Colour Organs – A tiny history.

Colour Organs
Alexander Wallace Rimington’s Colour Organ

With a 6-foot square frame above a standard harpsichord and 60 small windows of different coloured glass illuminated in correspondence to sound, Louis Betrand Castel’s Ocular Harpsichord must have caused quite a stir in ‘enlightened’ society as long ago as the 1740’s. The French Jesuit monk’s invention was initiated by his interest in Newton’s theory of optics resulting in a musical instrument that advocated a direct relationship between light and sound. When a key was struck a length of cord attached to a pulley lifted a specific curtain so that one of the many stained glass panes received light from a set of candles. The coloured light would be projected into the darkened recital room. The composer Telemann was so enthralled by Castel’s achievement that he composed pieces specifically for the Ocular Harpsichord. Like Messer Jobs and Gates and their personal computers, Castel dreamed of a day when every household would have one of his machines for family and social amusement and planned a factory for mass production. Sadly no working version of this contraption survived the inventor himself. For a detailed paper on Castel’s work, look no further than Maarten Franssen’s excellent write-up available in PDF format.

More than a 100 years later, non-musician and non-inventor Bainbridge Bishop published his wonderfully titled ‘A Souvenir of the Colour Organ, with some suggestions in regard to the soul of the rainbow and the harmony of light’. Published online at Fred Collopy’s RhythmicLight – it is a pamphlet outlining his theories of colour-sound relationships based on the study of rainbows and prisms. With these theories it gave descriptions of various machines similar to Castel’s harpsichord but with shutters instead of curtains. Bishop spent over 5 years refining his machines. The final product incorporated a projection screen on which the colours were diffused and reflected in accordance to the music being played. The organs could be played with light or music alone, realising a whole new, and at the same time forgotten, dimension to the game of ‘Name that tune’. It must have been considerably risky using candles as a light source in these machines and this is backed up by the fact that all of Bishop’s machines were eventually destroyed by fire!

Around 1885 the painter Alexander Wallace Rimington built a Colour Organ in his home, it was over 10ft high according historical notes and looked like a standard church organ. Coloured keys were arranged above a conventional keyboard, connected to a lens-and-filters system, allowing colours to be played. Various pedals changed the quality of light, allowing dissolve-like effects. Rimington went on to published ‘Colour Music: The Art of Mobile Colour’ in which he argued that the standard repertoire might be performed in colour. He subsequently expressed a wish that musicians would begin to write dual scores, one for colour and one for music. Check out A New Art: Colour-Music, a paper read by Rimington in London in 1895 and published online at Joost Rekveld’s excellent Light matters blog.

These machines were, arguably, the origins of mechanised visual music, a paradigm that is taken for granted in this age with the host of sound visualising modules incorporated in your favourite MP3 player. One of the more fascinating aspects of these inventions was how to encode sound into colour, what kinds of correspondence-scales were used and what the encoding was based upon? Whether it be leaning to something scientifically rigorous, as in Newton’s Optics, or a mapping that is purely aesthetically driven. While computation artists fiddle with their FTT Spreads and Arrays and try to make visual sense of the numbers, these questions are still pertinent today. It’s notable that each of the colour-music charts/systems used by the above mentioned inventors have many correspondences between themselves. Why is it that similar notes are often chosen to be represented by the same colour across different systems? Is there a collective synaesthetic cross-wiring system that can be mapped over and through the human’s perception of visual music?

One Response to “Colour Organs – A tiny history.”

  1. Rob Myers writes:

    Wow. This reminds me of Jeff Minter’s light synthesizers and of Solresol.

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