Local ensemble A Is Red has managed to take what should be a displeasing cacophony of culture and transform it into an enjoyable fusion of sound and – for some people – color.
The band title is not a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic work of fiction, but is instead influenced by a rare neurological condition known as synesthesia. Those affected by the condition experience a blending or crossing of the senses, which often results in certain sounds appearing as certain colors or tastes.
Band founder Don Harvey is fascinated by synethesia, but he is not personally diagnosed with the condition.
However, he, like many other prominent musicians and composers before him, claims to experience a touch of the bizarre phenomenon.
“To many composers throughout history, the letter and key of A has stimulated the color red, and I do have that when I play,” Harvey said. “It wasn’t until I started writing music that I realized, ‘Wow – it really does feel this way.’”
Harvey’s career as a composer is just taking off, but he has been performing alongside other musicians since he was 19 and living in Tel Aviv, Israel.
“I grew up in New York not too far from the city, then I was in Tel Aviv, Israel for five years,” Harvey said. “I played a lot of music over there with Israelis and people from all over the world. There were a lot of musicians from the Middle East and even some Palestinian musicians.”
The music composed by him and fellow musician Stefano Intelisano is best described as a blend of Middle Eastern ambient music and American jazz, an odd pairing that results in the cinematic, instrumental pieces performed by A Is Red.
Band bassist Sarah Brown has been playing alongside Harvey since the early '90s, but this most recent project is miles away from the classical jazz and blues standards she is accustomed to playing.
“I thought the music was really different from anything I’d played and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it,” Brown said.
“But then [Don] played me the songs that were coming out on his second CD and I really fell in love with them.”
According to Harvey, Brown has found her niche in the multidimensional folds of his eclectic tunes.
Naga Valli, who is a Mumbai, India native, adds her own cultural flair to the ensemble’s music through her vocals.
“Valli brought an enormous depth and new element to the music,” Harvey said. “The songs are all instrumental pieces that don’t have any lyrics, so she usually uses her voice as an instrument.”
Valli’s vocals are found throughout the ensemble’s second album, “The Light Shines Through,” which is an album Harvey helped build from the ground up.
Jon Niess, owner of local studio Austin Signal, utilized Harvey’s alternate career as a realtor to purchase land on which to build a proper studio, as opposed to the one he previously operated out of his garage.
“Don was kind of around the whole time it was being built,” Niess said. “He ended up being the first project, the first record that we made there.”
Greg Klinginsmith designed the studio, but Harvey helped test the acoustics of the rooms as they were being built by playing his music.
“Because of the work Greg did and some of the suggestions Don had in terms of layout, the record came out beautifully,” Niess said. “Don’s music was a great test of Greg’s design of the rooms.”
With the studio practically hand-crafted for his next album, Harvey and his ensemble recorded “Light Shines Through” at Austin Signal.
According to Harvey, the ensemble writes a new song every time it rehearses, and there are plans to release a third album in the future. However, Harvey’s ultimate goal is to score a soundtrack to a film.
For now, Harvey and his ensemble of multicultural musicians have a residency at Strange Brew where their enigmatic, color-evoking songs can be heard drifting from the lounge side every other Friday night.