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This Light Installation Lets You Play a Building Like an Instrument

A playable organ installation lights up a massive facade in Reykjavik.

Harpa Light Organ from Atli Bollason on Vimeo.

Recently, a video surfaced of a massive light organ installation that artist Atli Bollason built for the Harpa Music Hall and Conference Centre in Reykjavik. The installation went up in February, and we finally have some real footage of how users played the building’s glass facade like it was a musical instrument. An organ was placed on the fourth floor balcony of a steel and glass facade designed by Olafur Eliasson, with an exceptional view of downtown Reykjavik.

Standing in front of the organ, viewers look up at the building’s honeycomb front wall and watch as entire sections light up in sync with the notes they play. As the user hits different keys, columns of the building’s facade light up in synchrony. Bollason’s light organ functions in a similar way to the Prius Piano installation from our Future Forward event, or this Wurlitzer light installation that was made for the Montreux Jazz Festival

The organ is housed in a glowing box equipped with midi keyboards and a laptop that connects the instrument to the music hall’s built-in lighting rig. The keyboard triggers the light installation through what Bollason describes as two voices: a pad and a piano. Bollason tells The Creators Project that the pad produces a “pool of light,” while the piano fires “bullets of light” across the buildings facade from bottom to top. The color scheme produced in a particular performance is based on a reading of the harmonies played. The pitch of each note decides the light’s placement, while the velocity at which they’re played governs the brightness.

To the right of the keyboard is a pitch-bend sensor that let players tweak their sound as well as the hue wheel, in real time. HAL 9000, the insidious AI computer from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, influenced Bollason’s design of the dome-shaped tool. Bollason says, “The by now retro-futurism of 2001 seemed like a nice fit for the ever-progressive yet very outdated idea of a light organ and I thought the cassettes really underlined the DIY spirit of the project.”

Bollason reminds us of the color organ’s long history: “It goes back to the 18th century. At its core it's basically an attempt to reproduce synesthesia artistically. It was popular with some of the modernist composers in the early 20th century and again during the psychedelic 60s and 70s.” Synesthesia is a type of neurological phenomenon where one sensory stimuli, like sound, triggers an automatic or involuntary experience in another sense, such as sight or taste. The term is most commonly used when describing people who see colors when they listen to music, or vice versa. Bollason continues, “Harpa is built specifically for the performance of music and it was very tempting to look towards these old ideas and introduce a musical, expressive element to the lights. That way, the organ comes to function as a very simple yet powerful tool for the people of Reykjavík to interact with what is an extremely monumental and very controversial building. It's a public structure and it's only democratic for it to be able to reflect the way we feel and for us to be able to have fun with it.“

This isn’t the first installation Bollason created using the music hall’s luminous facade. Back in August of 2014, in co-operation with creative programmer Owen Hindley, the artist converted the building’s front wall into a massive game of PONG. You can check out this short doc about PONG here.

Learn more about Atli Bollason on his instagram, here, or see more on his Vimeo.  

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