Pushing the Performance Envelope

Craft & Design Music Technology


Even today, Mary Hallock-Greenewalt (1871–1950) would be unusual, but in the early years of the 20th century, she was exceptional. Between 1919 and 1927 she filed 11 patents, while performing as a piano soloist with both the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh orchestras, recording with Columbia Records, and producing hand-colored “films” along with a machine that timed them to play in sync with music.

Hallock-Greenewalt’s various patents described the components for a new, technological art form she called Nourathar, derived from the Arabic for “essence of light.” Her instrument for performing this light music, the Sarabet, employed mercury switches, motor-controlled lights, and rheostat switches, aka dimmers. Her patents were so revolutionary that they were almost immediately stolen for use in theatrical lighting manufactured by General Electric. She sued GE for patent infringement, ultimately winning on appeal — the first judge didn’t believe that as a woman, she had invented so complex an electrical device as the rheostat.

Hallock-Greenewalt’s Sarabet, named in honor of her mother Sarah Beth, underwent continuous refinement and tinkering. She often changed the placement and number of lamps to achieve a full coverage of the performance space’s geometry and architecture. The Sarabet controlled a network of 1,500-watt lights that could be dimmed individually and turned red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or violet by filters on color wheels. More complex hues were mixed on the performance screen.

In place of a keyboard, the Sarabet had a console with graduated sliders and other controls, more like a modern mixing board. Lights could be adjusted directly via the sliders, through use of a pedal, and with toggle switches that worked like individual keys. Three banks of light controls corresponded to the physical lamp placement throughout the performance space: front, center, and rear. Since her performances often took place in movie theaters and used the movie screen, this division could also correspond to top, middle, and bottom.

Significantly, Hallock-Greenewalt recognized that there is no inherent relationship between color and music, that color does not have an octave and projected light has no analog to musical harmony. This contrasts with contemporaries such as A. Wallace Rimington who developed more restricted forms of visual music. But the Sarabet did prevent multiple colors from being shown at the same intensity at the same time; each position in her scale — starlight, moonlight, twilight, auroral, diurnal, and superbright — allowed for only one lamp set at that level.

Nourathar performance was environmental, rather than image or symbol-based. While it was possible to pair these lamps with gobo templates to give shape to the light, Hallock-Greenewalt instead focused on fields of color, more like the abstract expressionists who were to follow, decades later.

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Michael Betancourt

Michael Betancourt is an artist, curator, editor, and theorist whose essays have appeared in Leonardo, Semiotica, CTheory, and other academic journals.

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