Tripping the Lights Fantastic

Explore the past and present of musical light shows at this fun and informative talk at Brooklyn’s Light Industry.

Photo courtesy of Light Industry

The coupling of visual and aural stimuli is something we take for granted in modern film and television, but it’s a partnership that great minds struggled with for centuries. At an upcoming event at Light Industry—a small Brooklyn venue focused on the intellectual magic that makes cinema and electronic art a reality—filmmaker and teacher Jenny Perlin will present a talk on the odd lineage of “color organs,” an arcane and overlooked technology that led to the creation of film.

In an era before scientific theory suggested the distinctions between waves and particles, philosophers and artists of the 18th century struggled to understand the relationship between music and color. Sir Isaac Newton famously (and erroneously) addressed the connection between the prism of color and the notes of the scale in his treatise Opticks. Laypeople and amateur scientists of the time built simple apparatuses and instruments that could create both sound and light at once in the hope of creating a tool that would speak the language of the spheres, a means of communicating clearly with a higher power. The most famous of these so-called color organs, made by mathematician-monk Louis Bertrand Castel, took form as a retrofit harpsichord with stained glass, illuminated by candlelight in concert with the playing of the instrument.

As simple as these constructions look today, they provide an interesting through-line of the roots of moviemaking and television science. Later iterations of color organs predate modern film with fantastically popular public applications at expos and exhibitions throughout the 19th century. Those experiences live on today in laser light shows, VR programs, and the modern laser harp.

Perlin’s lecture will connect the uneven success of color organs with the combination of image and sound that constitutes both experimental and pop modern filmmaking. The talk starts (and sparks!) with a screening of Chuck Jones’s whimsically abstract Academy Award–winning short cartoon, The Dot and the Line.

Why You Should Go: This psychedelic instrument is surely something you’ve never before seen (or heard) in a live capacity.

On Twilight Arc
Light Industry
155 Freeman Street, Greenpoint
Tuesday, November 7
7:30 p.m.

After taking a trip through Newton’s color spectrum, explore parts of Greenpoint you’ve yet to discover.