MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Color Revolution

Color Revolution

Increasingly in this centenary year of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, we’re coming to see how much of modernism has involved an unpredictable marriage of the avant-garde and commercialism. Serge Diaghilev was a daring impresario but also a canny businessman. As for Schoenberg’s “air from another planet,” people who tend to write off atonality nowadays forget its far-reaching presence in film scores.

The management of color, too, turns out to have played a significant role in retuning tastes to the modern era. Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s The Color Revolution gives a fascinating account of color as a potent psychological and social tool manipulated by “color engineers.”

Blaszczyk’s lively history of the modern era’s preoccupation with color and her discussion of color’s influence on innovation in industry and design make me wonder how this shift affected perceptions of music as well — contemporary and canonical. Her focus is on American industry, which took important cues from the Paris scene. But Blaszczyk mentions other developments and influences from Europe, such as Alexander Scriabin’s experiments with color projections synchronized to his scores.

“Ever since Isaac Newton, people had been fascinated by the apparent analogy of the seven steps in the musical scale and the seven spectral colors in the rainbow,” writes Blaszczyk. This line of thinking even led to attempts at social engineering:

During the Enlightenment, a mathematician named Louis-Bertrand Castel dazzled Paris society with the first color-music instrument, an ocular harpsichord that diffused pigment light through windowpanes at the strike of a key. In 1893, a British inventor named Alexander Wallace Rimington had patented a Colour Organ that used gas jets and arc lamps to generate colored light as an accompaniment to musical instruments; the idea was to translate musical tones into visual hues. Rimington’s taste-making objectives presaged those of Albert Munsell: he hoped to sharpen the senses of the British working class and to teach them to prefer the palette of the Chartres rose windows over the crass aniline shades of Manchester calicos.”

In the mood for a little Klangfarbenmelodie?

Filed under: art history, book recs, style

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