Wednesday, May 10, 2006


The idea of a correlation between sound and vision goes back to antiquity. One starry night on the island of Samos Pythagoras stood contemplating the skies, to him the very rhythm and motion of heavenly bodies in their orbits appeared to him as if governed by a cosmic harmony, a carefully choreographed sequence, the music of the spheres. Two hundred years later, Aristotle wrote in De Sensu: "Colours may mutually relate like musical concords for their pleasantest arrangement; like those concords mutually proportionate."

Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci produced sophisticated spectacles for court festivals that fused music and colour. Another artist from the period Athanasius Kircher demonstrated the "Laterna Magica", a forerunner of today’s slide and video projectors however, the first instrument that could simultaneously play light and sound was built by the Jesuit, and mathematician Louis Bertrand Caste. In 1760 Castel constructed a "harpsichord for the eyes". Castel’s machine was a normal keyboard above which were 60 small windows, each with different coloured-glass and a small curtain. Each time the player depressed a particular key, the relevant curtain would rise to show a burst of colour.

In the next two hundred years many new instruments for combining light and sound were built. These instruments employed a variety of different techniques including high-voltage electric arcs and gas jets to produce variations in light or sound. Electricity in particular offered a means of overcoming the technical problems of using candles or gas and the British painter A. Wallace Rimington developed a Colour Organ which provided a moving light accompaniment to the 1916 New York premiere of Scriabin's symphony Prometheus: A Poem of Fire. Scriabin had scored not only the music but also the precise colours he wanted to accompany particular passages.

Such colour music forms the conceptual starting point for Fleshtones, a piece for extreme pixelated porn (that's extreme pixelation not extreme porn) and auto-generated accompaniment. Footage from webcams and other online sites is broken down into a simple tableau of colour bands, at times rather like the paint charts one might find in a DIY store. Given the subject matter this palette is either predominately pink or coffee coloured thus producing a sequence of flickering fleshtones. Using the wonders of Max/MSP/Jitter to construct a 21st century light organ these fleshtones are turned into lyrical piano music that rises in falls in response and exact correspondence to the onscreen movement. The motion of earthly bodies thus is transformed into something of beauty, harmony and contemplation.