Composer Dolores Catherino explores audio soundscapes that reach beyond the familiar black and white keyboard of a piano. With innovative instruments, she plays notes between notes to open musical experience like a new palette of color.
“Think about it,” Dolores Catherino says, pointing to the familiar, standard black and white piano keyboard behind her. “The original keyboard dates back to 1361 — an organ that featured this same chromatic keyboard pattern. And no one has changed it over the centuries — at least not in the mainstream.”
She laughs. “In terms of innovation — if you consider, for instance, how cell phones are obsolete within just a couple years now — it makes the piano keyboard seem pretty archaic today.”
This helps explain why stepping into the home studio where she composes her polychromatic works of music might feel more like stepping into the cockpit of a futuristic spaceship than entering a rehearsal and production space. The mystifying, wide variety of keyboards that surround her —varying in shape, color, and design — seem like something out of a 1970s science fiction film. If not for the stunning views of the Chugach Mountains, you could imagine you’re hurtling through space towards galaxies never imagined.
“Each one has its strengths and limitations,” Catherino says, surveying the assorted instruments.
A self-described multi-instrumentalist for nearly 30 years, Catherino is accustomed to exploring new territories. But while she’s always been consumed with expressing herself musically, she never aspired to go on the road as a touring artist. Instead, to keep vitally curious and inspired, she’s invested her passion for innovation and discovery into breaking original ground musically.
Polychromatic music, she explains, extends our common understanding of the piano to a new dimension beyond the chromatic, 12-tones comprising each scale found in a standard keyboard.
Consider if — assuming you suffered through obligatory piano lessons as a child — a teacher or parent could have stimulated or aroused new interest in music for you if you’d learned that there were endless sounds and “notes between the notes”? And what if these unfamiliar notes and sounds could be assigned a variety of colors — red, purple, yellow and more — and were not strictly confined or limited to the black and white keys locking you to a bench while your friends played outside? Thanks to a host of emergent and constantly improving technologies, Catherino can incline her knowledge of these hidden, remote realms and explore audio soundscapes reaching well beyond the confines of the familiar black and white keys.
Catherino understands the challenge that her forays into a largely uncharted musical realm present not only to ordinary listeners but also to accomplished, lifelong musicians. She recognizes that in a world where listeners are typically accustomed to a standard “black and white” series of sounds and scales, most people’s ears won’t initially know how to discriminate or process what they’re hearing in her work. Comprehending the association of these with a palette of colors requires a curiosity and tenacity not immediately accessible to the layman’s ears.
“My intention is to build a bridge between what’s musically familiar to us but to also appeal to the inquisitive listener who will hear how the quality of the notes changes in these works; who will notice something going on that makes them sit up and ask, ‘What’s that? What’s different here?’”
It seems crude, maybe, to compare Catherino’s compositions in pop-cultural terms, but when she gently leans into the machine in front of her and presses its large, colored button-shaped keys, the sound first feels jarring and unfamiliar, then evokes a creepy scene on Stranger Things before bringing to mind a distant audio effect from one of Roxy Music’s songs in the 1980s.
Indeed, pop music was a childhood influence.
“I always had a musical aptitude, but my parents didn’t,” she explains, “so my earliest mode of education was at the local roller-skating rink in the 1970s.”
She laughs, reminiscing, “It was the cheapest form of daycare back then! They’d just drop us off on Saturday morning, and we’d get to hear a variety of crazy great music on these huge speakers while getting all this exercise.”
The names of the musicians making the music back then didn’t matter and no one announced anything as she skated. She simply reveled in the songs with their multiple guitars and wide palette of keyboards and other sounds on display.
Today, Catherino likens her endeavors to a burgeoning, present-day cultural conversation that’s become impossible to ignore.
“Post-modern culture gave birth to the meta-narrative — this idea that everyone has a narrative — and now today all the narratives are clashing, to the point that there’s such animosity and emotion in how we try and relate to one another.”
Where some might detect a glaring dissonance in both the current cultural milieu and in her audio soundscapes, Catherino wonders if we’re achieving a higher level that’s presently hard to see or grasp.
“The sounds of all these singular voices striving to be heard might seem to create a sense of chaos, but really the inflection point of the clashing narratives might become a more complex harmony that’s too hard to understand for now.”
This singular artist has more than 10,000 YouTube followers. That, and her 2018 Rasmuson Foundation award, have helped bolster her confidence that there’s an emerging audience for her innovative musical explorations.
“It came at the perfect time,” she says of the grant. “Along with the YouTube site and being invited to give more and more presentations about polychromatic music, the Rasmuson Foundation award offered me the necessary push I needed to move my work to the next level.”
“Next level”, however, can sound a little cliché, she admits, given the ways each new composition pushes deeper and wider into unknown, previously undefined musical regions. To these ends then, it may prove more appropriate to chart Catherino’s ongoing progress in waves of technicolor, in shades of sounds as yet unnamed.
Enjoy Dolores Catherino’s TEDx talk about polychromatic music:
Listen to Dolores’s song “Polychrome Impressions – emergence:”
Jonathan Bower is a clinical therapist and songwriter working in Anchorage, Alaska. He is currently at work on a collaborative music project with musicians in New York City.
Image credits - Artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Gallery images 1, 4 and 5 are by writer Jonathan Bower. Images 2 & 3 are courtesy of the artist. Images 1, 2, 4 and 5 show Catherino's studio. Image 3 is Catherino at her TEDx Talk about polychromatic music. Writer portrait is courtesy of the writer.