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COLOUR-MUSIC1

A SUGGESTION OF A NEW ART

THERE are many considerations that lend some plausibility to the fancy that future times may see the birth of a new art that shall appeal to the emotions through colour alone, in the same way that music makes its appeal through sound. It is true that no mechanism, no instrument at present exists that can pass before our eyes notes and chords of colour such as music sends to our ears, nor, if this were possible, could our feelings at present correspond to them, or give them meaning; neither has the colour-composer yet come forward who can reveal to us a new mode of expression, who can appeal to our emotions through a fresh medium, perhaps with a delicacy and keenness of sensation unknown before.

Colour seems to have every element necessary for exciting feelings as deep and as sympathetic as any that music calls forth, if only the appeal can be made and understood.

Already in some measure there is an association of ideas with colours, as in the gay effect of bright hues and the sombre influence of dark : and the experience of a sunset is witness to the influence that colour can exert, and the depth of feeling it is capable of stimulating.

Is it possible to create an art that shall appeal to us in a kindred way to music, and to educate our perceptions so that we may appreciate the melody and harmony of colour as we now appreciate the melody and harmony of sound ?

The analogy of colour to sound is one consideration that may lead us to think that we can perhaps answer 'Yes.'

Objectively, and as a matter of physical science, the two are so far alike that both are wave motions, though of different kinds; the pitch of a sound and the colour of a light are both dependent on the number of vibrations ; violet light and high notes result from frequent vibrations; red light and low notes from comparatively few vibrations, and probably, though not of necessity, they would arouse similar sensations. The thunder of a storm might conceivably be represented by low notes and red colour, the lightning by high notes and violet light.

It is only fair to the author to state that this article was sent to me so long ago as April 1893.—ED. Nineteenth Century.

The range of audible sound comprises about eleven octaves, the range of musical sound about seven; the range of visible light is less than one octave; the range of artistic colour may, perhaps, be less, as is the case with sound; but the seemingly narrow limits of colour to less than one octave is more verbal than real, for if we consider that the limits of musical sound lie between 40 and 4,000 vibrations in a second, while the limits of visible light lie between 460 millions of millions and 680 millions of millions in the same time, it would seem probable that a larger number of colours and tints could be appreciated by the eye than notes by the ear, and that, therefore, the variation producible by combination of colours is greater than the variation possible by musical combination into chords, while the change from tint to tint could be incomparably more gradual and delicate than the change from note to note. But how far it would be possible or desirable to have scales of colour, starting from different points and with intervals between the tints or colours, dependent on certain proportions between their respective vibrations, I am not prepared to guess.

One element of sound-music is certainly essential to colour-music (if the words may for clearness' sake be allowed), and that is the movement. In a picture or in decoration, we can get a single chord of colour, a pleasing combination enough in its way, but something, it seems to me, incomparably feebler than a moving, changing combination ; just as melody or harmony is far more potent in its appeals to our emotions than the reiteration of a single chord. It is this movement and change that would constitute the new art, if such there is to be, and if this be not possible or artistic, then colourmusic cannot be, though much more than this is needed in conjunction with it.

At present no such use is made of colour as in music is made of sound; in a picture, however important the colouring may be, it is subordinate, the picture is possible without it, and monochromatic reproductions give in considerable measure the idea of the picture. But in music the sound is essential, the art is impossible without it; for though a musician can appreciate a composition by reading the score, yet the real basis is the sound that the musical symbols call to mind.

But there seems every reason for thinking that colour is capable, not only of exciting our emotions, but of suggesting ideas. Some attention has been paid of late to the association of colours and sounds, which would seem to show that both are capable of stimulating thought, and that certain colours arouse the same ideas as certain sounds. At the Congress of Experimental Psychology in 1892 Professor Gruber gave an account of such association, which he has been studying for some years, saying that the vowel 'e' was accompanied by the sensation of yellow, 'i' by blue, 'o' by black, and so on through the long list of Roumanian vowels and diphthongs, and also to some extent with numbers.?

But it is probably within the personal experience of most imaginative people that there is this association of colour and sound, and that the association is closer between musical sound and colour than between other sound and colour.

As yet the sense for appreciating meaning in colour is undeveloped, and the question is whether it is possible to develop what little at present exists so far as to respond as readily to changes of hue as we now can to changes of sound. The necessary elements seem to exist, and the possibilities of increasing the powers of a sense by use are almost unlimited, as witness the keen perception of specialists in all directions, and the development of other senses in the blind by increased exercise. Thus from this side of the question colour-musie seems feasible enough, if only we can get the colour-composer to write the music, and the instrument on which to play it.

What such an instrument would have to be like is by no means obvious, but it is probable that coloured lights would have to be employed in preference to coloured materials, or at least that light must pass through transparent colours, not be reflected from opaque substances. One's imagination is hardly fired by the thought of watching the unfolding of a long roll of paper printed in many colours and tints by elaborate chromo-lithography; but other methods seem to have about them the possibilities of much that is beautiful.

The first to suggest itself is naturally a series of vacuum-tubes or vacuous chambers that could be had in any desired variety, that could be illuminated in succession or combination by the use of a keyboard, on playing the notes on which the electric current would pass through different tubes. Contacts could be made so easily that the most elaborate chords or combinations of colours could be played with the utmost simplicity, and the intensity of the light, corresponding to the loudness of sound, could be varied, as in a piano, by using a pedal to alter the intensity of the current, so causing the tubes to shine with a brilliant light or to glow in the softest of hues. Such an instrument could be made on any scale; it could be used out of doors and be seen by thousands; it could be placed in the largest hall, or it could be adapted to the most modest private requirements; while there would be no fear of annoying our neighbours with our performances.

It requires no great effort of the imagination to picture the beauty of such effects, even with vacuum-tubes as we know them now, when practically no artistic effects are ever aimed at with them; and if to such displays were added the power to appreciate the meaning put into them by a great colour-composer, it seems scarcely too fanciful to imagine that the influence upon our feelings and our

? Nature, August 11, 1892.

thoughts would be, not less but more than any influence of music now.

The charming effects of coloured fountains also suggest that much might be done with them to produce the desired effects, and the ease and simplicity with which many different combinations could be obtained points them out as possible accessories to vacuum tubes or chambers.

Other instrumental possibilities there are, but none that seem to promise either such beauty or complexity of effects or such simplicity of manipulation. There is the dispersion of light through prisms, and its recombination in various ways; there is the mingling of light passed through moving coloured glasses; there are as possible accessories the phenomena of polarised light, of iridescence and Auorescence, and there are fireworks, that Mr. Haweis referred to in Music and Morals, when suggesting the colour-art, in a very definite way twenty years ago. After referring to the present accompaniments of vulgar patterns, loud noises, and stupid contrasts, he goes on to write of possibilities :- What a majestic symphony might not be played with such orchestral blazes of incomparable hues! what delicate melodies composed of single floating lights, changing and melting from one slow intensity to another through the dark, until some tender dawn of opal from below might perchance receive the last fluttering pulse of ruby flame, and prepare the eye for some new passage of exquisite colour!' Such an effect could surely never fail to charm; such an effect is certainly possible by means of electricity.

But a new art must be a gradual growth, and the first stages are likely enough to pass unnoticed at the time they are occurring ; it may therefore be worth while to ask if any indications can be seen now that can be thought to be the starting point for a new departure in the direction talked of here.

So far as one but very imperfectly acquainted with painting can judge, there are signs that, on the one hand, colour is receiving more attention on its own account than was formerly the case, that the

scheme of colour' is made to override the accuracy or the detail of the picture, as in the works of the Impressionists; and, on the other hand, there are considerable indications of a growing appreciation of work in monochrome.

If this be so, it seems to me that both are indications of an independent colour-art, though they are susceptible of other interpretations also, and perhaps more plausibly.

There would seem to be some probability that, if colour were elevated into a separate art, its connection with painting would gradually cease; not only does it seem to be a general rule that, if a thing is put to a more important use, it ceases to be used in subordinate ways, but if colour came to have the increased meaning contemplated in colour-music, the colour-expression possible in a

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picture would be, by comparison, so feeble and inadequate that it might at last be given up; though, if this were not so, there is no necessity that, even granting the existence of colour-music, colourpictures should not still continue. But there is a growing appreciation of monochromatic art, and it would seem probable that increased attention to light and shade by both artists and observers might lead to the representation of effects now produced by colour by means of more delicate renderings of tone. It may be thought, too, that, were we more educated in this respect, we could appreciate finer distinctions than we now do; and if there is much charm about a work that leaves a great deal to the imagination, there would seem to be a possibility of charming in monochrome that is denied to the more realistic multichrome.

Arrangements’ in one or two colours, and productions in sepia, or other tones, where truth of colour is not aimed at, as well as the increasing importance of art and artists in black and white,' all seem tendencies in the same direction.

There is the consideration also that in sculpture—the art of solid form-colour no longer pleases. The truest grandeur of sculpture,' says Mr. Ruskin, 'I believe to be in the white form ; something of this feeling may be owing to the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of obtaining truly noble colour upon it; but if we could colour the Elgin marbles with the flesh tints of Giorgione, I had rather not have it done.' 3

It is not very obvious why we should prefer solid form in monochrome and linear form in multichrome; and, especially if colourmusic should put colour to a higher use, it seems possible that the artists of the future may come to feel that it is too difficult a task to express colour as they wish, just as Mr. Ruskin suggests the difficulty of adequately colouring sculpture may have something to do with our preference for it uncoloured.

But it is certain that colour is far too precious to be abolished from painting until some other and more noble use is found for it; though if such use is to be found in colour-music, then it seems not improbable that its connection with painting may cease, to, in the long run, the advantage of painting itself.

Perhaps there are some respects in which even now painting suffers by the use of colour; it certainly adds much to the difficulty of painting, and it is sometimes the case that the more important truths of light and shade are sacrificed to the less important truths of colour-less important because, in the representation of form, light and shade are far more concerned than colour.

Moreover, there are not lacking some considerations that show an incompatibility between colour and form that only the greatest can overcome.

: Modern Painters, vol. ii. sect. 2, chap. 4. VOL. XXXVIII—No. 221

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