Lumia and The Art of Visualizing Music

 Lumia and the Art of Visualizing Music  

Silence of the Lumia – To Be or Not To Be

WILFRED LUMIA :2.png                                                      Wilfred (Opus 161)

What does blue sound like? This is not trick question, but a contemplative introduction to an aspect of Lumia that exists in the realm of synesthesia, a psychological phenomena where two independent senses overlap to create unique converging sensory effects such as tasting color, hearing taste, smelling light or listening to music as a multi-colored experience. It is the last phenomena that is of interest as many Lumia artists have created animated Lumia compositions by incorporating music and ambient sound compositions presenting an evocative art form known as visual music. Within rock & roll performances visual music is already an item with its mostly frenetic-paced strobing lightshows. This discussion is more about the Lumia / music format defined by its stately, slow movements which is as much of an influence as is the music that cloaks the Lumia.

Lumia and Visualizing Music 

 Lumia is a form of light art that looks like textured smoke. It was invented in the 1920s by Danish artist Thomas Wilfred who developed the Clavilux, a light projector that presented Lumia performances in public recitals throughout the United States and Europe. Igor Stravinsky’s Fire Bird for the New York Philharmonic (in 1919) was Wilfred’s most widely known performance of this type. Wilfred’s continued Lumia compositions were also created for use in architecture and theater as scenic and visual accompaniment to storytelling.


Lumia projections are very special if presented in a very slow undulating movement as the light forms unfold, shape shifting from one sensuous image to another. Seeing a Lumia is like seeing a Rorschach Test, famous for its ink blot splats that are interpreted by whatever you perceive the picture as. With Lumia, its “splats” are reflected light and once seen, its interpretations become a personal narrative of the viewers imagination.

Often to extend the visual presence of Lumia a musical track accompanies a Lumia animation which is no different that adding a musical score to a film. When music is played with a Lumia composition, it adds a narrative, emotional and dynamic presence to the abstract moving light as the mind attempts to synchronize the sound and visuals being presented.

     1TRANSCENDANCE.png                                                        photo by Louis M. Brill

Transcending Three-Dimensional Drama 

Within the context of this Lumia – Musical convergence as watched by its audience there is a transition where it appears the music is driving the Lumia imagery. Here the audience’s experience becomes transcendent of both the music and the visuals as they are blended into a singular experiential moment. It is as Wilfred noted, “the Lumia presentation becomes a three-dimensional drama unfolding in infinite space.” The drama of course is internalized by the viewer’s imagination as they hear the music, giving shape and purpose to what they see in their mind’s eye as a final contemplative narration. More interesting is when the music controls the color creating a more reactive Lumia presentation as a true example of visualizing music.


1877 – Bainbridge Bishop creates his first color organ  with lighting instruments attached to a pipe organ. In performance, the organ would project light onto a screen in accompaniment to the music.

The inclusion of music with color as an aesthetic collaboration has always been a consideration where color theorist, artists and philosophers have forever argued over this converging relationship. Color and music have always been thought of as a singular experience, from Aristotle who suggested a connection between sound and color to Newton’s considerations when he postulated that, “C being the lowest note in the octave should correspond with the lowest color in the spectrum. Modern times has given us computer programming where software and custom coding can control lighting effects accompanying a musical concert. Finally there is ‘gut instinct’ of the personal taste of the light show artist’s intuitive interpretations of the music with whatever color schemes feel ‘right’ to accompany the music.

Silence of the Lumia   

It should also be noted that while I am a firm believer in Lumia with a musical accompaniment, Wilfred’s view of that relationship was opposing as he stated, “Silence is one of Lumia’s most valuable characteristics and I am convinced that its most important compositions will always be played in silence.” It is here that I disagree with Wilfred’s preference in silent Lumia and lean towards its presentation as more of an audio-visual experience. In building a library of Lumia compositions there is definitely room for the occasional silent Lumia presentation, but as a child of the 1960s growing up with rock & roll, psycedelia and new age music, the combination of both Lumia and music makes for an entertainment that is more compelling and impactful than either experience (to me) played separately.

Defining a Lumia show is sometimes challenging in trying to box its presentation into a singular style or format. As a light form in motion, it tends to defy any single label. Some see it as a form of animated modernistic painting, others see it as a kinetic art sculpture and when sound-tracked, a form of visual music.

As Lumia shows multiply and mature as an art from, so are its merits in developing a specific grammatical lighting language. Here the imagery is punctuated by its shifting form and varied illumination levels, constantly morphing its shape as its colors fade and brighten from the music’s softness and crescendo. This is not a case of strobing disco lights, but an aesthetic opportunity of merging light and music in a synchronized form where it becomes an entertainment in its own right.

Why is this important? Public lightshows are returning to a new generation of audiences as a popular entertainment with a vast pallet of presentation forms including mixed media, projection mapping, lasers, and wet cells or liquid lights, all formulating variations of visual music, each with its own preferred music and sense of presence. Within this visual lightshow spectrum is Lumia – sometimes known as the meditative light of mystery. Showcasing its presence as a visual medium is much about its presentation format and finding its “voice” that does justice to its evocative nature. As Lumia becomes more visually prominent as an art form, silent or sound driven, its free flowing forms become a ballet of motion that becomes “music to the eyes.”


without sound:                                                                                                                                       (Wilfred’s Opus 140 – 1948)

with sound:


comments on this essay are welcome:

Louis M. Brill is a light artist and has been “dabbling” with Lumia as an art medium for the last several decades.

His Lumia work may be viewed as follows:

To review his blog:



Light is a very important part of our life – it’s the first thing we see when we wake up – it’s the last thing we see before we close our eyes to sleep. It illuminates our rooms and keeps the darkness at bay. It keeps us healthy as a vitamin D supplement. It’s part of our food security as a major component of photosynthesis that helps plants develop and grow. It’s part of our history, our culture and our entertainment.

PLANETARIUM.pngplanetarium show : the birth of a star through Lumia

As an interpretive form of decorative lighting Lumia has its own entertainment design niche within the lighting world. Lumia’s emergence began when it’s discoverer, Thomas Wilfred displayed Lumia recitals during the 1920s in town halls and in auditoriums – just about anywhere throughout the United States and Europe where he was able to present a Lumia performance.

Lumia’s abstract visualizations have been used in planetariums shows to mimic certain natural phenomena such as the aurora borealis. In other instances Lumia’s unique look has been directed by Hollywood studios usually as a visual effect in certain science fiction films where some ethereal force becomes a plot point that Lumia can visually represent.

Beyond Hollywood, the museum and art gallery world beckon, where Lumia art shows have been presented at New York’s MOMA, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam, The Worchester Art Museum in Massachusetts and Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.

GEORGE STADNIK.png                                                                      George Stadnik

Today we have new Lumia artists, new digital processes and new audiences with a world of differences in what they define and appreciate as Lumia art. For Lumia artists it’s an uphill fight of getting contemporary galleries to acknowledge Lumia as a recognized art medium to be shown and as an artwork that gallery visitors would want to own as a collectible.

Lumia has always been about the spectacle of sculptured light, it awed viewers when it was first discovered in the 1920s and today when presented in public still has the same fascination with audiences as it did ninety years ago.



Reflected Light As A Visual Poem

A Lumia is an image of reflected light that resembles textured smoke and creates random, ethereal looking images, sometimes abstract and sometimes anthropomorphic with a blatant resemblance to its real world counterpart. A good caption or title can fire the imagination of the Lumia viewer connecting the viewer to the image.

Souls Ascending HeavenSOULS.png                                                 photo by Louis M. Brill

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and a good Lumia picture just might take that many words to describe. However there is yet another path to explain what you see in Lumia gazing. In creating my Lumia photography it is a convergence of photographing the image, and inserting a caption to give the viewer a frame of reference as to what the image represents. The caption is tricky as it is a summary to hint at the Lumia picture’s visual connatation. Such as it is, I see my Lumia images as a stylized Haiku expressed as visual poetry.

Haiku, is a form of Japanese poetry using sensory language to present a feeling or describe a place or a thing. In doing so, the haiku uses the fewest amount of words to capture a moment and create a picture in the reader’s mind.

I see Lumia as a form of a visual Haiku where the opposite is true and we have the picture and want the fewest words to describe it. Once titled and presented, the Lumia’s conatation after a bit of contemplation comes into focus. In other instances, people have their own interpretation, and title be damned.

Human / Horse ConvergenceFACES.jpg                                                                            photo by Louis M. Brill

Naming a Lumia image is a precarious balance between what you see and what you want it to be.

and for the record:

my Lumia Haiku:


The light magnificent fires the imagination with awe.

Watch it!


Although much of my work currently is about Lumia, I’ve always had a fascination with light as an artistic medium. Lumia is the result of light being reflected off of a shinning surface or refracted through glass. The end result is the same: a casting of light transformed by its passage against a reflective materials.

Why am I drawn to Lumia? Its resultant images are very sharp and evocative and easily impress the mind (mine at least) with their grand sweep of illuminated vistas. The Lumia scenes constantly change as any new movement against its reflective surface will conjure up a new image.

LUMIA SIDEWALK_DG copy.jpg                                                                                                                              photo by Dean Gustafson

For all my efforts in creating Lumia art sculptures, so does it happen naturally with a competitor to whom I defer to: Mother Nature. Often during a walk I find many natural examples of Lumia all generated by the sun. In a world filled with glass and shiny metal, a lot of sunny days go by where some form of Lumia reflection catches my eye. In passing I refer to them as ‘Sidewalk Lumia’ and find them just as fascinating as my specially prepared projected images.

1WATER LUMIA-:2 copy.jpg                                                                                                                                                               photo by Louis M. Brill

Light is a big part of Mother Nature’s repertoire, there are rainbows, dawn and dusk colored skies, sundogs, the aurora borealis and the Brocken Spectre (gotcha:, and now Lumia, be it reflected off of glass, water or ice, it’s another way of seeing the splendor of Lumia light in a natural setting. The best part: come a sunny day, you never know when a Lumia might appear, and when it does: instant art




A Wilfred Lumia Composition At Play

And yet, it moves….Lumia at LACMA.

Recently I had the opportunity to view first hand an original Thomas Wilfred Clavious display, Lucatta, Opus 162, (1967) installed at the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA). Fittingly it held a special interest for those Lumia connoisseurs as it was the last Lumia display that Wilfred had created, ironically the year before he died. Lucatta, Opus 162, certainly gave weight to Wilfred’s description of his Lumia works as animated paintings.


A colored pattern of light had filled its rectangular screen and for all the world appeared at first glance as a static image sitting upon its display screen. With its random colored patterns it portrayed some abstract image where most museum viewers might not even give it a second glance. As one continued to look at the image, it became apparent that it was NOT the image you had just seen, but indeed the pattern had slowly shifted in color and shape, and by God, was moving.

Slowly the image shifted into a pattern of vertical flaring spires, its landscape taking on a reddish hue that filled its entire area. It was like seeing a fingerprint of a solar flare. With its stately shape shifting movements, Lucatta Opus 162 was definitely a sight to see, and worth more than a second glance. Truly it was an animated painting, carving out a unique one-of-a-kind medium in the realm of another dimension. In motion everything was in play its color and its shapes both synchronistically connected as the shapes took on their evocative forms so did the colors follow those forms creating a chromatic music to the light.


LACMA describes Lucatta Opus 162 as having three distinct movements; Vertical, Horizontal and Multidimensional “all endlessly interwoven to produce a composition of infinite duration.” Wilfred’s description of his work as a composition was apt as it moved around in stately grace. Wilfred with his visions of light had been building Lumia projectors since the 1920s. In 1922, Kenneth MacGowan reviewed Wilfred’s first public light art concert for The World newspaper stating, “This is an art for itself, an art of pure color; it holds its audience in the rarest moments of silence that I have known in a playhouse.


As one watches its painted movements, it’s as if the world has stood still. Now 92 years later, as new audiences watch its streaming shapes pass by there is the same reverent silence, while the painting moves, time has stood still.



The pursuit of Lumia as an art form is in the hands of a few enlightened artists eager to share its evocative imagery for the curious admirers who seek it out. Over the years there have been several Thomas Wilfred fans who have built interpretive versions of Wilfred’s various Lumia displays. Popping up at different times and locations, each new Lumia display has rekindled an interest in light as an illuminated art sculpture medium. These Lumia displays have appeared as both new reconstructed mechanical analog set-ups and as software digital reconstructions.

In varying display formats the challenge of presenting Lumia visuals to audiences has appeared for public appreciation:


The Exploratorium (San Francisco)

In permanent residence a sun powered Lumia reflector created by Bob Miller known as the Sun Painting (1969) which creates gigantic Lumia images whose movement is guided by the sun’s passage through the sky.


Burning Man (Black Rock Desert)

At Burning Man (2007) in the middle of the playa (desert) where the event is held, a monolith (about the size of a large refrigerator) appeared complete with a carpet for viewers to sit in comfort as they watched the delicate Lumia patterns weaving in between each other.

While no apes were seen lurking about the monolith, several Burners were noted to having spent untold hours sitting under the evening sky in contemplation of the various Lumia vistas that gracefully swirled across the monolith’s display screen.


Orion Lumia (a Steampunk Collectable)

While Lumia borderlines the metaphysics of what is seen and imagined, so did Will Rockwell, a steam punk art entrepreneur build Orion, a hemispheric Lumia display that would easily sit as a conversation starter in any parlor or living room.


 original Wilfred Lumia display : Lucatta, Opus 162

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

At LACMA, an original Thomas Wilfred (discoverer of Lumia) Lumia display was installed in an alcove within one of the museum’s buildings. Complete with its own private viewing space, the Wilfred Lumia can be seen as it streams its illuminated presence across its display screen.


George Stadnik

Lumia artist who produces animated Lumia art.


NM - LUMIA.jpg

Gregg Stephens

Lumia artist who fabricated Lumia Light Fall.





Light art of which Lumia is a part of has a heritage that has been explored for at least 300 years or more. That exploration has taken many forms from considering the relationship between color and music to the creation of theatrical projections from scenic wonders to transcendent phantasmagoria. This exploration has ranged and raged from philosophical discussion (even as far back as Aristotle, who suggested a correspondence between sound and color, based upon varied mathematical relationships) to experiments with whatever technologies of the era would allow. Mind you – that these ideas were being thought about way before Laserium existed. Hell, they were even in play before electricity had been discovered.

Intuitively on a philosophical level there has always been a consideration of some kind of a “linkage” between color and sound, an idea first described as ‘Visual Music’ – with the synthesis of both becoming a greater medium that either alone, at least according to its proponents. Consideration yes – but agreement not always.


Mary Hallock-Greenwalt, a musician and an inventor of her own color organ, noted in the early 1900s that…”there is no octave to color and that color has no harmonics.

1SCRIABIN.pngYet on the other hand, another noted musician / light artist, Alexander Scriabin claimed there was a symmetrical relationship between color and sound which he described by assigning equivalent notes to certain colors within his musical scores. With every light artist working on their grand device, whatever relationship there was between color and sound was strictly an opinion defined by whatever projected device they could build.


Thomas Wilfred who first presented light art (known as Lumia or the art of mobile color) in the 1920s as a form of modern public entertainment was of two minds about Visual Music. On one hand he equated a Lumia presentation as an “opus,” and much of his references to Lumia were described with musical terminology as noted by Donna Stein (Thomas Wilfred: Lumia). Wilfred also believed that light was separate from music and that music was an accompaniment to light projection, rather than an interpretation of that music.

There have always been many theories about harmonic scales where certain musical notes might parallel certain colors. While philosophers might debate the finer points of a C flat being equivalent to green, it was the light artists who would defy all arguments and build unique color organ instruments to combine the two forms and let their devices speak in their own language of Visual Music, and have the audiences decide for themselves.


Victorian color organ converges music and color  into a singular viewing experience

Thus interpretations of music and color have converged in the creation of color organs as a projected illumination musical instrument to bridge both the worlds of light and sound simultaneously. Over time a few dedicated artists, musicians and lighting designers all experimented with the mechanics of illuminated art projection. The actual device to express Visual Music was known as a ‘color organ’ of which the first notable constructions of such a device emerged somewhere in the mid-18th century.

                         VISUAL MUSIC TIME LINE             

          who discovered what when

18th century

  • Although earlier experimentations have been documented, in 1725, French Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel proposed the idea of Clavecin pour les yeux which had 60 small colored glass panes, each with a curtain that opened when a key was struck. In about 1742, Castel proposed the clavecin oculaire (a light organ) as an instrument to produce both sound and the ‘proper’ light colors.


19th century

  • In 1877, US artist, inventor Bainbridge Bishop obtained a patent for his first Color Organ. The instruments were lighted attachments designed for pipe organs that could project colored lights onto a screen in synchronization with musical performance.
  • In 1893 British painter Alexander Wallace Rimington invented the Clavier à lumières.


20th century

  • In a 1916 art manifesto, the Italian Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra described their experiments with “color organ” projection in 1909.


  • In 1918, American concert pianist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt created an instrument she called the Sarabet. Also an inventor, she patented nine inventions related to her instrument, including the rheostat.
  • In 1921, Arthur C. Vinageras proposed the Chromopiano, an instrument resembling and played like a grand piano, but designed to project “chords” composed from colored lights.


  • In the 1920s, Danish-born Thomas Wilfred discovered an artistic light form known as Lumia, whose make up is defined by its components of ‘form, color and motion in a dark space.’ Wilfred goes on to equate Lumia as a space/time art. To visually demonstrate Lumia imagery, Wilfred created the Clavilux, a color organ, which was designed to project colored imagery, not just fields of colored light.



  • In 1925, Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo wrote a text called Color-Light-Music; Laszlo toured Europe with a color organ.


  • Lightshows organically emerged by the mid-60s combining every visual projection medium that worked to converge as an illuminated visual collage that preformed mostly as a backdrop to rock & roll or classical music. A typical light show set up could employ any or all of the following devices film projectors, slide projectors, ‘wet cell’ projectors lasers (when available) and of course Lumia projectors.


  • Laserium with the use of lasers became the first continuously running commercial laser light show. The first Laserium show opened to the public on November 19, 1973, and was founded by Ivan Dryer and Dr. Elsa Garmire, a California Institute of Technology physicist both interested in laser light art. The show originally preformed in planetariums around the world, combined music (both Rock and Roll and Classical) and light into a single medium and popularized the ideas of visual music as a public entertainment.


21st century

How much of a big deal this is depends on what era you look at. At one time this was philosophical fodder to be endlessly debated. Nowadays, it’s a matter of accessibility, in the 1990s it was as simple as purchasing a ticket to Laserium. Today it’s a phone ap or a screen saver, most likely in some form of Electric Sheep.


Electric Sheep is a computing process for animating and evolving ‘fractal flames’, which are in turn are displayed as a screen saver. In effect, it becomes a mini lightshow slowly weaving its morphing forms across a computer screen as a visual interlude.

The debates about color and sound have now become personalized and more related to one’s taste in synesthetic media and a person’s like or dislike for musical or artistic light shows. As for Lumia, the light that was once lost is slowly being “discovered” again, and while it may not be the 8th Fine Art as Wilfred declared, it is certainly a fine art to be appreciated as it is.