Sonic Light 2003: composing light, articulating space

(This text was an introduction to the ninth edition of the Sonic Acts festival in Amsterdam, held in 2003 under the title Sonic Light 2003. I put together the conference, the film programme (with Erwin van ‘t Hart) and parts of the evening programme (mostly curated by Edwin van der Heide).
The text below was published in “The Art of Programming”, Sonic Acts Press / De Balie, Amsterdam, 2002)


Sonic Light 2003:
composing light, articulating space

Sonic Acts 2003 will entirely be devoted to the art of composed light: the shaping in time of light and colour in a way which is comparable to the way sound is shaped into music. For the occasion, the ninth edition of the festival will be presented under the title Sonic Light 2003 and its aim will be to make a broad survey of both contemporary and historic artistic approaches to light as ‘visual music’. This dream was first formulated as long ago as the 18th century and has since found new forms of expression which have evolved as the technology to manipulate light has progressed.The Utopian vision of an art form that combines the immaterial nature of light with the cultural sophistication and mental impact of music appears to be untouched by fashion or the emergence and disappearance of media.

It has guided early experiments with every visual technology which has been developed in the last century and thus has become an undercurrent in the evolution of the newer media. Colour organs, abstract film, kinetic art, analogue video synthesizers, light environments, abstract computer animation, software for the real-time production of image and sound; these are all branches that once sprang from the idea of visual music and which have since taken their own path and seen their own conceptual development. Apart from these existing forms of expression, many artists still hold onto the idea of an, as yet unknown, future form of light art which will combine a rich and pleasant sensory experience with non-verbal communication through the articulation of time.

Light has been an integral part of the presentation of music ever since the rise of the large-scale rock concerts in the 1960s. Since then several types of lightshow have permeated the mainstream; at first with the light-effects that have now become commonplace in the world of clubs and discotheques. Over the past few years these effects have been supplemented with graphic video or computer generated images, sometimes manipulated or even created in real-time.

At the next edition of Sonic Acts we want to focus our attention completely on the artistic potential of the light medium and present the established traditions of light art in combination with current developments in interactive audio-visual software and the use of light in ëenvironmentsí and visual art. An important premise of the festival has always been to present contemporary aspects of young culture in a wider conceptual and historic framework. In this way it has proved possible to deepen the practice of DJs, live-electronic musicians, VJs and filmmakers, while at the same time raising questions about the sometimes rather calcified ways image and sound are conceptualized within academic and artistic establishments. After the positive experience of last year’s festival the upcoming edition will be of a similar size and format: three days with a symposium during the day and a festival programme in the evenings.

From the very beginning of the series of Sonic Acts festivals a central theme has been to find new ways to enrich the presentation of electronic music with visual and theatrical elements. Right from the outset there have been experiments with live video and large-scale projection of short films made specially to music. For every festival special light set-ups were designed to suit the various components of the programme, but light has never before been the central theme of the festival. Over the last five years there has been renewed interest in light as a medium in worlds as diverse as the visual arts, architecture and clubs: a very good reason to present current concepts of light in a wider context. In philosophy too, there is growing awareness that the dominant western mode of visual thinking could benefit from an influx of ideas from other sensory worlds, such as hearing and the sense of touch. In Sonic Light 2003 we will try to survey the current state-of-affairs in all these areas.

Sonic Light 2003 will be a three-day festival consisting of four parts: a conference, three evenings with a programme of music and light, light manifestations in public spaces and a series of film and video screenings in the week leading up to the festival. The conference will include both contemporary subjects in the form of a number of artists’ presentations, and demonstrations of machines, software and new light sources, as well as lectures in which the historic and philosophical background to light-art will be discussed. Speakers will invited from fields as diverse as media art, video, film, visual art, light shows, art history, the history of science, physics, architecture theory and philosophy. The conference will be a public event and will be summarized afterwards in a book with DVD.

The evening programme will take place in an environment specially designed for Sonic Light and which will take advantage of the possibilities created by the extensive renovations of the Paradiso during this period. The aim is to construct a light box within the space of the Paradiso, a box without stage in which all the walls, floor and ceiling will serve as screens for projection or back-projection. In terms of sound too, it will be a space without a front, in which special care will also be taken to explore the height of the auditorium to create a spatial sound experience. The light box will provide the framework for a continuous programme consisting of numerous short ‘sets’ performed by changing constellations of sound artists, visual musicians and light artists. The colour and pitch-sequence of the spectrum will serve as a guideline for the overall structure of the images and sounds over the course of the evening.

During the three days of the festival light interventions are planned in the public space around the Paradiso, in which buildings and other objects will be lit from the inside or serve as projection screens. These interventions will be presented by students of the Interfaculty Image and Sound in The Hague. In the week before the festival a series of film and video-screenings will take place in Cinema De Balie. These screenings will consist of highlights from the history of abstract film and video combined with documentary material related to this history and to the history of light art in general. The Sonic Light programme will be put together by a special team in collaboration with the Iota Center in Los Angeles, an international forum which was founded in 1998 and which has evolved into a site for exchange between artists and researchers active in this field. The conference and the light programme will be curated by Joost Rekveld, the music programme by Edwin van der Heide and Remco de Jong. The programme will focus on three themes that have determined the history of light art: ‘music for the eye’, ‘feelgood’, and ‘light and space’.

Music for the eye

Music is the most ancient and rich abstract form of art and has for that reason always been a great source of inspiration for developing ideas about an art of abstract light. The first colour organs were mechanical devices that linked individual musical pitches to colours, initially based on the idea that this would reflect the ‘true’ correspondence between eye and ear. Light can be separated into hues, sound can be separated into pitches, so clearly the reasons for the apparent correspondence between music and images were to be found in the realm of these building blocks of colour and sound experience. For a long time discussions centred on the various possible ways of mapping pitch to colour, without questioning the basic mechanism of linear frequency correspondence. The first instrument to play light was based on these ideas and dates from around 1750.

The French scientist, Louis-Bertrand Castel had already been speculating for about thirty years on how to demonstrate the parallel between colour and pitch suggested by Isaac Newton in query 14 of his ‘Opticks’. Initially, this led to a harpsichord that not only produced sound, but in which small slips of coloured paper were also made to protrude above the lid whenever a key was pressed. Every key had its own assigned colour: twelve colours per octave and for every higher octave a brighter shade than the previous one. Around 1750 Castel seems to have given a recital with a more ambitious instrument consisting of around a hundred candles, each behind a piece of coloured glass, and each fitted with a small window closed by a shutter that opened when a key was pressed; the first colour organ in history. Later builders of colour organs, such as Alexander Wallace Rimington, around 1880, were more conscious of the qualitative differences between the perception of colours and tones and did not support these direct correspondences anymore. They regarded the playing of mobile colour on a musical keyboard as a pragmatic strategy, benefiting from the achievements of thousands of years of musical culture, as an essentially primitive exercise in exploring uncharted territory.

Similar thoughts can be found in the writings of Wassily Kandinsky, who proposed music as a model for the art of abstract painting that he was in the process of discovering. In the history of abstract animation film there are also many examples of forms taken from musical tradition. In the 1930s and 40s Oskar Fischinger synchronized his films to light classical music in order to make them more accessible to a wider audience. At the same time he used the structure of this music as an aid in composing the development of the imagery in his films. John and James Whitney developed a compositional method for their ‘Abstract Film Exercises’ which was an extension of the serial composition technique of Arnold Schˆnberg.

This headstart of thousands of years seems to vanish very quickly around the fifties, from the moment that new technologies start to find their first applications in music. Composers of electronic music suddenly find themselves in a situation very similar to the situation of abstract film-makers or the makers of light sculptures: they are confronted with an amorphous universe of sound, a universe in which everything is possible but where very few itineraries have already been set out. In this process the abundance of musical forms which existed in conventional music is reduced to a limited number of more or less scientifically defined parameters such as pitch, amplitude and timbre, parameters which are about as inarticulate and useless for practical purposes as the image variables shape, colour and movement. The practice of composing sounds or images is largely determined by the structure of already existing devices that were not designed for artistic use in the first place.

The early history of electronic music, light art and abstract film is characterized by heroic pioneers. They each developed their own highly personal approach to the available tools and devices and distilled their compositional language from their practice. These pioneers more often than not considered their own methods as the only feasible path leading to the future of the medium that they were among the first to explore. In recent years it has become increasingly clear that the design of personal tools, interfaces and software is, in fact, an inseparable part of being a truly creative artist and that this is not confined to just the initial steps in a new medium.

By gaining a certain autonomy with regard to the tools provided by industry, artists can shape, not just the final product, but also their own working processes and the form that their presentation takes. Against this backdrop, it is interesting to raise the question of how to develop instruments that enable us to ‘play’ sound, light or an interesting combination of both. The first builders of colour organs ‘coded’ their vision of composing with light into the structure of their instrument, just as the nature of programming forces designers of interactive software to do now in a more explicit way. Apart from questions about the content of these compositional visions and about the extent to which these are interesting or productive, this also raises questions concerning the interface to the human body; how do the physical actions of the performer correspond to the resulting images and sounds? Is the intelligibility of the interface still important in a context where the model of a performer at the centre of attention on stage seems increasingly inappropriate?


A striking theme linking practically all light artists in history is the idea that light is beneficial to man, even in the case of artificial light. Light still has modern applications in medical science, mostly as a form of radiation that is used for its effects on the skin or otherwise in the form of light therapy for winter depressions. Apart from these therapies there are also more exotic forms of healing, the underlying concepts of which are very similar to those concerning the use of pigments and minerals by healers.

The most intriguing of these concepts were formulated by Edwin Babbitt, who was treating people at the end of the nineteenth century in an almost alchemical fashion using electric light in the colours red, blue and yellow. Another remarkable form of light therapy was the Auroratone films made in the 1940s by Cecil Stokes and which were intended for use in hospitals and American army clinics. These were abstract films with coloured moving textures synchronized to music, which were confirmed to have beneficial effects on psychiatric patients. Similar visuals were used in English hospitals in the 1960s. In this period there were also several large-scale research programmes aimed at humanizing monotonous workspaces by using changing light.

Over the course of time many widely differing explanations for the beneficial effects of light have been given. The first builders of colour organs thought that the combination of musical tones with their ‘true’ colour-equivalents would enable their audience to experience the regularity and order of the cosmos, an idea which is an extension of the use of proportions in classical painting, architecture and music. According to this mindset, the discovery of the colour spectrum uncovered the ‘ideal’ structure of colour so it could be used to establish a true colour harmony based on numbers.

The futurists Ginna and Corra, who were already experimenting in 1910 with abstract colour films and light environments, used artificial light to recreate and stimulate inner visions related to the Theosophical idea of Thought-Forms. The early use in the 1920s and 30s of coloured electric light in a theatrical context was specifically intended to have a direct emotional effect on the audience. In the latter half of the twentieth century, new, non-verbal, and more involving ways to visualize and communicate ideas were thought possible using the new media of film, television and computer animation based on the idea that vision is the sensory organ connected to the largest number of brain cells. The abstract filmmaker Jordan Belson was the most extreme exponent of this mode of thought: in interviews he claimed that his amazingly articulate cosmic films were a direct visualization of his mental processes.

The idea of a direct link between light and consciousness appears in many cultures and throughout the whole of history. There is, however, no culture where visual thinking has the upper hand as much as it has in western culture. Many concepts related to thought were derived from terms originally related to seeing, such as ‘imagination’, ‘vision’, ‘insight’, ‘reflection’, ‘world picture’ and ‘Enlightenment’. After the invention of perspective representations and their incorporation in philosophy by RenÈ Descartes, in western culture ‘seeing’ has become linked to a certain aspect of distance. The lines of vision that can be drawn between observer and object are the marks of separation rather than connection. The archetypal image of the power of ‘seeing’ is the Panopticum, a round building which can be surveyed in its entirety from the centre, a configuration mostly used in the domes of 19th century prisons. Here the lines of vision enable a contact precluded by the bars between prison guard and prisoner. Seeing from a distance reduces the thing seen to an object ready to be explored and eventually exploited.

The emphasis on this distant form of vision, in the end, leads to concepts such as virtual reality, where, by means of ‘falsification’ of the lines of vision, worlds can be created which have nothing in common with the ‘real’ world and where the body of the observer becomes irrelevant. Much of recent philosophy is a critique of this form of seeing and the distance from the object it involves. These philosophers are looking for alternatives to the one-sidedly visual, perspectivist forms of thinking and are trying to develop more balanced concepts about the symbiosis between object and observer. These alternatives are being sought in the body and in the relationship of vision to other senses such as touch, hearing and smell: senses which put the perceiver at the centre of the world which is perceived. In this context the ‘sonification’ of light can be understood as an attempt to attain a visual culture for the whole body, a culture based on presence rather than distance.

Interwoven with the tradition of light art is an implicit utopian vision related to the fact that its physical and mental influence is made possible by artificial light, by electricity. This positive attitude towards technology is most apparent in the environments and light-art of the 1960s and 70s; the same technological development that had already changed so many aspects of daily life, had taken work out of human hands and had put man on the moon, could perhaps also make man more happy in other ways. Many artists were making light sculptures for the home or for public spaces in an attempt to make these places more pleasant and human. It was during this period that Timothy Leary preached that LSD was not necessary anymore because a similar expansion of consciousness could be achieved by means of light effects. Proposals to use light environments in future space stations in order to avoid sensory deprivation during long space trips were also being investigated, something artists were actually commissioned to research by both NASA and the USSR.

Making light art for the daily environment involves an idea of what it means to be an artist which is no longer based on the romantic notion of the artist as an author of genius. Instead of personal statements about the human condition, he makes ornaments for the new technological environment, ornaments which actually embody concepts and carry meaning, but not so much in a message form as in a romantic painting or theatrical performance. The artist becomes a contributor to an intelligent and stimulating inhabitable environment; the end of l’art pour l’art in a fusion of art, design and daily life as envisioned by the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements, and which is found nowadays in digital artists working together in constantly changing constellations and preferring to hide their identities behind opaque pseudonyms.

Light and space

Concepts of light are closely related to concepts of space. Early notions about light were dominated by the opposition of light and dark, often identified with good and evil and spatially translated into the opposition of places or directions such as up and down or East and West. In the third century BC Euclid compiled his optics, the earliest known source which states that light travels in straight lines, an idea which has since been the foundation of more than two thousand years of thinking about light. A crucial difference compared with our current understanding of these lines is that for Euclid it was evident that light was projected from the human eye away to the object perceived, similar to a hand touching an object in the outside world. What Euclid meant by light is for us, perhaps, more easily understood as like a mental searchlight, something we would perhaps prefer to call ‘attention’. For a long time light was a mysterious action at a distance, a radiant kind of wind, something incorporeal, weightless, intangible and hyperfluid, something with the ability to move with incredible ease. The source of this radiant force is the sun, the human mind or ultimately God. In the Middle Ages an extensive light metaphysics was developed in which radiation was used as a metaphor for the way in which all kinds of causes and the power of God, in particular, was propagated in the world. A similar vocabulary can still be found in esoteric theories in which rays and luminous spheres figure in a similar way.

The fact that light travels in straight lines has been the basis of perspective projection in painting since the 14th century. It has also always played a role in the design of buildings, especially buildings related to forms of observation at a distance, such as theatres and defence works. The Roman architect Vitruvius spoke about correcting the height ratios of buildings and monuments to take into account the distortion caused by a low viewpoint, an indication that the visual proportions were deemed to be more important than the tangible truth. Over the course of the Renaissance the visual perception of buildings gained increasing significance due to the increased use of perspective in representations and building plans. The apex of this development was baroque architecture, in which whole cities were planned as a sequence of ingenuous views and theatrical facades.

The linearity of light is also at the heart of the camera obscura, an effect first noticed in rudimentary form in the Arab world around the tenth century, but which was not fully understood until after the Renaissance. In his book Magiae Naturalis the Neapolitan Giovanni Battista Della Porta explains how to use the camera obscura to create magical apparitions of people, animals or even complete armies. The magical aspect of these apparitions mainly consisted of the fact that they appeared in a completely darkened room, disembodied and silent, seemingly independent. The same emphasis on spectacle, magic and the summoning of spirits characterized the first use of projecting lamps in the Middle Ages and later of the magic lantern at the European courts and by travelling storytellers, a phenomenon not unrelated to the emphasis on escapism and identification in the bulk of present-day cinema.

In the seventeenth century Johannes Kepler explained the eye as a camera obscura after using threads to reconstruct the path of light rays through a small opening, realizing that images appear on our retina because the lines of vision from object to eye are projected point by point through the pupil of the eye. In this way the trajectory of light through the human eye was explained and the mystery of human vision moved to the non-optical realm of the ‘spirit’ behind the retina. This discovery provided the foundation for modern optics: an optics which placed increasing emphasis on the path and physical properties of light: light ëas suchí without a human mind to see it, and in which the eye came to be increasingly regarded as a passive sensor.

Einsteins theory of relativity drastically changed the conceptualisation of light and space. In this theory the ray of light is no longer a neutral, instantaneous carrier of information from A to B, because of the fact that light has a finite speed which is also the greatest speed possible in the universe. By connecting not only places but also different moments, light becomes the material from which space and time are woven. Einstein replaced the transparent, absolute and ultimately static universe of Newton with an inherently dynamic, relative and curved universe which is neither transparent nor opaque, but in which perception is bound by horizons dependent on the place and motion of the observer. Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and theorist Siegfried Giedion identified dynamism and interdependence as the keywords in the ënew space conceptioní apparent in both the arts and sciences of that period.

The cubists, orphists and other avant-garde painters did away with traditional perspective and reflected a change towards a more involved concept of seeing. In architecture the use of glass, steel and concrete made previously unthinkable constructions possible; light and transparent, redefining the spatial articulation of buildings. Since that time the ideal building is no longer a symbolic model of the cosmos or a grand facade, but a functional skin which protects while simultaneously enabling an interplay between inside and outside. Moholy-Nagy made several photo-montages which even suggest the inhabitability of new, more conceptual kinds of space, an idea which reappears in later visions by Constant, the Archigram group and in J.D. Bernals idea of constructing dwellings with walls consisting of rotating streams of compressed air. These projects are mental explorations that humanize the new spaces of modern physics; inhabitable worlds actually made of light, perhaps best represented in the stargate corridor scene in 2001, a Space Odyssey. These ideas are increasingly becoming topical with the current development of new light sources and flexible monitor screens; inventions with the potential to profoundly re-shape our environment.

The setting for the evening programme of Sonic Light 2003 will be an attempt to create a space for music and light to coexist and interplay in a way which has been envisioned in some form by many artists before us. At the beginning of the twentieth century the composer Scriabin wanted his ultimate composition Mysterium to be performed in a special space constructed of coloured light. The futurists Ginna and Corra dressed in white in a white space and used coloured ambient light during the screenings of their abstract films. Piet Mondrian had the vision of a new art form bridging the gap between time-based art (music) and spatial arts (visual art), in which light and electronic music (which did not even exist at the time) would be brought together in a new type of concert hall, called the Promenoir, in which the audience could stroll around freely among alternating music and light projections.

In the 1960s immersive environments were constructed by the Vortex team (Belson, Whitney and Jacobs), Stan Vander-beek, the Zero group, the Usco collective and many others. The large auditorium of the Paradiso in Amsterdam is particularly suitable for a new experiment along these lines using new forms of light and projections on all the surfaces of a light box constructed in the space and by composing new dodecaphonic music for a system of twelve loudspeakers. An event which will, hopefully, provide an opportunity to re-evaluate ideas which have known a long tradition and which are vital once more, especially if we take the time to look at them and reassess them from our present perspective.

Copyright Joost Rekveld, Amsterdam, 2002.