• March 5, 2021 |

    the many-colored cure

    music, color, and the fine line between coping and escaping

    article by , illustrated by

    At a jazz band workshop years ago, a charming clinician with a single earring told us about the splashes of red he saw each time our drummer hit the cymbals. I remember feeling a little envious, because I too wanted the music to filter through my brain and manifest in fireworks of color. But even though my neural connections don’t produce spontaneous color sensations, I’ve always been convinced that every song corresponds to its own real and imagined world of feelings, places, seasons, and colors. My Spotify playlists (numbering in the 200s at this point) are almost all built around these elaborate abstractions. They begin with one song painting a vivid picture in my mind’s eye—driving through the Arizonian desert at dusk, for example, or a desolate, snowy field swallowing up a warm cabin—and my almost compulsive drive to collect all the music I’ve ever heard that feels that same way.

    Ever since my subscription to Spotify Premium became my most treasured possession during my first year of high school, I’ve been engaging in a kind of musical escapism. When my anxiety started to get the best of me, I’d immerse myself in alarmingly peppy acoustic indie pop. When the extended Iowa winter siphoned out my soul and left it in the roadside slush, I’d make playlists of swing tunes and pretend I was on a balcony in Paris, watching trees bloom in spring.

    In her book Bluets, Maggie Nelson ponders Plato’s idea of color as pharmakon. When I read it a couple of weeks ago, I was tickled by Plato’s conviction that painters are “mixers and grinders of multi-colored drugs.” I’d love to assume that role, but I’ve never quite figured out how to wield the elusive power catalyzed by the right amount of pigment squeezed out of the right tubes. Having fallen under the spell of colors mixed by others, though, I’m certain that Plato was onto something. Every once in a while, I find a song whose particular tincture intoxicates me such that I find myself listening to it on indefinite repeat.

    Maggie Nelson contemplates, as many have, what it means that pharmakon can translate to both “poison” and “cure.” Color, of the kind that tints the edges of a melody and carries me out of my bedroom and into the mountains, is a drug. That’s for sure. But I don’t know whether, in this age of widespread loneliness, color is a cure for my yearning or a poison that taints my reality with the blue of nostalgia. 


    hasta la raíz – natalia lafourcade

    The huapango rhythm of “Hasta La Raíz” reminds me that spring will come when I need that reminder the most. Yo te llevo dentro, hasta la raíz. [I carry you inside me, to the root.] Natalia Lafourcade’s voice fills a wide open space, runs off the leaves of trees and seeps into the soil. I like to think that when I play this song aloud in my room, my houseplants—struggling next to my egregiously drafty windows, trying their best to make it through the Providence winter—are listening. Natalia’s tender harmonies, layered, twisting, flowing like a brook over algae-covered stones, make my heart feel green. My thumbs, not so much—but, inspecting my monstera’s leaves while “Hasta La Raiz” plays in the background, I plant a tiny seed of hope for spring.


    my gal, my guy – darlingside

    Darlingside’s sweet, formerly–college-a-cappella chorus of voices lights a little blue flame behind my solar plexus. A happy/sad banjo riff and an octave slide on the bass rouses the memory of wind irredeemably tangling my hair on a boat off the west coast of Ireland. I wake up alone, am I in Amsterdam or Tokyo? Sometimes I am floating over the ocean on a well-placed major seventh, sometimes I am speeding through Copenhagen’s cobbled streets on a bicycle, the four chord reinforcing the wheel spokes. Sometimes I’m just lingering on the pedestrian bridge, taking in the snowy Providence skyline with my earbuds in. Sometimes the blue is only solitude. But as Maggie Nelson points out, “loneliness is solitude with a problem.” I put on my feet, walk out the door into a busy street. If only. 


    ojos del sol – y la bamba

    Luz Elena Mendoza’s mellifluous vibrato illuminates a golden afternoon. The song’s gentle, eighth-note guitar strumming reminds me of days spent next to the open window in my childhood bedroom last summer, watching the garden bloom and relishing the warm breeze. It reminds me of a summer I haven’t lived yet, when I’ll spend my days next to the open window in my bedroom in Providence, watching a different garden bloom and feeling the sun on my face. Eres como el viento, el viento que me lleva. [You are like the wind, the wind that carries me.] Maggie Nelson writes that “nearly all cultures have considered yellow in isolation one of, if not the least attractive of all colors.” But “Ojos del Sol” proves that if you just find the right shade, yellow can be the very thing that buoys you through the loneliness.


    c2.0 – charli xcx

    The grating, metallic sounds that undergird Charli XCX’s “c2.0” feel the way I feel when I think of all the friends that I wish I could hug. “c2.0” is the accelerated, musically euphoric child of Charli’s song “Click,” remixed by A. G. Cook. While “Click” is a swaggering ode to one’s clique simply being all that, “c2.0” is a manifestation of both the anxiety of being separated for an indeterminate amount of time and the intoxication of colorful memory. Instead of “smash[ing] at [my] eyes to reproduce lost color sensations,” I listen to this song and watch its synthesizer-induced rainbows scatter across my ceiling. I miss them every night, I miss them I miss them I miss them, Charli sings, a simple invocation of my—our—insoluble yearning. 


    Right now, as I wile away the hours on long, solitary walks through Providence, reminiscing about the times when I could instead wile away the hours savoring a latte in a cafe or staring at Pissarro’s painting of cows in a field at the RISD Museum, music contains a particularly potent elixir of emotions. Notes of nostalgia and longing, euphoria that illuminates the mundane bits of life in isolation, little soaring bursts of freedom that replace the kind I used to get from looking out the window of an airplane or closing my eyes in the middle of a wild, beating party. I try my best not to abuse that last feeling or dwell on the first, but rather to lean into the sounds that make me feel content with this limited form of life. 

    Although I haven’t mastered the mixing of color myself—when I mix each song’s pure, vibrant color with the others, it still sometimes ends up a muddled brown mess—I am trying my hardest not to get “trapped in any one bead” of the many-colored necklace of life. All of my moods lately have had at least a little blue mixed in, but they’ve also been yellow and green and red and purple and rainbow. And that’s the beauty of it—colors are not discrete or static, but can flow and mix and transform just like emotions can. Maggie Nelson concludes that whether pharmakon means poison or cure is a matter of translation. And so, when the urge to hide from my loneliness behind the music strikes, I remember that I can choose to make it medicine and let its vivid hues paint me a picture of tomorrow.