If you’re familiar with the clavilux, you might be reading this and wondering what the hell it has to do with Chicago. After all, its creator Thomas Wilfred was a Danish artist, and the instrument was first publicly played in New York City in 1922. This so-called Color Organ, however, may have had its largest audience in (of all buildings) the Dairy Building at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. According to the Cornell Daily Sun, Wilfred had already created and performed a piece entitled “Chicago Nocturne” by 1926. It was said to have simulated the experience of looking up at a bridge in the night.
The clavilux is a keyboard (or switchboard, apparently) instrument intended to be silent. Instead of sound, it plays light. Wilfred subscribed to a now-defunct school of thought called theosophy, which held that the pinnacle of art involved creating “thought forms:” physical manifestations of thoughts, memories, emotions, and other things that often exist solely in the mind of one person. Wilfred sought to play things in his concerts and recitals that would make public things that, previously, could only ever be private; he wanted to make visible to anyone who cared to look the personal and invisible. Chicago’s bridges appear to have been an inspiration to him.
There are few of these instruments left today, and those that remain seem to be in private hands, undergoing restoration by passionate collectors. To get an idea of what light music looks like, you can watch some youtube videos, but so far I can’t find a performance of “Chicago Nocturne” on the internet. Also, Wilfred objected to these works being filmed, insisting that they must be experienced firsthand, so you must hope one of the restorers eventually decides to tour with a clavilux and bring it to a theater near you.