Color organ

Scriabin keyboard

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 [Video:] . The term 'light organ' is increasingly being used for these devices; allowing 'color organ' to reassume its original meaning.


Chronology of the idea and its various incarnations

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.William Moritz

  • 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 1743, Johann Gottlob Krüger, a professor at the University of Hall, proposed his own version of Castel's ocular harpsichord.
  • 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 gets a patent for his first Color Organ.[1] 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.[2]
  • In a 1916 art manifesto, the Italian Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra described their experiments with "color organ" projection in 1909. They also painted nine abstract films, now lost.
  • In 1916, the Russian Futurist Painter Vladimir Baranoff Rossiné premiered the Optophonic Piano at his one-man exhibition in Kristiana (Oslo, Norway).
  • In 1918, American concert pianist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt created an instrument she called the Sarabet. Also an inventor, she patented nine inventions related to her instrument, including the rheostat.
  • In 1921, Arthur C. Vinageras proposed the Chromopiano, an instrument resembling and played like a grand piano, but designed to project "chords" composed from colored lights.
  • In the 1920s, Danish-born Thomas Wilfred created the Clavilux, [1] 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 1925, Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo wrote a text called Color-Light-Music ; Laszlo toured Europe with a color organ.
  • 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, with Kurt Schwerdtfeger.
  • The 1939 London Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition featured a "72-way Light Console and Compton Organ for Colour Music", as well as a 70 feet, 230 kW "Kaleidakon" tower. [2]
  • From 1935 -77, Charles Dockum built a series of Mobilcolor Projectors, his versions of silent color organs. Documentation and history are online at CVM. Some 16mm films exist of his performances and the operation of the Mobilcolor.
  • 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. The Lumigraph was licensed by the producers of the 1964 sci-fi film, The Time Travelers. The Lumigraph does not have a keyboard, and does not generate music.

Further study

  • California Institute of the Arts scholar William Moritz has documented color organs as a form of Visual music, particularly as a precursor to Visual Music cinema. His papers and original research are in the collection of the Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles, which also has other historical color organ papers and resources.

See also


  1. ^ US patent #186298
  2. ^ Bainbridge Bishop, A Souvenir of the Color Organ, with Some Suggestions in Regard to the Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light. 1893 pamphlet
  3. ^ Articles on Rimington from The Strand including Colour organ photos
  4. ^ Rimington, Alexander Wallace, Colour-Music The Art Of Mobile Colour. Hutchinson, London, 1912

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