Bauhaus students Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack constructed hand-manipulated color organs–played by up to four people at once–to project layered, full-color moving geometric forms onto a transparent screen. These multiplayer color devices used a series of movable stencils and six to eight projectors with variable light intensity to create live performances that represent some of the first intermedia experiments. The pieces were scored like music, rehearsed in the mode of theater (and were called “plays”), and experienced as a kind of abstract cinema.
Hirschfeld-Mack’s initial idea for the device was the result of a happy accident. He was rehearsing a performance for a Bauhaus shadow play in the summer of 1922: “When one of the acetylene bulbs they were using needed replacement, Hirschfeld-Mack accidentally discovered that shadows on a transparent paper screen were doubled. By using acetylene bulbs of different color, ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ shadows appeared simultaneously.” Hirschfeld-Mack then extended this principle to his Color Light Plays later that year, performing Sonatine II (rot) with Hartwig and Schwerdtfeger at the Bauhaus Festival in 1923. Hirschfeld-Mack wrote a musical accompaniment for organ in D minor, and wrote in the piece’s score that his aim was “to intensify rhythm and musical relationships in the non-time-based picture . . . into a real, continuous movement.”
In Europe the perceived gap between the aims of abstract cinema and the color organ was a negligible. That light performances were considered kin to avant-garde cinema is borne out by the inclusion of Hirschfeld-Mack’s live light show Color Sonata in Three Movements at the 1925 Absolute Film show in Berlin. Hirschfeld-Mack’s piece was part of a program that screened such pioneering avant-garde works as Rene Clair’s Entr’acte, Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet mecanique, Eggeling’s Symphonie diagonale, Ruttmann’s Opus II-IV, and Richter’s Film Is Rhythm.