The Spectrum of Artistic Possibility

»Gradients (i.e., a spectrum) of light have long been rendered accessible through comparison of musical pitch with color; such ideas survive today in various understandings of sound color, synesthesia, and how color and sound might physically or metaphorically correlate through frequency. One hundred and thirty years ago, an editorial appeal was made by the respected electrical engineering journal The Electrical World (1883), citing Sir Isaac Newton’s comparison of “the seven colors of the prismatic spectrum to the average tones of the diatonic scale” as one “correlation of forces” that could extend to an exploration between “light and electricity.” The telegraph and telephone had primed the possibility for “telephotoscopy—the vision of objects at a distance,” and perhaps the transmission of other senses, smell and touch, the editorial speculated, since electricity and nerves share a common energetic sensibility.«

(Kahn, Douglas 2013. Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts, Oakland: University of California Press, p. 11)

Electromagnetic Spectrum (1932)

»Unlike the eye, the ear is not a dedicated electromagnetic apparatus. Although the inner ear eventually excites electrochemical impulses in nerves to the brain, its initial sensitivity is to the vibratory movements of acoustical energy. As elephants and dogs let us know, the human ear only gets excited by a certain range of the sound spectrum; flanked on either side are infrasonic and ultrasonic events. With enough energy, sounds beyond the normal human audible range can be felt or their effects heard—earthquakes come to mind—but most all simply escape notice.« (ibid. p. 13)

»Electromagnetism in the arts began to make its presence audible in the 1920s and 1930s with two classes of modern devices, the wireless (radio) and electronic music instruments, but attunements toward natural environments beyond the social traffic in communication or the local instrumentalism of the device were rare. Not until the 1960s, after the air had been primed with decades of radio broadcasting, with threatening atmospheres of gamma, broadcast television, global telemetry of satellites, and with the mobility of transistor radios, did electromagnetism begin to be conceived as nature, as artistic raw material in an environment of signals.« (ibid. p. 122)

»Alvin Lucier began to explore electromagnetism as artistic raw material, first as brainwaves and immediately thereafter as natural radio. He was not alone in feeling that electromagnetism per se was viable material for the arts. Experimental music, given its proximity to electronics and the palpable energetic transfer between sound and signal, was conducive to material being immaterial. This idea could also be found in the visual art of James Turrell, where light was understood electromagnetically, and in the conceptual art of Robert Barry, who observed that visual art occupied but a tiny patch (visible light) of the electromagnetic spectrum and that the rest of the spectrum was open to artistic possibility.« (ibid. p. 5)

2 Replies to “The Spectrum of Artistic Possibility”

    • Funny this should come up just now. I am in the middle of writing a grant proposal that uses the term ‘sonic colour,’ and got a lot of positive feedback on that idea. There are plenty metaphorical examples as well; Kandinskij’s Der Gelbe Klang, colour organs, and the blue note of jazz. It’s something I’ll have to come back to for sure.

      Do leave a comment about what you’re working on!

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