Center for Visual Music

Color Harmony/Color Music

by Dr. William Moritz

The question of a "color harmony" very quickly becomes a question of a "color music," because only in the specialized arena of painting or scientific texts do colors remain static: in real life the butterfly's jagged trajectories intersect the swaying flowers, and the dress of maid or guest eclipses the most carefully designed furnishings.

Recent scientific research suggests that abstract color phenomena constitute a primary, absolute human experience. Since Leroi-Gourhan demonstrated that the pre-historic cave paintings of Europe did not decorate living spaces but rather remote temple-like caverns, scholars have recognized that a majority of these paintings seem to be abstract color designs, not related to previously supposed hunting magic. Study of all living societies which practice a shamanistic religion based in trance revelation show that their paintings represent visions experienced while in a divine ecstasy, and that those images include on one hand representations of a power animal or totem (not a hunting prey), and on the other hand color abstract patterns which scientists call "entoptic visions" - specific shapes, such as parallel zig-zag lines, and colors which are also seen by non-religious people during conditions of sensory deprivation, psychedelic drug use or "near-death" experiences. When the ancients, then, retired to their remote cave temples, chanting and dancing themselves into a sacred trance, painting the walls and probably their bodies with geometric forms, they created the primary form of color music.

The idea of a color harmony based on the "scale" of the rainbow appears at least as early as the Pythagoreans in ancient Greece, and resurfaces in the writings of Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Father Athanasius Kircher. Inspired by antagonism to Isaac Newton's science, Father Castel built in 1730 an Ocular Harpsichord which actually linked each key on the musical scale with a specific color of the rainbow progression. Romantics speculated about synaesthesia and "Gesamtkunstwerk" in which all artforms could be combined into one through underlying harmonies across media and genre. In the 20th century, electricity allowed many artists to attempt fluid modulation of colored light, from the dancer Loie Fuller to color-organ composers including A. Wallace Rimington, Mary Hallock Greenewalt, Alexander B. Hector, Thomas Wilfred, and Anatol Vietinghoff-Scheel. Composer Alexander Scriabin claimed that the color-harmonies which he wrote into the score for his 1910 Prometheus documented visions from his genuine physical synaesthesia. In Germany painting and music combined in several experiments including collaborations of Kandinsky and Schoenberg, Alexander Laszlo and Oskar Fischinger, and the Bauhaus theater performances, all of which culminated in four Color Music Congresses (1927, 1930, 1933 and 1936) with dozens of artists and scientists assembled by Dr. Georg Anschutz at Hamburg University. The color harmony theories proposed by these many diverse people differ considerably. We must turn to a few practical examples in order to judge which colors actually enjoy harmonic relationships. Another color-music artist who performed Scriabin's Prometheus, Loie Fuller, had made a sensational debut in Paris in the early 1892. Though considered a dancer, she primarily created color phenomena by whirling drapery through various light sources. She patented a dozen devices that contributed to her color art, including a glass floor and platform that allowed her to be lit from beneath and seem to float in the air, as well as special wands to make her veils flow more supplely, and various projectors that could cast variegated colors and shaped light beams. She quickly became the toast of Paris - painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, sculpted in bronze and marble, photographed and filmed with hand-tinted copies. But none of these representations completely capture her magical time-based fluid color-music, which inspired Schmitt to compose the complex Tragedy of Salome for her to perform, and which continued to thrill audiences throughout full evening performances for 35 years.

Originally published in El color en el arte mexicano. (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonomica de Mexico), 1994, 34-36.

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