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ART IN CINEMA part 1: pre-cinema color instruments…


Since its origins, Occidental Europe has been teeming with theories that link aural sensation to visual sensation, music to painting. Music theorists were the first to approach the idea. They tried to create a “fusion” of music and color by creating an instrument that could produce different colors for different musical notes.

The first attempt at “painted music” was in 1725 and 1735, when the Jesuit Louis-Bertrand Castel introduced the clavecin oculaire (ocular clavichord). The instrument was meant to paint sounds with corresponding colors in such a way, claimed Castel, that a deaf person could enjoy and judge the beauty of a musical piece through the colors it created, and a blind person could judge colors through the sound.

The instrument functioned like a traditional clavichord, excepting that each note was associated, in accordance with Castel’s own exhaustive studies, with a particular color that would be displayed upon the playing of each note.

On the 16th of January 1877 Bainbridge Bishop patented a coloring organ that simultaneously played music and projected colored lights through illuminated windows.

In 1893 Bishop published “A Souvenir of the Color Organ, with Some Suggestions in Regard to the Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light,” a short pamphlet in which he describes his experiments and ideas on the relationship of notes and the primary colors of a rainbow.

In 1895 the Englishman Wallace Rimington conceived of a small music box that contained many apertures with colored glass and an electric wire. The apertures could open and close  projecting colors on a white screen  by playing a soundless keyboard.

The construction of such instruments continued throughout the 19th Century in the attempt to discover the “scientific” link between sound and color, but the period that saw the greatest experimentation was the first three decades of the 20th Century. In that period, everything was tried: organs that produced music or color, or keyboards that created colors without making a sound. Nevertheless, the marriage between music and color could also be made by endowing the picture with a temporal dimension like that of music. This concept saw a flowering of experimentation and theoretical hypotheses in Europe in the 10 years preceding the Great War.

the clavecin oculaire: a six foot frame containing mounted above a normal harpsichord with 60 windows each with a colored-glass pane and a small curtain attached by pullies to a specific key — each time the key was struck, that curtain would lift to show a flash of corresponding color…

Influenced by the experiments and research of Bishop and Remington, in 1909 the Russian composer Aleksandr Skrjabin wrote the symphonic poem “Prometheus,” in part of which the notes are meant to correspond to certain colored lights.

Skrjabin wanted to create a keyboard of lights; colors would correspond to traditional keys according to his own visionary idea of a cosmic synthesis of sound and light. Skrjabin commissioned Alexander Mozer to build the device. Mozer, a photographer and electro-mechanics teacher at the Technical Institute in Moscow, completed the device in a few months time to be ready for the first demonstration of Prometheus (15 March 1911). The device had a fundamental component all Mozer’s own: 12 colored lamps placed in a circle on a wood base were lit up by pulses. It is currently on display at the Museum House of Skrjabin in Moscow.

Arnold Schonberg must have had Skrjabin in mind when he began composing Die Gluckliche Hand (The Happy Hand) in 1909. The score specifically outlines plans to project colors on a screen that move with the music: “The game of light and colors is not based only on intensity, but on values that can only be compared to the heights of sound. Sound and color mingle freely only when their relationship is, at root, reciprocal.

In a letter to the Viennese publishing house “Universal Editions,” Schonberg declared “What I’m looking to do is the exact opposite of what cinema normally hopes to achieve. I demand the greatest unreality! The general effect doesn’t have to be dream, but something similar to music, to harmony. “

With the Futurist brothers Ginanni-Corradini, better known as Arnaldo Gina and Bruno Corra, conceived of chromatic music while they were studying Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. They declared their idea in the manifesto Arte in 1910, claiming that colors create both a harmonious music and a sonorous one. They could, they exclaimed, express feeling and states of being with notes and equally compose harmonies, motifs and symphonies.

Corra sought to put the idea of music to color into practice; he built a piano with 28 keys that correspond to 8 differently colored electric lamps. By pushing one key, a color would be projected over a background. By pushing many keys, the colors would form a harmonious light.

This method soon revealed its simplicity: the effects were pretty, but lacked an emotional core, the fusions were arbitrary, little intensity and nothing of true “orchestral effect.”

Dissatisfied with his first music-color experiment, Corradini decided to venture into new territory: abstract cinema. This time, colors were painted directly onto film in the hopes of creating a chromatic symphony capable of visually reproducing feelings and emotions with music that inspired the compositions.



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