Watch an Auroratone, a Psychedelic 1940s Film, Featuring Bing Crosby, That Helped WWII Vets Overcome PTSD & Other Mental Health Conditions

As Lisa Simp­son once mem­o­rably remarked, “I can see the music.”

Pret­ty much any­one can these days.

Just switch on your device’s audio visu­al­iz­er.

That wasn’t the case in the 1940s, when psy­chol­o­gist Cecil A. Stokes used chem­istry and polar­ized light to invent sooth­ing abstract music videos, a sort of cin­e­mat­ic synes­the­sia exper­i­ment such as can be seen above, in his only known sur­viv­ing Auro­ra­tone.

(The name was sug­gest­ed by Stokes’ acquain­tance, geol­o­gist, Arc­tic explor­er and Catholic priest, Bernard R. Hub­bard, who found the result rem­i­nis­cent of the Auro­ra Bore­alis.)

The trip­py visu­als may strike you as a bit of an odd fit with Bing Cros­by’s cov­er of the sen­ti­men­tal crowd­pleas­er “Oh Promise Me,” but trau­ma­tized WWII vets felt dif­fer­ent­ly.

Army psy­chol­o­gists Her­bert E. Rubin and Elias Katz’s research showed that Auro­ra­tone films had a ther­a­peu­tic effect on their patients, includ­ing deep relax­ation and emo­tion­al release.

The music sure­ly con­tributed to this pos­i­tive out­come. Oth­er Auro­ra­tone films fea­tured “Moon­light Sonata,” “Clair de Lune,” and an organ solo of “I Dream of Jean­nie with the Light Brown Hair.”

Drs. Rubin and Katz report­ed that patients reli­ably wept dur­ing Auro­ra­tones set to “The Lost Chord,” “Ave Maria,” and “Home on the Range” — anoth­er Cros­by num­ber.

In fact, Cros­by, always a cham­pi­on of tech­nol­o­gy, con­tributed record­ings for a full third of the fif­teen known Auro­ra­tones free of charge and foot­ed the bill for over­seas ship­ping so the films could be shown to sol­diers on active duty and med­ical leave.

Technophile Cros­by was well posi­tioned to under­stand Stokes’ patent­ed process and appa­ra­tus for pro­duc­ing musi­cal rhythm in col­oraka Auro­ra­tones — but those of us with a shaki­er grasp of STEM will appre­ci­ate light artist John Sonderegger’s expla­na­tion of the process, as quot­ed in film­mak­er and media con­ser­va­tor Wal­ter Fors­berg’s his­to­ry of Auro­ra­tones for INCITE Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Media:

[Stokes’] pro­ce­dure was to cut a tape record­ed melody into short seg­ments and splice the result­ing pieces into tape loops. The audio sig­nal from the first loop was sent to a radio trans­mit­ter. The radio waves from the radio trans­mit­ter were con­fined to a tube and focused up through a glass slide on which he had placed a chem­i­cal mix­ture. The radio waves would inter­act with the solu­tion and trig­ger the for­ma­tion of the crys­tals. In this way each slide would devel­op a shape inter­pre­tive of the loop of music it had been exposed to. Each loop, in sequence, would be con­vert­ed to a slide. Even­tu­al­ly a set of slides would be com­plet­ed that was the nat­ur­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the com­plete musi­cal melody.

Vets suf­fer­ing from PTSD were not the only ones to embrace these unlike­ly exper­i­men­tal films.

Patients diag­nosed with oth­er men­tal dis­or­ders, youth­ful offend­ers, indi­vid­u­als plagued by chron­ic migraines, and devel­op­men­tal­ly delayed ele­men­tary school­ers also ben­e­fit­ed from Auro­ra­tones’ sooth­ing effects.

The gen­er­al pub­lic got a taste of the films in depart­ment store screen­ings hyped as “the near­est thing to the Auro­ra Bore­alis ever shown”, where the soporif­ic effect of the col­or pat­terns were tout­ed as hav­ing been cre­at­ed “by MOTHER NATURE HERSELF.”

Auro­ra­tones were also shown in church by can­ny Chris­t­ian lead­ers eager to deploy any bells and whis­tles that might hold a mod­ern flock’s atten­tion.

The Guggen­heim Muse­um’s brass was vast­ly less impressed by the Auro­ra­tone Foun­da­tion of America’s attempts to enlist their sup­port for this “new tech­nique using non-objec­tive art and musi­cal com­po­si­tions as a means of stim­u­lat­ing the human emo­tions in a man­ner so as to be of val­ue to neu­ro-psy­chi­a­trists and psy­chol­o­gists, as well as to teach­ers and stu­dents of both objec­tive and non-objec­tive art.”

Co-founder Hilla Rebay, an abstract artist her­self, wrote a let­ter in which she advised Stokes to “learn what is dec­o­ra­tion, acci­dent, intel­lec­tu­al con­fu­sion, pat­tern, sym­me­try… in art there is con­ceived law only –nev­er an acci­dent.”

A plan for pro­ject­ing Auro­ra­tones in mater­ni­ty wards to “do away with the pains of child-birth” appears to have been a sim­i­lar non-starter.

While only one Auro­ra­tone is known to have sur­vived — and its dis­cov­ery by Robert Martens, cura­tor of Grandpa’s Pic­ture Par­ty, is a fas­ci­nat­ing tale unto itself — you can try cob­bling togeth­er a 21st-cen­tu­ry DIY approx­i­ma­tion by plug­ging any of the below tunes into your pre­ferred music play­ing soft­ware and turn­ing on the visu­al­iz­er:

  • Amer­i­can Prayer by Gin­ny Simms
  • Ave Maria, sung by Bing Cros­by with organ accom­pa­ni­ment by Edward Dun­st­edter
  • Clair de Lune, played by Andre Kosta­lan­etz and his orches­tra
  • Going My Way, sung by Bing Cros­by with organ accom­pa­ni­ment by Edward Dun­st­edter
  • Home on the Range, sung by Bing Cros­by with organ accom­pa­ni­ment by Edward Dun­st­edter
  • Moon­light Sonata, played by Miss April Ayres

via Boing Boing / INCITE

Relat­ed Con­tent 

How the 1968 Psy­che­del­ic Film Head Destroyed the Mon­kees & Became a Cult Clas­sic

Short Film “Syd Barrett’s First Trip” Reveals the Pink Floyd Founder’s Psy­che­del­ic Exper­i­men­ta­tion (1967)

The Psy­che­del­ic Ani­mat­ed Video for Kraftwerk’s “Auto­bahn” (1979)

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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