Colour and Music

Issue #3-4 • 1064

In contemporary art history there is a growing interest towards the topic of interrelationship between classical maqom and medieval book painting (miniature). The raising of this issue is justified by and grounded in several factors. First of all, it has to be noted that in the East the correlation of colour and musical sound is an ancient tradition. Specifically, musical perception of many nations in the region has long since been “closely associated with perception of colour” (1. p.15). Arab philosopher Al-Qindi saw the reason of this phenomenon in “that between some colours and melodies, in terms of emotions they invoke, there is a certain correspondence” (1. p. 250). Perhaps this is what explains the frequent use of the term rang (colour) by musicians, as a semantic equivalent to musical notions such as intonation, sound, harmony, or timbre, and, sometimes the identifying of seven basic colours with seven basic musical sounds.

Colour also played and important role in the history of maqom. Specifically, the term rang (colour) was introduced into academic use and musical treatises of medieval scholars and was used to denote a separate harmony group along with notions such as maqom, shu’be and avaze (2, pp. 11-12). Nowadays too the word rang can be found in the terminology of Iranian dastgyakh and Azerbaijani mugam (3), while the Indian cultural tradition has a very remarkable phenomenon that reflects interrelationship between colour and music: “the depicting of rag and ragin’ (feminine harmonies) in painting” (4, p. 88).

In a word, colours are the real art in the oriental musical world, just as in the world of miniature painting. In this context, of a particular academic interest are book illustrations to the poem of the great Alisher Navoi “The Seven Planets” performed by artists from Bukhara in the 16th century (5). It is clear that musicians, musical instruments and the entire range of colours depicted in the miniatures carry certain information about the time, artistically convey different emotional states of a human soul, and, perhaps, also express “supratemporal” music. Because in the art of Bukhara school of miniature painters, the followers of the great Kamaleddin Bekhzad, all details, colours and characters are meaningful and profoundly semantic.

In reading their deep meaning the important “guide” is primarily the literary source itself. In particular, the poem masterfully employs the whole palette of colours and immediately related to it the system of terms/symbols, among which the most significant and key is the word “seven” (yetti). According to the observations of a philologist Saidbek Khasanov, the word yetti in different word combinations (seven stories, seven wanderers, seven planets, etc.) is used ninety times in the poem (6, p. 130). The scholar specifically emphasises that the poem content is centred around seven stories in relation to which other “seven-place” natural phenomena manifest themselves. We have attempted to reflect these links in the table 1 below.

Table 1

Short stories Days of the Week Colour Celestial bodies
First story Saturday Black Saturn
Second story Sunday Yellow The Sun
Third story Monday Green The Moon
Forth story Tuesday Red Mars
Fifth story Wednesday Blue Mercury
Sixth story Thursday Sandal Jupiter
Seventh story Friday White Venus

As one can see from the table, each column contains a group of seven elements and the relationship between them (the groups) works horizontally. For instance, the first story is told on Saturday in a black palace, and the patron of the day is the black planet Saturn; the second story is told under the patronage of the Sun on Sunday in a yellow palace; the third story, accordingly, on Monday in a green palace and the patron is the Moon; the forth story is told on Tuesday in a red palace, the patron is the red planet Mars; the fifth story – on Wednesday in a blue palace, the patron is the blue planet Mercury; the sixth story – on Thursday in a sandal palace, the patron is the sandal-coloured planet Jupiter; and the seventh story is told on Friday in a white palace, and the patron is Venus (7, pp. 85-288; 6, pp. 139-140).

At the same time number seven also appears in the poem in a concealed way and manifests itself as a supreme spiritual expression of all the aforementioned “seven-place” phenomena, and, therefore, is comprehended on a somewhat different hierarchical level. What is implied in this case are basic seven-step, perfect maqom harmonies symbolically expressed through the entire range of characters and colour gamut. To have some logical insight into this aspect of the problem a small historical excursus is required.

As known, in his poem “Khaft Paikar” (The Seven Beauties”) the great Azerbaijani poet and thinker and the founder of classical literary tradition “Khamsa” Nizami Ganjavi, along with the legends about Persian king Bakhram Gur, also creatively revised the teaching of ancient Greek philosophers (the Pythagoreans) on celestial harmony (The Harmony of Spheres). According to this teaching, the origin of music had a direct cosmological basis. Pythagoras and his followers believed that at the centre of cosmos is the spherical Earth around which, from West to East, the five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) and the Sun revolve with different velocity, producing sounds of different pitch, which together form a perfect (diatonic) scale (8, p. 124). Thus, the harmonious (perfect) key-scale, the foundation of any music, was considered to be the reflection of cosmic (universal) harmony.

However, with the ascertaining of heliocentric system in astronomy (the Earth revolves around the Sun) the Harmony of Spheres began to loose its attractiveness. Yet the great thinkers of Orient, and, particularly, a big connoisseur of the Antiquity culture Nizami Ganjavi, did not reject the views of ancient Greeks, but subjected them to an extensive revision – now in the context of a new concept of unity between micro- and macro-cosmos. Since then the Nizami’s poem “The Seven Beauties”, through conventional symbols and colour gamut, sounds as a kind of cosmic music. Later on this artistic tradition found a worthy continuation in the poems “The Eight Gardens of Heaven” by Khosrov Dehlevi and “The Seven Planets” by Alisher Navoi.

To be able to “hear” this music, it is necessary to establish, on the basis of many century-old traditional perceptions, a correspondence of seven basic keys (maqoms) and their sound-pitch to seven celestial spheres. The results of comparing sources on this subject have provided the following picture (1, pp. 16-17; 9, pp. 19-20) (Tab.2).

Table 2

Celestial spheres Musical tone (sound) The name of maqom
1. Saturn (Kaivon) re Rakhovi
2. The Sun la Irak
3. The Moon mi Navo
4. Mars (Mirrikh) si Ushak
5. Mercury(Atorud) fa Busalik
6. Jupiter (Mushtariy) do Zirafkand
7. Venus (Zukhra) sol Rast

Now, by comparing data in Tables 1 and 2, it is easy to establish a correspondence of certain colours to each of seven musical sounds.

А correspondence of certain colours to each of seven musical sounds.

Colours: black yellow green red blue sandal white
Sounds: d (re) a (la) e (mi) h (si) f (fa) c (do) g (sol)

Taking this information into account, once can begin the analysis of miniatures that illustrate stories from Alisher Navoi’s poem “The Seven Planets” (5).

A miniature dedicated to the first story is called “Bakhram in the Black Palace”. Here, according to the literary source, everything was supposed to be coloured in black. The miniature, however, only partly reflects this “premise”, for it shows a combination of a whole range of colours.

What draws attention in the first place is basically three-plane compositional architectonics of the miniature, invoking certain analogies with “staged” structure of maqom pieces. For example, expositional opening in the instrumental parts of maqom is called sarkhona (the main building, the original structure), and in vocal parts – daromad (prelude, introduction), where the main theme is set out and the main tone and its subdominant sounds are identified. From this standpoint, the front “scene” of the miniature (musicians, musical instruments, etc.) can be functionally compared to sarkhona: here, while black colour dominates, one can find the harmony of seven colours. Decoding them in the musical context with subsequent translation into musical notation has resulted in establishing the scale of Rakhovi maqom:

d – e – f – g – a – h – c – d
re — mi — fa — sol — la — si — do — re

The name Rakhovi does not figure in the contemporary maqomat system (Shash-maqom, Khorezmian maqom, Fergana-Tashkent maqom). According to A. Fitrat and I. Rajabov, the authoritative connoisseurs and researchers into the art of maqom, this harmony manifests itself in the vocal part of Nasrulloi from the Shash-maqom cycle. The Rakhovi maqom identified on the basis of the miniature seems to “confirm” the assumption of the scholars: its harmony-scale is identical to the Nasrulloi harmony (with re as key-note) and, at the same time, corresponds (in reverse, descending “reading”) to ancient Greek (Phrigyan) and medieval (ecclesiastical) harmony: Re-dorian.

There is another parallel. When the opening section of maqom music is performed, the masters of this art try to use the so-called melisma and ornamental phrases (nola, kochirim, etc.) as moderately as possible, for the most important thing at this section of a piece is to demonstrate seven basic sounds of the harmony. Subsequently, as the theme develops in the middle register (miyonkhona, the middle structure), and with reaching the culmination zone in the upper register (audj, the top), the role of melismatic ornamentations, which are a kind of musical arabesques, increases.

Something similar can also be observed in a “three-staged” development of miniature images. For instance, if at the first stage (the lower plane) distinctly expressed and clear colours prevail over different kinds of ornaments (arabesques); then starting from the central plane (the images of Bakhram and the Princess) the arabesque style takes the lead and reaches its apogee at the next stage (the upper plane) of the composition. What is evident here is the conventionality of the domes, which are usually coloured in the tones of blue; whereas here we observe a culmination of different patterns and floral ornamentations.

This miniature is also remarkable in terms of looking into the issue of timing the performance of a certain maqom to the hour of the day. For instance, we know from texts that Rakhovi maqom was performed before dawn (11). This timing is also “pointed at” by the upper layer (plane) of the miniature: behind the palace dome one can see a contrasting set of two colours – white and “departing” (dying) deep-blue, which can be an indication of the changing hour of the day and the coming of dawn.

Other miniatures are also saturated with this kind of information. Let us describe them briefly. The miniature called “Bakhram in the Yellow Palace” that illustrates the second story of the poem is maintained in the colour-tones of Irak maqom. At the centre of the miniature, in yellow attire is the main character of the poem shakh Bakhram and the Rumi beauty. Pictured below is a multicoloured ensemble of musicians, where the colour key-note is, of course, yellow that corresponds to the musical tone la. On the whole, the entire gamut of colours symbolizes the sound palette of ancient Irak maqom, which, as it turns out, still preserves its harmony structure:

La – si – do – re – mi – fa – sol – la
Being seven-staged at its basis, this diatonic harmony is in line with (descending) scales of ancient Greek (Hypodoric) and clerical (Aeolian) harmonies. The upper plane of the miniature is coloured in gold, which, in the language of symbols, indicates the break of the day. Therefore, the hour for performing Irak maqom came with sunrise.

The next miniature, “Bakhram in the Green Palace”, expresses the harmony of Navo maqom. Its compositional stereotype, primarily due to the change in tonal colouring, and, therefore, in relief and background, acquires an entirely different colour sound, for the tone mi becomes central here, overriding all other “colours”:

Mi – fa – sol – la – si – do – re – mi
The qualitative basis of this scale is identical to clerical harmony (Mi-Phrigyan), and in reversed shape – to ancient Greek one (Mi-Dorian), yet hardly matches the characteristics of current maqom specimens called “Navo”, in which the role of an opening and reference tone is often given to re, and less often to fa. Changes that can be observed in the sound-pitch basis of Navo could have happened due to its long historical evolution. However, in terms of identity of harmonies, our attention was drawn to another miniature of the same school (17th century) under the same name.

The colour-scale of this illustration fully corresponds to the harmony base of Navo maqom pieces that survived till our days (for example, Tasnifi Navo, Tarje’i Navo, Sarakhbori Navo from Shash-maqom cycle…). Moreover, black (re) and turquoise (fa) colours, “persistently reappearing” at all levels of the composition of the miniature (a kind of a colour leitmotif) seem to underline the dual-referenced (re – fa) peculiarity of Navo in terms of its harmony and intonation.

Dominant green colour of the miniature and the patronage of the Moon apparently indicate the hour for performing Navo maqom, which comes from the moment of sundown.

In this respect, a clearer picture is provided by a miniature titled “Bakhram in the Red Palace”: at the very top, against the background of scattered stars, there are the Crescent Moon and a dome coloured in light-red, indicating the hour of sunset. Therefore, Ushak maqom registered here through character-symbols was performed during Shom namaz [prayer].

The decoded natural harmony is identical (descending aspect) to both ancient Greek Mixolidian and clerical Hypophrigyan harmonies:

Si – do – re – mi – fa – sol – la – si
In picturing the main character Bakhram and the Princess at the centre and musicians at the bottom, the emphasis is placed on red, white, blue and sandal colours, which correspond to musical tones si – sol – fa – do. The miniature titled “Bakhram in the Blue Palace” is maintained in the colour-tones of Busalik maqom. Its melodious scale is built from the reference tone fa (blue colour) and matches ancient Greek Hypolydian and clerical Lydian harmonies:

Fa – sol – la – si – do – re – mi – fa
The key-note colour blue in the upper part of the miniature, as well as darkish dome, the crescent Moon and stars unambiguously “hint” at the coming of the night (12, p. 46). Following logically from here is the timing for performing Busalik maqom – the hour of Khuftan namaz.

In this array of described miniatures the one titled “Bakhram in the Sandal Palace” stands out. The point is that of the number of reviewed miniatures it has the fewest “participating” characters, and, most importantly, there is no single musical instrument that was an integral part of the compositions in this array. One may think that these distinctive features were determined by the functional purpose of Zirafkand maqom and by some peculiarities of the musical genre performed.

According to Kavbaki and other sources, Zirafkand maqom was performed before going to sleep (11). Curiously, the hint to the late hour, “the hour for rest and night sleep” is also contained in the etymology of the word Zirafkand (10, p. 47). In this sense, as the treatises of medieval scholars testify, the second, additional name of this maqom deserves attention: this name is Kuchak, which translates from Persian as “minor”, “small”. Perhaps the name originally reflected the small form of the piece and indicated the “chamber” quality of its performance.

Indeed, the images of musicians traditional for miniature are represented here in the person of one khafiz singer. But most importantly, maqom is performed solo, in which one can discern the origins of a peculiar genre called yovvoi maqom (the untamed maqom), that is singing a maqom specimen without instrumental and rhythmically strictly canonized accompaniment. All these peculiarities of Zirafkand maqom seem to have predetermined some compositional specificity of the miniature. However, despite these aspects, its colour palette fully conveys the harmony of Zirafkand maqom, as well as the scales of Lydian (Greek) and Ionic (clerical) harmonies identical to it:

Do – re – mi – fa – sol – la – si – do
Miniature “Bakhram in the White Palace” and the harmony of Rast maqom that sounds in its colour tones complete this macro-cycle. The timing to perform Rast maqom comes after midnight and continues till dawn, for at this time the patron of the Seven Heaven and Friday, Venus, starts shining particularly brightly, emanating white light. The sound equivalent of the colour sets the beginning for the tone scale that corresponds to the medieval Sol-Mixolydian, and in reversed shape, to ancient Greek Hypophrigyan harmony:

Sol – la – si – do – re – mi – fa – sol
Thus, studying the miniatures illustrating Alisher Navoi’s poem “The Seven Planets” in the musical context and the identified system of Seven maqoms can become an important “foundation” both for comprehending ideas behind a literary work, and for a deep insight into the history of maqom art development. Specifically, the change of colours and musical sounds in the process of telling the seven stories in ascending direction (from black to white, from lower to upper sound) and, eventually the ascertaining of white colour-tone (Rast) at the end of the cycle provide sufficient ground for making positive conclusions with regard to the destiny of the poem’s main character, shakh Bakhram, as being conventional to a certain extent, these symbols represent stages of moral self-purification and the attainment of spiritual perfection.

At the same time, natural harmonies decoded on the basis of colour could be an aid in studying certain issues in the theory and history of maqom art. For example, certain maqom names identified in the course of the study and the timing of their performance to the hour of the day give weight to the arguments of scholars concerning the existence of the Seven maqom system in olden times. Also the obtained information is of a certain academic value for studying the history of European music. It can be assumed that maqom and European (natural) harmonies identical in their scale composition have common sources and origin. In light of the above, the message of a great musician and theoretician of the 17th century Dervish Ali Changi acquires a particularly deep meaning: “Originally there were seven maqoms as there were seven prophets” (2, p. 8). Eventually, these maqom-harmonies were most probably inherited by the ancient peoples of the East and Ancient Greece.

Thus, the studies of interrelationship between music and book painting and comparative approach to the specimens of traditional miniature and maqom art, which contain huge information and artistic potential, should be considered among the most relevant problems to be addressed by contemporary art critics.


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Okilkhan Ibragimov

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