Color Organs

5 The Equal Status of Color and Form — From the Color Organ to Abstract Film

In 1906 in Philadelphia, the pianist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt began studying the combination of music and color, receiving at least twelve patents between 1920 and 1934 for her lightcolor instrument called Sarabet, which she used to visualize classical music with colors.[7] More than her predecessors, she moved away from static color-tone analogies and instead used alternating and merging colors, creating her own form of colored-light art.

A major problem of all color organs introduced until now, was that they lacked the possibility to design forms artistically. The punctual light sources in these devices could be turned on and off and their size and intensity could be changed; however, it was not possible to produce forms that varied over time.

This awareness led to the development of new color organs beside those that worked with precise color-tone correlations, devices capable of a complex interconnection of music, color, and form — that is, they did not only relate notes to colors, but rather music to images.

One of the pioneers in the field was pianist and composer Alexander László, who attempted to fuse two previously separate art forms, namely art in sounds — music — with art in colors — painting — into a higher unit, a new art.[8]

For his color-light music — for instance, the compositions for “colored light and piano” presented for the first time in 1925 — he used a special keyboard (Sonchromatoscope), which was hooked up to several slide projectors and also could produce forms. In addition, he no longer combined individual notes with certain colors, but created relationships between mixtures of colors and sounds.

Despite the state-of-the-art technology of the time, even in the 1920s it was still hardly possible to present moving colored forms with a color organ. Smooth visual transitions also remained difficult to produce. A reaction to these limited means was the abstract film, which explored aspects of form and motion in terms of temporal relationships and variations.

Film titles such as Lichtspiel Opus 1 by Walter Ruttmann demonstrate how closely these early abstract films were oriented toward music. He met the problem of having to work with black-and-white film stock by coloring in every single frame by hand.

The crucial difference between film and light display lies in the fact that a film captures light art on celluloid to become an immutable work of art, while color organs create it each time anew within the scope of a performance.