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The Dream of Color Music, And Machines That Made it Possible

William Moritz gives a quick and dazzling historical overview attempts to create visual music using "color organs."

Elfriede Fischinger, Barbara Fischinger and Bill Moritz at a 1996 Lumograph performance at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles.

The dream of creating a visual music comparable to auditory music found its fulfillment in animated abstract films by artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and Norman McLaren; but long before them, many people built instruments, usually called "color organs," that would display modulated colored light in some kind of fluid fashion comparable to music.

Ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle and Pythagoras, speculated that there must be a correlation between the musical scale and the rainbow spectrum of hues. That idea fascinated several Renaissance artists including Leonardo da Vinci (who produced elaborate spectacles for court festivals), Athanasius Kircher (the popularizer of the "Laterna Magica" projection apparatus) and Archimboldo who (in addition to his eerie optical-illusion portraits composed of hundreds of small symbolic objects) produced entertainments for the Holy Roman Emperors in Prague.

The Jesuit, Father Louis Bertrand Castel, built an Ocular Harpsichord around 1730, which consisted of a 6-foot square frame above a normal harpsichord; the frame contained 60 small windows each with a different colored-glass pane and a small curtain attached by pullies to one specific key, so that each time that key would be struck, that curtain would lift briefly to show a flash of corresponding color. Enlightenment society was dazzled and fascinated by this invention, and flocked to his Paris studio for demonstrations. The German composer Telemann traveled to France to see it, composed some pieces to be played on the Ocular Harpsichord, and wrote a German-language book about it. But a second, improved model in 1754 used some 500 candles with reflecting mirrors to provide enough light for a larger audience, and must have been hot, smelly and awkward, with considerable chance of noise and malfunction between the pullies, curtains and candles. Besides, the grid color-for-note graph does not really correspond to how music is heard and felt: a symphony floats in the air, surrounding, and blending, with notes and phrases that swell up gradually from nothing, vibrate at intense volumes sometimes, and fade away smoothly. Nonetheless, Castel predicted that every home in Paris would one day have an Ocular Harpsichord for recreation, and dreamed of a factory making some 800,000 of them. But the clumsy technology did not really outlive the inventor himself, and no physical relic of it survives.

Fischinger's Lumograph was licensed for use in the 1960's sci-fi film, Time Travelers.

Despite technical limitations, many others experimented with clumsy machinery, including ones using colored liquids and daylight filtered through colored glass in a darkened tent. The Victorian era "philosophical toys" also had their color-music versions, including "chromatrope" slides for Magic Lanterns, in which layers of colored glass could be rotated by a hand-crank to produce moving mandalas, as well as abstract cycles for Zoetropes, Phenakisticopes and Praxinoscopes.

Electricity opened new possibilities for projected light, which were exploited by the British painter A. Wallace Rimington, whose Colour Organ formed the basis of the moving lights that accompanied the 1915 New York premiere of Scriabin's synaesthetic symphony Prometheus: A Poem of Fire, which had indications of precise colors in the score. Scriabin wanted everyone in the audience to wear white clothes so that the projected colors would be reflected on their bodies and thus possess the whole room.

A similar demand for white-clad audience was posited by the Italian Futurist artists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra, who experimented with "color organ" projection in 1909 and painted some nine abstract films directly on film-stock in 1911.* The German Hans Stoltenberg also experimented with drawing abstractions on film about this same time, and the Finnish/Danish/Russian Leopold Survage (then resident in Paris, and friends with Picasso and Modigliani) prepared hundreds of sequential paintings for an abstract film Rythme Coloré, which he hoped to film in one of the new multicolor processes that were being developed, but the onset of World War I prevented that; he sold a number of the paintings, so that they were widely dispersed and have still not been filmed.

Mary Hallock Greenewalt with her Visual-Music Phonograph (1919.) Photo by Shewell Ellis.

Two rival color-organ artists vied for American and international audiences during the 1920s. Danish-born Thomas Wilfred came to America as a singer of early music, and got involved with a group of Theosophists who wanted to build a color organ to demonstrate spiritual principles. Wilfred called his color organ the Clavilux, and named the artform of color-music projections "Lumia." He stressed polymorphous, fluid streams of color slowly metamorphosing. He established an Art Institute of Light in New York, and toured giving Lumia concerts in the United States and Europe (at the famous Art Déco exhibition in Paris). He also built "lumia boxes," self-contained units that looked rather like television sets, which could play for days or months without repeating the same imagery. When young animator Jordan Belson saw Wilfred's Lumia in the late 1950s, they inspired him to alter his style to incorporate softer, more sensuous imagery.

Mary Hallock Greenewalt had studied piano with the illustrious Theodore Leschetizky and had a concert career, including recordings of Chopin for Columbia Records. Her desire to control the ambience in a concert hall for sensitive music like Chopin's led her to experiment with light modulation. She invented the rheostat in order to make smooth fade-ups and fade-outs of light, and the liquid-mercury switch, both of which have become standard electric tools. When other people (including Thomas Wilfred) began infringing on her patents by using adaptations of the rheostat and mercury switch, she tried to sue, but a judge ruled that these electric mechanisms were too complex to have been invented by a woman, and denied her case. She continued to perform on her color-organ, the Sarabet, for which she created a special notation that recorded the intensity and deployment of various colors during any given musical composition.

Parallel in the 1920s, Walther Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger were pioneering visual music films in Germany, using tinted animation to live musical accompaniment. The Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo wrote a theoretical text Color-Light-Music in 1925, and toured Europe with a color organ of his own devising, which contained switches for colored spotlights and slide projections on the stage above his piano. When the first reviews complained that the visual spectacle was much tamer than the Chopin-like dazzle of Laszlo's virtuoso piano compositions, he contacted Fischinger to prepare some filmed abstract images of greater complexity and vibrancy. Fischinger prepared a dazzling spectacle with three side-by-side movie projections that were augmented by two more overlapping projectors to add extra colors to the finale, and some complementary changing slide-projections around the borders of the film projection. Much to Laszlo's chagrin, the reviews flip-flopped: the astonishing visual imagery was much livelier and more modern that the old-fashioned Chopin-style piano music. Fischinger subsequently performed his multiple-projections several times under the title R-1, a Form Play, with live music by a percussion ensemble--a kind of predecessor to the light-shows such as Jordan Belson's Vortex Concerts of the late 1950s and the Rock concerts of the late 1960s. (Laszlo fled to Hollywood during the Nazi era, and wrote lush symphonic scores for dozens of B-movies and television shows, from Charlie Chan and Attack of the Giant Leeches to My Little Margie and Rocky Jones, Space Cadet.)

Four times (1927, 1930, 1933, 1936) the University of Hamburg hosted an international "Color-Music Congress," which brought together artists (music, dance, film, painting, etc.), perceptual psychologists, and critics to explore issues of synaesthesia and multidisciplinary artforms. Color-organ performances there included the Austrian Count Vietinghoff-Scheel's Chromatophon and the elaborate Reflectorial Color Play by the Bauhaus artists Kurt Schwerdtfeger and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack.

Charles Dockum with his Mobilcolor V.

The Swiss "Musicalist" artist, Charles Blanc-Gatti, also visited the Color-Music Congress. He belonged to an art movement that created paintings inspired by specific pieces of music. Blanc-Gatti also invented a color-organ called the "Chromophonic Orchestra," which contained images of musical instruments around the screen, and displayed colors based on a system that equated the frequencies of sound and color vibrations, so "low" tones would be red, medium tones yellow and green, and very "high" notes violet. In 1938, Blanc-Gatti founded an animation studio in Lausanne, and was able to make an animated film, Chromophonie, which pictures Fucik's "Entrance of the Comedians" at it would have looked when played on Blanc-Gatti's Chromophonic Orchestra. In his book Concerning Sounds and Colors, Blanc-Gatti says that Walt Disney came to an exhibition of his paintings in Paris during the early 1930s, and that he spoke to Disney about his ambition to make a feature-length musical animation film. After the war, when Fantasia was finally released in Europe, Blanc-Gatti became outraged and attempted to sue Disney for stealing his idea--something that also occurred to Oskar Fischinger, who was old friends with Leopold Stokowski, with whom he had discussed plans for an animated musical feature in 1934.

Thomas Wilfred with the first home Clavilux (1950.)

In Fischinger's Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s, one of the few people involved in a pursuit similar to his own was Charles Dockum, who had begun to build color-organs in the late 1930s. Dockum's MobilColor Projectors could produce hard-edged or soft imagery, since it used prepared image sources that could be modulated in color and movements. Both Fischinger and Dockum received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation through the Baroness Rebay, curator of the Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and she specified that each spy on the other to make sure that he was really working on his grant project. While Rebay's grants helped Fischinger animate films like Radio Dynamics and Motion Painting, Dockum's money went into preparing a larger and more complex projector that would allow multi-layered motion in several directions--a projector destined for the Museum, since the rival Museum of Modern Art had a Thomas Wilfred Lumia on display.

When Dockum installed the new MobilColor in the Guggenheim Museum, the Baroness was shocked to learn that it required one or two operators to perform it (whereas Wilfred had developed automatic self-contained Lumia). The projector was consigned to storage, and a few years later dismantled, with the light units used for track-lighting in the galleries and the rest of the mechanisms trashed. This meant that all of the compositions that Dockum had created uniquely for that instrument were also effectively destroyed--about 10 year's work! The animator Mary Ellen Bute shot a reel of documentary footage that preserves about 10 minutes of short excerpts from Dockum's performance on the Guggenheim MobilColor, enough to show that it really did perform complex layered imagery.

Dockum spent the rest of his life, into the mid-1970s, building another model MobilColor, and composing about 15 minutes of material that can still be performed on it, at his old studio in Altadena. While these compositions are brief, they show three diverse types of imagery--geometric forms, vibrating dot patterns, and soft sensuous trails--and above all demonstrate why someone would want to go to all this trouble when film and slide projections are so simple: the light intensity from the MobilColor is quite simply astonishing, the vivid shapes and colors magically hang in the darkness with a "living" glow more "real" than any image projected through cinema.

Matthius Holl's designs.

In the late 1940s, when Fischinger had lost the support of the Guggenheim Foundation, he also invented a color organ instrument that allowed one to play lights to any music very simply. His Lumigraph hides the lighting elements in a large frame, from which only a thin slit emits light. In a darkened room (with a black background) you can not see anything except when something moves into the thin "sheet" of light, so, by moving a finger-tip around in a circle in this light field, you can trace a colored circle (colored filters can be selected and changed by the performer). Any object can be used: a gloved hand, a drum-stick, a pot-lid (for a solid circle), a child's block (for a square), etc. Oskar performed certain compositions (such as Sibelius' "Valse Triste") publicly, at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles, and at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1953, in connection with a one-man show of his abstract oil paintings (where Jordan Belson saw it, and was greatly impressed by the mysterious "presence" of its color).

Fischinger hoped, like Castel long before, that someone would manufacture Lumigraphs, and that they would become common household items, used by children for play and artistic training, by adults for recreation and party games. Although that has not yet occurred, Oskar's original Lumigraph does survive, in the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, where it is played with some regularity, and it has been loaned to the Louvre in Paris and the Gemeente Museum in the Hague for performances by Oskar's widow Elfriede. Oskar's son Conrad also constructed two other Lumigraphs, one large one that was used on an Andy Williams television special, and a smaller one to use in Los Angeles performances. The Lumigraph also appeared in a 1964 science-fiction movie The Time Travelers, in which it is a "love machine" that allows people to vent their sexual urges in a harmless sensuality. Maybe there should be a Lumigraph in every home. * See: Giannalberto Bendazzi, "The Italians Who Invented the Drawn-On-Film Technique," Animation Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 69-84 William Moritzteaches film and animation history at the California Institute of the Arts.