The Colors of Sound: Poikilia and Its Aesthetic Contexts*

In: Greek and Roman Musical Studies
Pauline A. LeVen Department of Classics, Yale University 344 College Street, P.O. Box 208266New Haven CT 06520-8266 USA

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Poikilos and poikilia are, respectively, an adjective and a noun commonly used to describe characteristics of both visual and aural phenomena. But how do the two uses (as term of color and term of sound) relate to each other, and does poikilos metaphorically describe the “colors” of sounds? In examining the semantics and ideological connotations of poikilos and poikilia, as well as the contribution they make to an archaeology of the senses, this paper reflects on the connection between senses, language, experience and representation. It argues for a transformation, between the archaic and late classical period, in the way poikilos is used to qualify aspects of the musical experience. In archaic and early classical poetry, poikilos captures, rather than a specific feature of sound, a certain mode of relationship with an object, a rapt pleasure in the experience of the beauty of the object through all senses. Later uses of poikilos however, especially in connection with the New Music, rely on the (negative) ideological, rather than sensual, dimension of the term, while technical musical vocabulary adopts the metaphor of colors (chrōmata) to describe specific features of music and sound.

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