Color music

Thomas Wilfred and his art of light

Just a brief note to say something about color music. Cuz I’ve spoken of Aleph Null, a project of mine, as one of color music.

My friend Jeremy Turner in Vancouver recently pointed out the work of Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968) to me. It wasn’t a surprise to me that somebody was doing color music back in 1917–because that sort of thing was going on, what with Theosophy and the work of people such as Kandinsky. “Synesthesia was [a] topic of intensive scientific investigation in the late 19th century and early 20th century” (Wikipedia). The idea of ‘color music’ is not a new one, certainly.

But I bring up Thomas Wilfred’s work because his understanding of ‘color music’ is especially interesting. His work was visual. It wasn’t organically linked to audio. So why did he call it color music, then, if it didn’t involve music or sound? Well, because the machines he created were like musical instruments. One played them like one played musical instruments. Musical instruments, when played, create patterned sound and we enjoy the patterned sounds of music. Wilfred’s machines, when played, produced patterned, colored light shows that were meant to be enjoyed in the same sort of way that music is enjoyed. Music is quite abstract, when there are no lyrics. It is just sound without any obvious ‘meaning’. Wilfred’s machines produced patterned light waves and color without any obvious meaning.

Yes, but why did he call it color music if there was no audio? Well, for pedagogical reasons. The metaphor or simile which relates his work to music and musical instruments was meant to help people understand what he was doing. But he eventually dropped the notion of color music. Cuz, at a certain point, the metaphor becomes more of an impediment to deeper understanding of his sort of work. The notion of ‘color music’ is like the ladder that eventually is kicked away after one has ascended to the next level. At which point one realizes that the art he’s interested in doesn’t have anything directly to do with music or sound. Instead, it’s an art of light, color, and form. Which has its own art. And instruments.

He called his machines “clavilux”. “Lux” refers to light. “Clavi” refers to keys. As on a keyboard, in the case of the clavichord or clavinet. And he called the art “Lumia“.

So it’s probably important to understand the notion of ‘color music’ as usually metaphorical rather than literally. A literal interpretation would expect stronger direct relationship between music and the art of light than there perhaps is. Of course it’s possible to create a very literal relation between music and visuals, such as we experience via music visualizers that typically construct a visual representation of music based on the music’s amplitude (volume). But we don’t think of such visualizers as particularly important artistically. They basically interpret all music to look more or less the same. And they’re usually kind of ugly, in any case.

No, color music, at its richest, is a metaphor. And, as such, is open to the poetical.

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