The Techniques Behind the Colors

The Techniques Behind the Colors


What is the color of the wind?

~ Zen Koan


I hope you’ll be wanting to ask: 

What do you mean technically by red, royal blue, dark green . . .?

Defining colors too mechanically, even if only for yourself, robs them of their transcendental potential.  While I have no definitive technique to achieve red or blue or green, I can give you specific technical solutions to achieve specific tonal color relationships in this work.

Level 1 — Red

For the primary melody here, I choose red for its solid, bright, penetrating qualities.  Rachmaninoff said that the melody in particular should descend below the key-bed.  I love this imagery!  It sinks in, piercing the earth.

As with most principal melodies, it’s best played from the arm — either the forearm or the upper arm.  Here I use the upper arm.  Use a firm but not rigid fingertip, and be aware of whether your wrist or elbow lock.  If you’re not used to putting this much weight into the fingers and arms, the sound at first will be hard-edged, but as the body adjusts, unused muscles awaking, the sound will become round, deep and plush.  Soon you’ll develop a full dynamic range from the upper arm, from ppp to fff.


Level 2 — Royal Blue

Fire against water, red is contrasted by blue.  In this Prelude, I think of the red line as down and the royal blue line as up; the former sinks and penetrates while the latter floats and hovers, ondine-like. 

This said, the blue layer still has to penetrate the key-bed and have a certain solidity.  Otherwise, the five levels directly in its shade crumble.  The arm, although weighted, gently defies gravity, and the fingertip bursts with expressive life.  As your emotional energy flows into the fingertips — even before they play — the blood surges into them, making them measurably heavier and more sensitized. 

Level 3 — Dark Green

This is the tenor line and is played almost completely with the l.h. thumb.  Both thumbs are instruments in their own right, but the l.h. thumb is more often entrusted with important melodies and responsibilities than the right. 

I choose dark green for its solidity and earthiness, but also for its submissive nature in relationship to the royal blue.   This line also sinks and penetrates while floating, and remains somewhat reticent, humming more than singing.  

The thumb has to insinuate itself into the key with expressive pressure rather than attacking it.  I think of pushing in a set, expressive thumb from the forearm.  Be careful though not to let the dark green compete with the royal blue — retain the hierarchy of colors.

Level 4 — Dark Blue

This is a dark, shadowy shade of blue and is perfect for the cavernous underpinning of the principle melody (red) two octaves below.  Because of its great distance from the melody, it can afford to have a real presence without competing with the melody.  The more this line is brought to the surface, the darker the overall effect.  I play it from the upper arm.

It should sink in and penetrate, but the attack should be calculatedly slow, defying gravity and sounding as if an army of double-basses were singing from over the hillside (summon the Bass section of the Vienna Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw). There’s a wondrously ominous quality to this looming shadowy presence.

Level 5 — Turquoise

I choose turquoise for its liquid translucence.  It’s the octave underpinning of the royal blue level and should support it without competing.  It’s played mainly with the overpowering r.h. thumb, so great care need be taken to make it weightless and indirect.  I try to disconnect the thumb from the arm and hand and simply caress the key.  Just touch it — don’t play it.  It still reaches the key-bottom, but it should evoke gently glowing, flowing water.

Level 6 — Light Navy Green

This has many of the same characteristics of Level 5.  It’s the octave underpinning of the dark green line and supports it without competing.  That said, I let it have more presence in relationship to the dark green than does the turquoise to royal blue because of its intervalic distance from the royal blue, in which general shadow it sits.  By pointing it up slightly, the mood of this secondary line (royal blue & company) darkens.  The fingertip is heavy with expressive energy, but the same advice applies: Don’t play it—just touch it.

Level 7 — Light Purple

This is the inner octave of the principal melodic line.  If given too much presence, it competes with both the red and the dark blue, destroying the effect.  It should simply fill in the space with warmth.  Still, because of the overall weight and seriousness of the principle line, it will have residual weight and energy.  Let this overspill happen more peripherally than consciously.

Technically speaking, it’s played more from the forearm than the upper arm.  The tricky part is that it must be played by the l.h. thumb in a passive way, but immediately afterwards the thumb must morph instantaneously into a melancholy Tenor to play the dark green line — this requires both physical and emotional virtuosity.

Level 8 — Light Grey

I hear this line as light grey because it’s a sort of dull blue, and rests well between the royal blue and turquoise.  It has many of the same qualities as Level 7 as it rests between two more important notes, offering gentle support.  But unlike Level 7, this light grey should be nearly invisible.  The note underneath an important note (or right before it or after it) is always dangerous; if not properly hidden, it easily competes and ruins the effect. 

Use only the fingertip, gently caressing the key, and imagine the sound floating up and evaporating into mist.

Level 9 — Light Yellow

Nearly identical in nature to Level 8, the light yellow line can have the slightest bit more glow because of its distance from the royal blue, in which shadow it sits.  It’s played with the finger alone, a gentle caress, as indirectly and floatingly as possible.  The slightest accent will throw the whole complex of colors out of alignment.

Don’t despair — to achieve all nine colors requires the highest degree of imaginative virtuosity.  How long does it take for an amateur juggler to deftly handle nine objects of differing size, shape, and weight?  Be happy in the beginning to manage two or three – or even just one! – and work your way up from there.  In the meantime, move on to the next filter because you don't want to lose momentum up the mountain.