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Pianist Andrew Burashko explores the rare phenomenon of synesthesia in Sound and Colour

Andrew Burashko.

V. Tony Hauser/The Globe and Mail

Being blown away by the prescient timing of Andrew Burashko’s concert programming is old hat, even while it’s the same one out of which the Toronto pianist and Art of Time Ensemble leader continues to pull uncommonly contemporary concerts – consider a Steven Page solo project just as the singer was parting with the Barenaked Ladies.

Burashko’s sixth sense has reached the scarily preternatural level with Sound and Colour. By exploring musical synesthesia, his Toronto Harbourfront Centre solo performance series this week delves into what was formerly a fringe musicological concern. Yet this rare neurological capacity of connecting sound to colour or another sense has come out of the blue recently to connect with mainstream Hollywood – in the film Red Sparrow – and with our on-edge awareness of all things Russian. (From a recent Shouts and Murmurs in The New Yorker: “So Ted says, ’Will you marry me?’ And, before I can respond, the Soviet scientists come out from behind this rock.”)

For Burashko, Sound and Colour – more than a year in the planning – is centred around Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, the poster boy for musical synesthesia and a well-known figure in chic, early-20th-century Moscow circles indulging in their apocalyptic late-Romantic mysticism, dabbling in mesmerism, chiromancy and such. For Scriabin it’s the spirit of Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28 that hovers around the Op. 11 Preludes that Burashko is to play.

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“We were all raised to play Chopin, but the Scriabin, although a different musical vocabulary, is similar in range to the Chopin,” Burashko explains. “Of course, Scriabin wasn’t a real synesthete like [French composer Olivier] Messiaen.” (For the Toronto concerts, each prelude performed by Burashko will be saturated with its own light show from lighting designer Kevin Lamotte.) “But Scriabin imagined in colour,” the pianist continues. “When we grow up learning classical music, we are often taught with metaphors, so colours are often spoken of.”

For Hollywood, it was a stretch that something as innocent-sounding as the capacity to hear colour or see sound – a capability shared by Lady Gaga and artist David Hockney – might be put to such lethal fictional use as American author Jason Matthews does in his Red Sparrow thriller trilogy. With her senses and libido on full alert, Dominika Egorova, (Jennifer Lawrence), the film’s killer spy dubbed “a red sparrow,” colour-codes her opponents’ feelings before garrotting them in a shower.

Despite the mysticism-addled social milieu Scriabin was part of – or perhaps because of it – his synesthesia notions reduced him to a somewhat fringe figure in later musical reckoning. As late as 1955, the starchily authoritative Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians insisted that discussing Scriabin’s work is “difficult at the present time, for very few have any detailed (or even general) knowledge of it.” The Cold War being what it was then, we can assume Grove editors were not invited to Sviatoslav Richter’s monumentally driven performance of 12 Op. 11 Scriabin preludes in Moscow, June 1955. Some interpreters – Swiss-Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov, for one – allow Scriabin’s mysticism to seep into the music. Not Richter, at the peak of his powers. He smashed or caressed each piece like a diamond needing his power or polish.

To recall some aspect of the salon-like nature of synesthesia’s intellectual history, the second half of Sound and Colour is a lecture from Dr. Richard Cytowic. One of the world’s recognized experts in the field, with bestsellers such as The Man Who Tasted Shapes, Cytowic has made the media rounds explaining that synesthesia, “although it sounds bizarre,” as he told 60 Minutes, is perfectly normal, with about 4 per cent of the population born with a synesthesia gene. “In fact it is an elevated function,” he tells me. (The Red Sparrow novel captures the fear factor perfectly. When Dominika admits, “I can see music,” Vassily, her father, cringes: “Is it an illness, is it insanity?”)

Ironically, Cytowic’s early-career decision to study synesthesia had his friends and neurology colleagues telling him, “Don’t do it, it’ll ruin your career,” he told me on the phone. He underlined this later in an e-mail to me with a section of his unpublished autobiography as to why he worried about not going where he felt he had to go. “But only in recent years has the real answer revealed itself in the fact I’m gay.”

These days, he says, he’s approached by hundreds of synesthetic individuals now that he’s ”outed” synesthesia. ″‘You changed my life,’” they say.

Andrew Burashko’s Sound and Colour runs March 22-24 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre (artoftimeensemble.com).

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