Center for Visual Music

Excerpt from "New Scientific Tools for the Arts"

by Ralph K. Potter

Color-Music Attempts

The story of color-music can fill a volume in itself. (2) It had vague beginnings in the time of Leonardo da Vinci and there are some bits of evidence that it may have been in the minds of Aristotle and of others before his time. But the first specific proposal of a color-music was apparently by a French Jesuit priest, Louis Bertrand Castel. Father Castel made the proposal in 1720, and attempted to build instruments for such an art during later years. The next experimenter to carry his efforts far was an American artist named Bainbridge Bishop, who lived in Essex County, New York Bishop began experiments with color-organs in 1875 and built several during the years following. The showman, P. T. Barnum, was interested in Bishop's experiments and exhibited one of his instruments in the Barnum Museum in New York City in 1881. Another was installed in Barnum's elaborate residence in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In 1893 a professor of art at Queen's College in London, Alexander Wallace Rimington, patented and constructed a large and complicated color-organ. It made use of fourteen electrical arcs at a time when it was considered something of a feat to operate one such source of light. Rimington had what might be regarded as the ideal combination to make development of the tools for such an art a success. While a recognized artist, he had been educated in engineering and in addition he was a courageous experimenter with the means necessary to carry on extensive undertakings. He gave both private and public demonstrations in London and shipped his equipment in a special vehicle for demonstrations in other cities.

The endeavors of Castel, Bishop, and Rimington all ended in disappointment and frustration. When the novelty had worn thin their audiences became impatient and even sarcastic.

During recent years there have been many other attempts to produce tools for a visible music to combine with existing audible music, but they also have failed to realize that objective. Perhaps best known of recent experimenters in the field of projected color is Thomas Wilfred, who has given numerous demonstrations of his manually controlled projector, the "Clavilux," both here and abroad.(3) Wilfred's first interest is in "a silent and independent art of light" and the demonstrations of his "Lumia" are normally without audible accompaniment. He has, however, tried the combination of his art with music. At a demonstration performance in Carnegie Hall, New York City in 1926, he played the "Clavilux" with the Philadelphia Orchestra directed by Leopold Stokowski. But such attempts have not received the applause given his silent demonstrations and a recent discussion of objectives for "Lumia" contains no mention of a possible combination with music. (4)

Despite the negative results of past efforts to combine what has come to be known as "color-music" with the familiar sound-music, two developments of recent years suggest that such a combination is far from impracticable. On the contrary, its prospects look better than ever before. These developments reveal the reasons for past failures and one of them indicates a logical starting point for research in this promising area.

Abstract Films

One of the two encouraging developments mentioned above is called the "abstract film". While the motion picture was still a scientific toy a few abstractionists began to consider the possibility of adding a time dimension to their art. In 1914 a cubist painter of Paris, Leopold Survage, was the first to propose an abstract film in an article entitled "Le Rhythme colore." (5) Survage expected to use colored film techniques, then in the laboratory stage. Synchronized sound was only a dream of the scientists at the time and apparently Survage did not contemplate musical accompaniment. He painted a series of key designs for a film to be called "Colored Rhythm," but the project was interrupted by World War I and never resumed.

Following the war several artists, including a Swedish painter, Viking Eggeling, and a German film artist Hans Richter (now of New York) began experiments with silent black and white abstractions. Also Walter Ruttmann, a German film producer and artist, created a series of hand-colored abstract films between 1921 and 1925. Development of abstract films had paralleled that of the animated cartoon and both were profoundly affected by the introduction of synchronized sound around 1925-28. Film animationists soon learned that visible and audible movements had to be closely related. If they were so related the combination held together satisfactorily; if not the effects were disastrous. In other words, associated movement could provide a strong unifying bond. Artists experimenting with abstract films were also quick to recognize this unifying effect of associated movement and the result was what might be called a "dancing abstraction," more recent versions of which are probably familiar to most of us in sections of Disney's "Fantasia."

The well-known film artist, Oskar Fischinger, now of Hollywood, created a series of such colored abstractions moving to the rhythm of accompanying music following 1928, and his work has had a considerable effect upon the trend of these experiments. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced one of his compositions under the title, "Optical Poem," in 1937 and he was associated with the Disney production of "Fantasia" during the initial stage. In and following 1935 film artist Mary Ellen Bute and photographer Theodore Nemeth of New York collaborated in creating several abstractions, two of which were shown at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. At about the same time a British film artist, Len Lye, now of New York, produced a series of interesting dancing abstractions by hand-coloring techniques.

During recent years many young artists have experimented with these dancing abstractions. Representative of this younger group is Norman McLaren whose films have been distributed by the National Film Board of Canada. Most of his compositions are hand-drawn in color directly upon the master film. He starts with a film record of the music to be used as accompaniment. On this film, with grease pencil, he marks accents and movements and constructs what amounts to a score for the "visual." Using this as a guide he then draws the visuals frame by frame on another film.

Forms used in both past and present abstract films are, in general, much like those employed in still abstractions. They include a wide variety of geometrical figures, meaningless shapes that fall outside this classification, and sometimes a mass of more or less accidental detail that approaches surface texture. Production techniques cover the gamut of those employed in representational film animation.

Incidentally, these dancing abstractions offer attractive possibilities for art-science study, but the purpose of discussing them here is only to indicate that in them abstract color-form and audible music are associated far more acceptably than in any past color and sound-music combination. The reason is to be found in the associated visible and audible movement, and research seems almost certain to show no other bond can approach movement in this role.

"Visible Music"

Second of the two developments mentioned earlier as encouraging has grown out of research in the scientific field of acoustics. It is concerned with what is known as "sound portrayal."(6) When the wave shape of a spoken word is drawn out in a wriggly line by the familiar oscillograph, little information concerning that word is conveyed to the eye. But if the speech sounds are taken apart and the tonal components spread out in the way the cochlea of the inner ear analyzes them, the result is revealing. One may learn to read patterns of speech produced in this fashion. Such sound-to-sight translations of speech have come to be known as "visible speech."

By similar methods sounds may be used to form motion picture patterns that, when accompanied by the original sounds, exhibit close audivisual unison. Such motion pictures of music have been demonstrated on various occasions (Before the Acoustical Society in New York City on May 10, 1946 by the author, and since then many demonstrations of a film called "Action Pictures of Sound"). There is nothing beautiful about these scientific motion pictures of music and yet they demonstrate one very significant thing. The visible display seems to belong with the sound accompaniment. Without effort one feels he is seeing "visible music." The screen display could hardly be imagined as anything else.

The audivisual unison in this combination of visible and audible music is much closer than that in the best of the dancing abstractions because the dimensions of the visible music are confined to and correlated with the pitch and loudness dimensions of music received via the ear. Consequently movements in the two correlated dimensions are completely consistent as seen and heard. A question may arise here as to whether it is realistic to talk of sounds as moving. Actually audible movement is directly comparable with visible movement when we consider patterns of stimulation in the brain. Pitch change corresponds to visible movement across the field of view and loudness change to visible movement toward and away from the observer. Helmholtz suggested the reality of sound movement toward the end of the past century, (7) and it is recognized by modern scientists working in the sensory area.(8)

Most artists who have attempted to combine abstractions and music join in a condemnation of unison between screen display and sound. They say, in effect, and quite correctly from a communications point of view, that two art messages in unison say the same thing and therefore are no better (and perhaps even less desirable) than one alone. In relation to the problem of a combined visible and audible music this view neglects one all-important point. There can be no completely intimate visible and audible music until audivisual unison is achieved. Unison is the essential starting point. There is apparently no way to realize expressive departures from unison without first learning how to realize unison itself.

(end excerpt)


(2) Klein, A. B., Coloured Light. London 1937.

(3) Encycopedia Britannica, 14th ed., Vol. 21, p. 290

(4) "Light and the Artist." Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 5, No. 4, June 1947, p. 247-255

(5) Les Soirees de Paris, Vol. 3, July 1914, p. 426

(6) Potter, R. K., "Visible Patterns of Sound." Science, Vol. 102, Nov. 9, 1945, pp. 463-470

(7) Helmholtz, Tonenempfindungen, tr. A. J. Ellis. London 1885, p. 252

(8) Adrian, E. D. The Physical Background of Perception. London 1946, p. 52


First published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. X, No. 2, December, 1951



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