Tom Anderson: Synesthete

Tom Anderson: Synesthete

In about 1979 I was playing at music festivals, and spent a lot of late nights jamming with people like The Boys of the Lough. Ali Bain, the fiddler, kept entreating me to meet Tom Anderson, his teacher and mentor from the Shetlands. Tom came on one of their tours, and when we met we played together. Tom said to me (as he probably says to several people every day when he’s on the road): “You Must come visit me in the Shetlands!” I said: “Okay, how about December 10?” and he said: “No, the 19th would be better.”

So five months later, the date arrived, and so did I. I stayed several weeks, over the winter solstice, Christmas and spent New Year’s Day ‘first-footin’ to his friends’ homes. (That’s the first day of the year that you step across the threshhold of your friends’ houses for the good luck of all and for several shots of whisky.)

One of the most interesting aspects of Tom’s playing is that he is a synesthete: his senses cross over, so when he writes music he sees visual images. I discovered the impact that can have while discussing tunes with my sister, Colleen. I played her a guitar tune I’d been toying with, and she responded: “That tune says ‘things are rough right now, but I can make my way through and everything will eventually be fine.'” She was right. Every time I played that tune, that’s how I felt. I think the grammar of the song was related to the grammar of our language, in some ancient circuitry we don’t know we’re using.

Anyway, knowing that her perception of that image seemed language related, I decided to try one of Tom’s visual pieces and see how she reacted to that. I’m not glib on the piano, but I struggled through a simple version of the tune, a slow aire. She saw in her mind’s eye a rocking chair in front of a fireplace. I was stunned. The piece was The Resting Chair, which Tom wrote when he visited his grandfather’s croft on the north island of the Shetlands and saw an old resting chair in front of the fireplace. Now that is a persistent visual image, because it not only survived my clumsy execution, but carried no language related baggage, because english is not Tom’s mother-tongue. He spoke the Shetland dialect of something like Swedish. She saw the chair he wrote the tune about. Wow. Then I really wanted to go visit this man.

I did. Dead of winter way north of Scotland, very long evenings with Tom and too much whisky. One night I asked him about the visual images, and these are my notes:
By Tom [Anderson] on colors 12/15/79 [as told to Sandy Bradley]

Bb is blue, cold, lonely. Freddie’s tune is the blue of the sea or sky

Eb has got a lot of black, dark blue, almost indigo. It’s a despairing key, a virtuoso key. The devil who appears in black.

Cm is wierd: touches of fog & greyness & black. Deep grey, ‘flacid.’

F is silver, like the moon on the water. Moonlight Serenade key

C is grey, colorless: A ghost comes out of the mist and it forms into the shape of….

A is blood red for fighting, strathspeys, pipe tunes

Am is pink which can resolve itself into grey like a cloud over the sun. Sunrise and sunset.

D is dark red with speckles of white

G is mysterious, it sparkles, like cleaning the blood out of a joint [meat bone] and it runs grey with the water and specks of red

E purples. 4# Shoots up like the aurora. Complex with yellow and purple. Brilliant as 1/2 the rainbow. Like an aura.

Minors are mixed paints to make the shade.

Bach fugues demonstrate this. Duets and trios.
Strathspey in A: blood & adrenalin — war.

End of quote.

I just thought you’d like to know.


3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Amy Carroll said,

    This is great to read. I just read Oliver Sachs book (Musicophilia) and he talks about synthesthete – arghhh how is it spelled?!?!?! Anyway, I mentioned how wild I thought the concept of tying colors to music was to a friend of mind, and she said she thought everyone did! Some people tie colors with numbers, days of the week, all kinds of things. I was fascinated, never having had any visual/aural syntheses myself.

  2. 2

    Kaade said,

    Have you heard any descriptions like this from other Shetland fiddlers? What this reminds me of is the system that some Hardinger fiddle-players in Norway use to describe certain modes. For instance, Den Blå Slåtten, “The Blue Tune.” Thanks for posting this. Tom Anderson did so much for promoting Shetland traditional music- and wrote some awe-inspiring tunes as well- it’s interesting to know more about how he approached music.

    Do you have any stories Mr. Anderson told you about Trow tunes?

    • 3

      sandybradley said,

      Oliver Sachs’s new book about music discusses this as a cross-cultural phenomenon and lists several examples. Do you know Sandy’s Welcome? (One of Tom’s) I’ll check my notes, but i don’t recall any discussions of Trow tunes, though it was 1979.

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