and red.” Afterward, she was surprised to learn that this wasn’t normal. Seeing music as colors helped her memorize scores and made playing the piano feel even more visceral. Even today, when she plays, especially in concert, colors can come unbidden, each connected to a particular key. C minor is black. D minor is blue. E-flat major, the key of the Mozart aria, is “very bright—something similar to sunlight … and sometimes switching to green.”

One thinks, of course, of Rimbaud.