Theses Doctoral

"A Light in Sound, a Sound-like Power in Light”: Light and/as Music in the History of the Color Organ

Whyte, Ralph Richard

This dissertation examines the history of the relationship between light/color as an artistic medium and music. Looking at four artist-inventors from the eighteenth through to the mid-twentieth centuries, I consider how new arts of light and color arose from music, relied on music, and also distanced themselves from it. Drawing chiefly on published and unpublished primary sources, this dissertation compares artists’ and inventors’ conceptions of what this new art should be as it was continuously reimagined and reconstituted in their works, discourses, and technologies. I suggest a running tension throughout this history between the aspiration for a new and even autonomous art and its reliance on the music.

In Chapter 1, I investigate the work of the eighteenth-century French Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel, who in 1725 proposed the first ever instrument for color music, his clavecin oculaire or ocular harpsichord. I note conflicting tendencies in his thought as he suggested two different avenues for color music: as a form of multimedia, and as a separate, silent medium capable of giving pleasure on its own. The next chapter turns to the color organ and color music of the late nineteenth-century inventor and artist Alexander Wallace Rimington. Drawing on contemporaneous theories of color, reception of Rimington’s performances, and the inventor’s own writings, I locate Rimington’s organ at the intersection of a continuing tradition of analogizing music and color and late nineteenth-century attempts to theorize color independently and systematically. I then demonstrate how Rimington’s desire to use color music as means of improving color perception can be understood as part of a larger debates about sensing color and color education around the turn of the twentieth century. Chapters 3 considers Mary Hallock Greenewalt’s instrument, the sarabet, and her art form, nourathar¸ while the final chapter looks at Thomas Wilfred’s (usually silent) light art, lumia. I suggest that Greenewalt and Wilfred’s relationship to music is a source of tension in their work, as they attempted to extricate and purify light art into an autonomous art form but display various forms of musical influence.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Lewis, George E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 31, 2019