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Sydney Morning Herald DECEMBER 26, 2014 - by Brian Yatman
'COLOUR MUSIC' PIONEER ALEXANDER BURNETT HECTOR BEAT BRIAN ENO BY A HUNDRED YEARS
When musician Brian Eno lit up the sails of the Sydney Opera House for the inaugural Vivid festival in 2009, spectators were entranced by the shifting sounds and colours of his installation. Little did they know that a Sydney man had beaten Eno to the idea by a hundred years.
Alexander B. Hector was a chemist by trade, but his passion was 'colour music'. In an essay he wrote for the Herald in 1912, he defined this "as the language of the emotions expressed by sound and colour, making the dual appeal to the ear and the eye". The mechanical means of producing these effects he dubbed the 'colour organ'.
The apparatus he patented consisted of a piano (or organ, or both) wired up to a series of coloured electric lights hidden behind a "diaphanous veil". As the musician played various chords and scales, corresponding colours would flash. A piece in C might be predominantly yellow in effect, but with hints of other shades. "Mauve flashed to magenta, pearl and sapphire flashed and were gone, creating visions of colour thought, the music of the mind and eye," wrote one observer.
Hector had an almost mystical devotion to his creation, arguing that it would not only "revolutionise modern stage lighting", but could be used for treating shell-shocked soldiers and the "mentally disordered". He imagined "...an organ playing national airs within a building [and] electrically connected with the city illuminations outside, as well as with some special decorative device visible to the audience... The crowd outside the hall, or equally an immense gathering at the Sydney Cricket Ground, would be fascinated by decorative figures, stars, spirals..."
He had global aspirations for his vision. Hector saw a network of colour organs in London, Sydney, Montreal and Cape Town, all connected by wireless, and being played simultaneously by a "great executant musician". "The various centres would burst into music of sound and of colour, thus making it possible to realise a united Empire at a given moment," he wrote.
As it was, the venues for Hector's demonstrations were more intimate. Apart from a performance at the Sydney Town Hall, and a stint at Hordern's Pitt Street department store, Sydneysiders typically experienced colour music in the setting of Hector's Greenwich home. In 1955, a reporter visited the ninety-year-old Hector and found him "pacing round the room like a young man", his enthusiasm for his creation undiminished.