Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Clavilux by Robert A. Wait

The Johnny Pez blog returns to the works of Robert A. Wait, one of the most obscure science fiction writers of the Gernsback Era. Wait was an instructor in chemistry at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois who published just four stories between 1929 and 1932. All of Wait's stories appeared in Amazing Stories, and none have ever been reprinted. Last month, we posted Wait's first story, "The Invisible Finite", and now we present his second story, "Clavilux", from the June 1929 issue of Amazing. Since "Clavilux" is only 2000 words long, this blog post will include the entire story. And now, without further ado:


Clavilux
by Robert A. Wait


The audience stirred in an uneasy manner. The curtains should rise in one minute. The absence of music seemed to bother a few. Others raised their heads expectantly from the bright, colored programs in their hands. The buzz of an excited audience suddenly stilled as the rose velvet curtains before them parted, revealing a dapper gentleman in evening clothes smiling down upon them.

"Ladies and gentlemen," began the blond young Frenchman, "I am Monsieur Du Bois. That is only by way of introduction, for it has no part in this evening's entertainment. Behind me you observe my instrument of pleasure."

He gestured toward the main stage. Upon it stood a huge box-like arrangement much like the console of a theatre organ with a regular organ bench and keyboard and pedals, very similar to the ones found in most pipe organs. It was gorgeously done in gilt and spangles, and the spot lights from above shifted over the machine, as the Monsieur continued his interesting monologue.

"At the back of the stage you will observe a screen so situated tht any light rays from my color organ will be reflected to you directly. In physics we would say the angle of incidence is such that you are in line with the angle of reflection."

So saying, he reached back to the console of his organ and touched a key. Instantly the theatre was brilliantly flooded with a cool green glow. The screen seemed a bottomless sea of emerald.

"No doubt many of you wonder how the whole audience may be thrown into the angle of reflection. I have back there an unusual screen. It is what is known as parabolic in shape, which means it is concave in a very definite mathematical curve. The source of light from my machine throws a diverging beam of light at this peculiar curve and, because of its shape, the screen reflects all of the impinging rays in nearly parallel lines; thus each one of you receives a few rays reflected directly from the light source with no confusing cross interference of one ray with the others."

Seating himself, the young man signalled the spot lights out. Only a dim bulb lighted his keyboard. The house was as still as a summer calm while greens flowed into purples, flashed into scarlets, and faded to soft yellows and blues.

"You note I do not have any music. I find that music is detrimental to the moods I desire to carry my audience through. Anyway, light and color correspond very closely to noise and musical notes. Color is primarily a function of frequency, not of wave lengths, just as high musical notes are produced by frequencies as high as 15,000 vibrations or more per second. Low notes may go as low as twenty vibrations per second and still be heard by the ear."

"Reds are light waves of extremely slow vibrations while violets approach the extremely rapid vibrationss such as those of ultra-violet light which you all know to be present, yet invisible to the eye. Corresponding to these ultra-high frequencies we have the infra-reds or colors of such low frequency that our eyes will not detect them. Our senses feel their warmth, however, just as they feel the warmth of red rays if either kind is focused by means of a burning glass."

He turned to his organ with the announcement that his first number would be an overture in color, built up much as an overture is written for music. Before him was a peculiar type of score, similar to, but different from, musical notes.

With a crash of color, if such can be conceived, the overture began and for ten minutes the audience watched breathlessly while colors flooded the screen; reds danced through blues; circles of green sailed through and behind pink and white clouds; black thunder clouds melted to golden mists; blue sky showed through with the flashes of purple and scarlet of birds. Abruptly the theme changed. A cool dark green with moving lines of brown and patches of greys and blues took on the semblance of a journey through the woods where birds flickered among the trees. A streak of rusty red across one corner of the picture showed where sly br'er fox had slipped through -- a flare of yellow as the traveler again came into the bright sunlight of the open field. Soon the multi-colored roofs of a village floated by and hazy clouds of dust rose from a herd of sheep scampering down the lane.

* * *

As the piece ended, the audience sighed in ecstasy. Never had it had that particular side of its nature stirred. As Du Bois rose, applause broke forth, and the spot lights searched out the smiling artist.

"You enjoy it, yes?" He fell into the broken English of his earlier days in the States. "May I explain, friends? This is my color-organ, my clavilux. I revel in its playing just as a pianist revels in his musical masterpieces. In music the artist must skillfully combine pitch with pitch at a certain tempo to produce a harmonious series of sounds. This constitutes a work of art if properly done. I combine color -- red, blue, and so on -- with forms -- clouds, circles, squares, and others; this combination I move in a graceful way at certain speeds. Thus the clavilux combines color, form, and motion to delight its player and audience. Even more skill is necessary to play a clavilux or color-organ than is required for a piano. By these consoles of keys I can secure 100,000 combinations of color and form which I cana move at will -- up, down, around, across. You have all heard sad and doleful music, I am sure. Now I ask you to listen with your eyes to this tragic piece of color-shape."

Seating himself, the artist again secured darkness and began to weave magic colors and shapes before his spell-bound audience. Predominating were blues and reds, the more somber reds, and finally the very deepest reds or those of extremely slow vibration. Faster the colors flowed, melted into one another, flashed suddenly out -- scarlet, then azure, cobalt, cerise, and somber dull grey. Frenzied they boiled and splashed about the screen, shapes jumbling about chasing each other, dissolving into nothing, racing toward the front of the field, speeding off into that blue grey void beyond, slipping into that fierce fiery border of reds. The trend was more terrifying than sad.

The audience was on edge. Hard-headed men breathed quickly and clutched their hats with destructive force. Faster the colors flared and streamed. The screen was nearly devoid of definite visible color now, yet a devilish warm glow played about the flashing forms of pale yellow and green. Perspirations streamed from the brows of half the audience; children cried, men and women shifted uneasily, murmuring and whispering. Still the musician played madly at his keyboard. A scream of terror split the air as the upper console of the clavilux splintered. The screen flared a terrific series of reds and burst into genuine fire.

It all happened in less than ten seconds, and Monsieur Du Bois stood aghast at the turmoil. He shouted for quiet, wildly gesticulating, and falling into French in his excitement. The audience hesitated, whimpered, and slowly sank back into its seats, muttering and gazing at the ashes of the ruined screen. Stage hands had soon extinguished the fire.

"Mesdames, monsieurs, I beg of you to calm yourselves. No harm can befall you. I am to blame for your fright. Two things are to blame. First, I have played for you one of the new modernistic compositions entitled 'Collapse of the Cosmos.' It has never been played before and is evidently too violent for a beginning audience. The emotion I stirred in you was a blind fear of catastrophe. Many musical compositions produce anger, some fear, others laughter -- so it is with the clavilux. Compositions may be written for producing any desired mood. Very little is yet known about the effect of concerts in color on audiences, so you will please forgive if I have frightened you. We are none of us educated in the art of enjoyment of combinations of color, form, and motion. May I relieve you with a light composition full of sunshine and laughter? A new screen has been placed by the stage crew. Please?"

Seating himself he ran his fingers over the keys not affected by the splintered console, and the colors flashed out once more. This time bright gay forms danced and floated; warm blues, cool greens, delightful yellows, and fluffy pinks chased about the screen, flowing about. Children laughed happily and clapped their hands. Women smiled again and men relaxed their grim features to pleasant enjoyment. Evidently the simple sketch of light color was having its soothing effect.

"May I play my newest composition for you, ladies and gentlemen?" The performer looked expectantly at the calm faces turned up to him. No dissenting voices arose, so he proceeded.

"Musicians are able to distinguish a single pitch from a group of sounds. Notes usually are accompanied by groups of pitches called overtones. Few of you have heard a single pure pitch. Nearly every instrument has its overtones. I wish to play for you a piece in color, form, and motion in which I emphasize the 'overtones' of those three phases. Doubtless you have heard church organs whose lowest note was a '16 foot,' as the deep tones are called. These may be played by a skilled operator in combining several of the lower and middle notes to give the effect of a very low note which is known as a '64 foot' note. Naturally this has a very low vibration. If an 128 foot note could be produced, it would be apt to wreck the building in which it was played.

"It is my ambition to produce an extremely low vibration in color by the same general method used in obtaining the low organ note and with the overtones. With this in mind, I wish you to be my judge."

* * *

Colors began to flow as they had never been seen before. Colors that man had never before witnessed splashed and ran across the screen. Forms that the wildest imagination had never before conceived of, jumped and skulked about through the maze of color. Gradually the trend was more and more to the red, and motion and form slowed to a few regularly appearing pulses. Men grew warm about the collar. Women fanned themselves with programs. Children moved restlessly. Still the color flowed. Perspiration trickled down the organist's face; his features became distorted, his eyes wild. He had glanced at the screen whereon his composition glowed. Too late he realized what was going on. Overtones, to be sure. He'd give them plenty! What was that buzzing in his ears? Drat these hot lights! Where was that heat coming from? That chord again --- it was immense! Feel that thrill and wild exultation it sent through you. What was that tumult -- the audience felt it too. Well, let them -- give them more. That low vibration -- what was the combination he had figured would produce it? Oh, yes, press all the reds and all the violets to cause sufficient interference of vibrations. There, it was done!

The screen flamed. The back stage smoked for a second, flashed into a mass of fire and with a roar the audience rushed for the exits, fighting, screaming, scratching.

He had done it! What was that awful ache in his head -- they were wild -- the building had caught fire -- must have produced that low vibration -- heat ray below the infra-reds. Ah, it was well -- damn that buzz in the ears -- snap, flash -- blackness.

Morning found an article in the paper concerning a peculiar performance of the color-organist in which the electric wiring seemed to have caused a fire and frightened the audience. None of the audience could give an accurate or connected account of the affair.

The performer, so the news item said, had fainted under the extreme heat, but he was doing nicely in the local hospital.

THE END

2 comments:

Don Mackie said...

Johnny Pez,

Robert A. Wait was my grandfather. Do you by any chance know if there is an existing copy of "The Invisible Finite" ??

Thanks,
Don

Johnny Pez said...

"The Invisible Finite" can be found in the May 1929 issue of Amazing Stories. I'm sure there are still hundreds of copies of that issue around. The magazine had a circulaton of about 100,000 at the time, and science fiction fans have always had a weakness for collecting magazines. I got a copy of the issue from Ebay about four years ago.