Color Organ

color organ

The term color organ refers to a tradition of mechanical (18th century), then electromechanical, devices built to represent sound or to accompany music in a visual medium—by any number of means. In the early 20th century, a silent color organ tradition (Lumia) developed. In the 60s and 70s, the term ‘color organ’ became popularly associated with electronic devices that responded to their music inputs with light shows. The term ‘light organ’ is increasingly being used for these devices; allowing ‘color organ’ to reassume its original meaning.

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. In 1590, Gregorio Comanini described an invention by the Mannerist painter Arcimboldo of a system for creating color-music based on apparent luminosity (light-dark contrast) instead of hue.

In 1725, French Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel proposed the idea of Clavecin pour les yeux (Ocular Harpsichord). In the 1740s German composer Telemann went to France to see it, composed some pieces for it and wrote a book about it. It had 60 small colored glass panes, each with a curtain that opened when a key was struck. In about 1742, Castel proposed the clavecin oculaire (a light organ) as an instrument to produce both sound and the ‘proper’ light colors. In 1816, Sir David Brewster proposed the Kaleidoscope as a form of visual-music that became immediately popular. In 1877, US artist, inventor Bainbridge Bishop patented a Color Organ. The instruments were lighted attachments designed for pipe organs that could project colored lights onto a screen in synchronization with musical performance. Bishop built three of the instruments; each was destroyed in a fire, including one in the home of P. T. Barnum.

In the 1920s, Danish-born Thomas Wilfred created the Clavilux, a color organ, ultimately patenting seven versions. By 1930, he had produced 16 ‘Home Clavilux’ units. Glass disks bearing art were sold with these ‘Clavilux Juniors.’ Wilfred coined the word lumia to describe the art. Significantly, Wilfred’s instruments were designed to project colored imagery, not just fields of colored light as with earlier instruments. In Germany, from the late 1920s-early 1930s, several color organs were demonstrated at a series of Color Music Congresses. Hirshfeld-Mack performed his Farbenlichtspiel color organ at these Congresses and at several other festivals and events in Germany. He had developed this color organ at the Weimar Bauhaus school.

In 1950, Oskar Fischinger created the Lumigraph that produced imagery by pressing objects/hands into a rubberized screen that would protrude into colored light. The imagery of this device was manually generated, and was performed with various accompanying music. It required two people to operate: one to make changes to colors, the other to manipulate the screen. Fischinger performed the Lumigraph in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1950s.

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