THE EMOTION ORGAN                    

“Time has passed us by,” Maury said at once to me. “Our electronic organ is obsolete.”

“You’re wrong,” I said. “The trend is actually toward the electronic organ because that’s the way America is going in its space exploration: electronic. In ten years we won’t sell one spinet a day; the spinet will be a relic of the past.” “Louis,” Maury said, “please look what our competitors have done. Electro- nics may be marching forward, but without us. Look at the Hammerstein Mood Organ. Look at the Waldteufel Euphoria. And tell me why anyone would be content like you to merely to bang out music.” 

- We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick (1978)


Why would anyone want to merely bang out music, when you could have euphoria? Why be satisfied with an ordinary spinet when you could have The Emotion Organ?

Developed over a rigorous three-year period in a small studio in Oslo The Emotion Organ is a synaesthetic, simulacrum machine that takes its public on a phenomenological journey through the physical senses. With the organ, you can hear colors and smell sounds. The Emotion Organ is also a time machine. It connects obsolete technology with the new, combining a 19th century organ with contemporary gadgetry to create a hybrid form that is part performance object and part scientific instrument for studying phenomenon. When playing the organ, various combinations of chords and foot pedals trigger cross-sensory events, such as the projection of visual pat- terns, vibrations, and/or emission of compelling aromas. Each viewer is invited to play the organ and come up with his or her own set of discoveries.

As a sculptural object used to explore processual practices, The Emotion Organ is an exciting contribution to a contemporary artistic practice and redefinition of artistic roles from makers to facilitators that enable the exploration of complex relational, networked and social experiences.

- Michelle Teran, curator 


Video documentation, a tour of the Emotion Organ (produced by NRK TV), 9.43 min



The Emotion Organ was inspired by a combination of a clapped out pump organ from 1895 standing in my studio and a simulacrum contraption that features in the novel We can build you (1972) by the sci-fi author, Philip K. Dick. The Mood Organ (as it is called) is a device for home-use for venting strong emotions undesirable in a futuristic dictatorial society, and marketed as an alternative to addictive medication. Though it is not exactly clear, when reading the novel, how the Mood Organ works it seems to produce some sort of wave that acts selectively on different parts of the brain. Ironically people became addicted to playing the Mood Organ, hacking it to achieve more intense emotions.

Once I had decided to invent and build my own Emotion Organ I was inspired by the story of the French Jesuit priest Louis-Bertrand Castel who in 1725 attempted to build an ocular harpsichord; an instrument for simultaneously playing sound and coloured light. Castel envisaged that with his invention a new art from would emerge – a music of colours based on analogies of tones and colours, both of which he considered as vibrational phenomena. However, his analogies of vibrational phenomena, their harmonies and discords, did not stop with sight and sound. They included the whole spectra of the known senses;

1o. Take some forty scent bottles filled with different perfumes, cover them with valves, and arrange them so that the pressing of the keys open these valves: there you are for the nose. 2o. On a board arrange objects that can make different impressions on the hand, and then let the hand come down on each of them: there you are for the touch. 3o. Arrange likewise some objects that taste fine, interspersed with bitter objects. But am I talking to people who have to be told everything? (Castel as quoted in Fransen, M. 1991)

While Castel based much of his research in the field of physics, he also addressed psychological and philosophical issues related to multi-sensory experiences;

Not in dreams, but especially in the state of dizziness preceding sleep, or after listening to music for hours, do I feel the correspondence between colours, sounds and scents. It seems as if they all rise mysteriously from the same ray of light and, subsequently, reunify in an amazing concert. The scent of deep red carnations above all has a magical effect on me. (Castell as quoted by Frans Evers in Dekker, A. 2005).

Later I saw a documentary program (The South Bank Show, 2000/2004) about the life and work of virtuoso organist Dame Gillian Weir in which she described good music as “a jewel hanging in the air. A many faceted jewel out of which springs light. It is marinated through the performance context and merges with the performer”. She asked a student; “If you met this (music) on the street, who would it be: A man or a woman?” To which the student replied, “a peacock”. “Then show me the peacock!”, said Wier. “Do not think of different notes, but rather the shapes you make. Make the organ sing and listen to the weight of the note as you release it.” (1)


1) These quotes are taken from scribbling down the dialogue of the program in my notebook, so they may vary from the actual conversation. The program was first made in 2000 for Melvin Bragg’s South Bank Show series on ITV. I saw it on NRK TV in September 2004.



I applied different systems for the desgin and progamming of the organ. I first took the criteria for diagnosing 'true' synaesthesia as proposed by neurologist Richard Cytowic who, in the mid 2000’s when I started to build the organ, claimed that we are all born as Syns but that our synaesthetic abilities diminish as we grow older. He said that synaesthesia is:

• Involuntary but elicted . You can't turn it on and off, it just happens to you, and it is elicited by a stimulus that is easily identifiable.
• Projected. In visual terms, like an hallucination occurring in peri- personal space outside the body or internally ‘in the mind’s eye’, and perceived as being “near” rather than tele-receptive.
• Durable and generic. The cross-wired connections between the senses don't change over time, and the experiences are abstract rather than pictorial. For example, if ‘Amanda’ evokes a taste of something like burnt rubber her name will always evoke the sensation of that taste.
• Memorable. Experience rather than thought is primary.
• Genetic. It can be passed down through generations.
• Emotional. Connected to a noetic, “this is it” feeling of certitude. (Cytowic, 2005).

Through engangement with UK Synasthesia Society I took part in conferences and interviewed people with different manifestations of the condition. Other systems include Alan Forte's theory on the chromatic qualities of sound groups, as well as the chromatic colour of Chakras in yoga. 
Then I applied these criteria as an initial blueprint for designing and programing the Emotion Organ, also envisaging how it could function in different modes, such as:

• A modifiable conceptual/experimental tool for testing various artistic concepts in relation to synaesthetic phenomena.
• An art object that entices people to touch it.
• An experimental instrument for players of any age and ability to ex- plore the intersections of the sensory domains. The organ can be staged as a participatory installation where the public can choose to be perfor mers and/or spectators.
• A performance instrument for a virtuoso player. In this case the organ can be modified in accordance with the aims of a specific composition/ improvisation idea. It can be re-programmed, and its outputs can be modified to extend beyond the peri-personal space of the player. (2)


2) The idea of extending the organ’s outputs beyond the peri- personal space was never put in

to practice. Interestingly enough, David Byrne came up with a related/paralell idea in 2005 for a sound installation titled Playing the Building. He used an anitque pump organ such as mine as an interface for playing, acoustically, on the phyiscal infrastructure of Färgfabriken, Stockholm, Sweden, thus turning the whole building into a giant musical instrument..



Physical computing was an important part of this project. It is about 'sensing', both in terms of designing and constructing technological systems for detecting gestures from the real world, and sensing the outcomes through 'listening' with the body. I set up a worklab where I took apart and restored the organ. I re-engineered it using a combination of past and present technolo- gies for audio/visual production (analogue and digital hard- and software) as well as custom-made sensors and devices. As I encountered issues that I could not overcome myself, I sought help. These include aspects of physical computing such as sensor building and programming (3), restoration and physical modification of the organ, visualising the organ's modified appearance, devising a way to emit aromas, controlling the electro acoustic sound of the organ and finding a source of meaningful data to apply to the programming of inputs and outputs.

View the chronological process of restoring and modifying the pump organ here!


3) An example




4) The diagram to the left is just one way of mapping the inputs and outputs of The Emotion Organ.



1. The propeller (flight, wind, storm, dervish, freedom)

The propeller stands approximately four metres away from organ. It acts as a projection surface for the varying coloured light that shines out from the projector installed at the back of the organ. The image hangs in the air. The speed of the propeller is controlled by the footpumps (6) which have poten- tiometers installed beneath them. The faster you pedal, the faster the propeller spins. There are eight modes for speed based on the data derived from pulling out the eight organ stops (7). This is described below in point 7.

2. The small phonograph horns (eyelids, stars, Morse code)

Inside the two small phonograph horns on each of the metal stems are light bulbs. They flash on and off with varying degrees of brightness according to how hard the organ keys are depressed (velocity). This function is controlled by sixty-one light sensors installed under each key of the keyboard (4). The phonograph horns are mounted on flexible goose-neck tubes so that they can be adjusted according to the whim of the player, who can turn them inwards to feel the effect of the light, or outwards for others to see.

3. The large phonograph horns (blooms of light, headlamps, sun, heat)

Similarly, the large horns have light bulbs inside them. They react to the sound envelope (volume) that is picked up by two contact microphones installed in the organ, and produce softer ambulating light.

4. The keyboard (fingers/digits as lips, colours as words, eyes as hammers)

The light sensors under the five-octave keyboard have various functions. They detect which note is being played. Different combinations of keys are respon- sible for changing the colour of the projected light circle. The velocity value also controls the brightness of the projected colours. The right most key/ sensor switches between two modes of the electro-acoustics of the analogue sound filter installed in the back of the organ. It manipulates and accompanies the original organ sound. The frequency of the manipulated sound slides from high to low depending on how many keys are depressed. One ‘secret’ key (which I never managed to fix properly and always produces a ‘clunky’ sound) reverses the audio/visual output. For a novice player it can be a novel surprise. For an experienced player it can be used as an expressive gesture.

5. Stool (arousal, depth)

The sub-woofer is installed inside the organ stool. It emits low frequency sounds generated by the electro-acoustic sound filter (13). At certain levels it is possible to feel the strong vibrations caused by low sound frequencies, especially when the secret key is depressed.

6. The foot pumps (lungs, power, speed, grounded, walking, running)

The air from the foot pumps creates a vacuum in the organ bellows, affecting the volume of its various audio output modes. However, by varying pedalling speed, and hence the speed of the propeller, the projected coloured light becomes split up, creating optical illusions and multi-coloured variations of the whole and fragmented circle.

7. The eight stops (glotal stop, navigation, mirror, lens)

The eight stops of the organ are mechanical levers. They have distance detecting sensors to register when they are activated and how far they are pulled out. As they are light-sensitive they are relative, rather than fixed detectors.


The four left hand stops affect the lower bass keys, and the right hand stops the higher keys (treble). Like our hands, their functions are mirrored. The two outer-most levers are 'couplers'. They do not change the sound of the organ itself, but are connected to notes an octave below or above the key played. The remaining six stops change the quality of the sound by control- ling how much air is passed over the hundred-and-twenty-two reeds (two reeds for each key) of the organ. The effects range from solo 'voice' to 'nasal', heavenly and flute-like qualities. The four stops in the high range control video filters that affect the coloured, projected circle, creating different shapes and patterns of light. Each time a stop is pulled out it changes the rotation direction of the circle. The stops also affect the speed of the fan, and the effort of pedalling the foot pumps. With one stop out it is difficult to gain speed (like walking fast but getting nowhere), with all eight stops out it is easy (like running down a steep mountain).

8. The eight airbrush guns (pollution, intoxication, presence, memory, trigger)

The airbrush guns are fed by the air compressor. They have push-type solenoids attached to their valves, controlled by the i/o box, LAN box and DMX box. Each aroma corresponds to a colour of eight sound groups. They are activated on a programmed timer that registers how long a player sustains a certain sound group. The aromas are stored in their cups. Each one is a synthesized aroma composition. They range from sweet to acidic, bitter, floral and synthetic-like smells with descriptors such as tropical rain forest, fish market, lavender, vanilla and street bomb. As each aroma is released it fuses with the previous ones. The propeller performs a social function, spreading the aromas to an eventual audience and clearing the air for the player. A player has the best chance to experience individual aromas, while spectators experiences the combined aromas. It is easier to recognise the descriptor names of some aromas, and impossible to identify others. How people describe and are affected by the aromas is highly individual.


9. The medium-sized phonograph horns (synthesis, industrial aura, transmission)

The medium horns have small speakers installed inside of them. They are fed by the electro acoustic analogue sound filter via sound picked up by two contact microphones that pass through the digital sound interface. They modify the sound of the organ's own voice in different ways. Certain frequencies cause the aluminum horns to vibrate and resonate. When the horns are placed close to the ears of the player the stereo sound becomes localised, or they can be directed away from the player out into the space. Eventual spectators may choose to come close to the horns. 

10. Computer (brain, fuzzy logic, memory, alchemy)

The computer is the brain of the organ's nervous system. It receives and digitises signals, stores data, connects and modifies electrical signals from the sensors (connected to the MIDI interfaces) and sends them out to the various organs of the machine via the Lan box, the DMX box and projector. The programming platform is MAX-msp with Jitter as the visual engine, and the main protocol for signals entering and leaving the computer is MIDI. The graphical interface of the control 'patches' (the name given to the digital 'space' where mappings are made) resembles the organ's physical parts. Apart from lists of control data, the only media stored in the computer are two images: a white circle on a black background, and an image mask of the same shape. All other media are generative/emergent.

The programming principle for creating groups of sounds is based on Alan Forte's system for structuring atonal music. Six main and two sub sets of chromatic sound groups correspond to colours in a chromatic scale from red to violet and white. Each group has a corresponding aroma. Three different keys in the twelve tone scale must be depressed to get a result, and the system works independently of octaves. Additionally, ideas from an article about the listener's emotional engagement with works by Scriabin, and how they are affected by observing the pianist's bodily enactment of performing them, is applied. Velocity, volume, shifts in musical phrases, speeds and tonalities are described as a way of gauging a player's emotional response.


11. Projector (aura, hallucination)

The projector is installed at the back of the organ and is the source of coloured light, which is projected onto the propeller. The projected imagery creates special effects of coloured light as it rotates on the propeller. The effects are very different from how they would otherwise appear on a computer screen. Varying speeds of the propeller cause various visual illusions and retinal manifestations of coloured light forms. At times the coloured light seems to rotate in the opposite direction to its actual rotation direction. I have not yet been able to capture these successfully, either with still camera, or video camera.7


15. Contact microphones (skin, surveillance, slide, glitch)

There are two contact microphones installed inside the organ. They pick up the sound of its mechanical parts in action, as well as the organ’s original and synthesized sounds, and create feedback. When no one is playing the organ the feedback effect from environmental sounds picked up by the microphones keeps the organ ‘lively’. The sound they pick up passes into the digital sound interface, then into the analogue sound filter where it is modified into retro-synth-like sounds. It is then sent to the subwoofer, and finally into the speakers in the phonograph horns. The sound frequency and tempo are modulated according to how many fingers are in action on the keyboard. One finger produces low frequencies and slow rhythms, ten fingers, high frequencies and fast rhythms. As keys are depressed and released the sound slides up and down between these frequencies and rhythms accordingly. This makes the experience of playing the keyboard feel more tactile and can prompt a player to play more quickly or slowly. The sound volume (or rather, envelope) is manipulated by the velocity of the keys as they are depressed and also controls the dimensions of the projected circle.