If you saw TREE OF LIFE, you undoubtedly remember the strange colored smoke-like images which appeared as separators in the film. Well, that’s what I thought they were at the time - twisting smoke or CGI, beautifully filmed. I was wrong.
Going to the internet to win an argument about other things in the film - I was surprised to learn these images were from something called “Opus 161” by Thomas Wilfred, and that’s when I fell into the rabbit hole.
Thomas Wilfred and Visual Music
Light is the silent universal expression of the greatest force our senses can grasp.
Wilfred invented machines that could produce images using complex sets of mirrors, lenses and illumination. He would operate them using a complex keyboard to produce the images he wanted. The whole category of these machines are known as color organs, although Wilfred referred to his as Clavilux. These were not just lighting machines, such as the controls for stage lighting, but produced the moving imagery seen in TREE OF LIFE.
Wilfred wrote pieces using light for the Clavilux, because it was an instrument. He referred to this discipline as lumia (the standard name is visual music), and someone (maybe him) assigned opus numbers to his works. Wilfred even made tours with his equipment, appearing at theatres and playing pieces on his Clavilux in the 1930s. He also made some small devices that would play certain pieces, for example in the home, as well as a home system that had a screen like a television.
Color organs never really standardized around Wilfred’s machines or anyone else’s, and the entire field appears to have degenerated. Wilfred’s Clavilux are in museums or private collectors’ homes, and few films exist of the lumia pieces themselves, reportedly because they cannot do them justice. (I guess the frame rates are too low to capture the intensity and movement). Wilfred died in the late 1960s, having devoted his life to a field which moved to cheap random devices like lava lamps, or the spinning color filters used in dorm-room parties.
His long fingers caressed softly and slowly, pressing lightly on contacts with a rippling motion, resting themselves momentarily on one key then another - and in the air before them there was a soft glowing rosiness, just inside the range of vision.
No, this wasn’t from a description of Wilfred, but Isaac Asimov’s description of Magnifico playing the Visi-Sonor in FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE (1952). When I read the book many years ago I thought the device was wonderful: it played images and music in your brain! Learning about Wilfred and other color organists puts the fictional device in better context. Asimov’s leap was to have the instrument act directly on your brain - otherwise an instrument of colored images would have still been in the public mindset. In fact, in 1951 Wilfred was part of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition in New York, and before WWII there were public recitals at Wilfred’s Art Institute of Light in NYC. While I have no idea if Asimov saw any of Wilfred’s work, it’s probable that he knew of some similar instrument.
Prior to computer monitors becoming much better in the past few years, it isn’t clear if anything could have produced images on the scale of Wilfred’s lumia compositions. (Nor is it clear if regular computers can recreate those works at the same level). Analog is making a return, yet not in this area. Most visual light presentations are connected with music - either just synchronized to music or using video frequencies. (Making it so you can hear the video signal, and broadcasting either certain sounds or certain images on the video. The clearest examples of this I have seen came through the sadly defunct Media Embassy series done by Sabine and Gruffat in Madison.)
Hopefully some enterprising DIY sorts decide to construct new light organs with the same complexity someday, but I’m not counting on it.
(Image from the website of the Eugene and Carol Epstein Collection. You can also see some of Wilfred’s papers at Yale. My other sources include Wikipedia and Donna M. Stein’s book on Wilfred which amazingly the library had and where I cribbed the Wilfred quote.)
Nothing new here; yet another piece I found buried in the depths of my laptop. Back when I obsessed over Tim Burton-esque stuff and drew on my laptop’s track pad…
August Mosca, "Apartment Buildings - Bronx" oil on canvas, signed lower left and dated 1945, titled on the reverse. 28 x 36
I found a drawing on my tablet. I forgot when I drew it.
the painting overall was dull, but the flowers stood out to me so much.
Is it too late to try to be myspace famous