Syllabus for MS 127 - The Harmony of Sound and Light

Harvey Mudd College, Fall 2014

Instructor: Prof. Bill Alves

F 1:15 - 4:00 Shanahan Recital Hall

Speculation about connections between the visual and aural senses goes back to antiquity, but technology has provided tools to explore these connections as a new art form in ways unimagined by early speculators such as Newton and Goethe. This course will introduce the striking arts of abstract light and color, sometimes known as "visual music," from early "color organs," to musical theories of abstract artists, masters of the non-objective film animation such as Oskar Fischinger, early computer animators such as John Whitney, to 21st-century VJs. However, the emphasis in this class will be on the aesthetic background to this history and its application in students' own creative projects.


In this course, students will learn to use POV-Ray, a 3-D computer graphics rendering language, to produce projects. You are free to use any alternative software you may already be familiar with, such as OpenGL, Blender, or Processing. Though the POV-Ray language is unrelated to conventional computer languages, some familiarity with coding is helpful when learning it. Therefore, the only prerequisite for this course is some familiarity with computer programming, such as you would find in HMC CS 5. If you are in doubt about your ability in this area, please come and talk with me.


Documentation for POV-Ray exists on the web. Other texts will be available on the class Sakai site or on reserve at Honnold Library for specific assignments and presentations.

Office hours

At this time my office hours are Wed./Fri. 1:30-2:30 pm and Tues. 9:30 to 11:00 am. Please feel free to stop by at any of those times. It is possible that some of these times may change as my semester schedule develops. You may want to check the schedule on my door or contact me to confirm. If you cannot make it at those times, I would be happy to arrange an appointment at another time. I also welcome your email (alves

Internet resources

Discussions, questions, and updates on assignments between classes will be made through the class electronic mailing list: ms-127-l. This is an especially efficient method of asking routine but important questions about assignments, software or any other relevant issue.

Two organizations which preserve and promote art of this type are the iotaCenter and the Center for Visual Music. At their web sites you will find a page of links to artists and other resources, various articles, videos and books for sale, and other materials. There are also addresses for joining their email list of announcements and a discussion list.

Course Assignments


Paper revision5%
Short assignments35%
Midterm project15%
Final project20%

In order to pass this class, a paper, presentation, and final project must be turned in.

Short assignments

There will be several short assignments during the course of the semester, including some using POV-Ray or another computer graphics language of your choice. POV-Ray is freeware and available for many different platforms. POV-Ray itself, tutorials, and other resources are available at


There will be one midterm and one final project. These are usually in the form of computer animations composed with POV-Ray, though you are free to use other computer graphics software. Alternative projects, such as term papers, may be substituted, depending on the proposal. These projects may require a proposal and an in-class presentation of interim progress, and a portion of the final grade may depend on a timely completion of both. At the end of the semester (the exact date to be determined), there will be a public screening of final projects. Final projects are due at that time. There will be no other final exam. Artistic projects will be evaluated on 1) creative insight, 2) effort, 3) creative application of principles discussed in class. I understand that students will have varying backgrounds and abilities in computer programming, art, and music, and these will also be taken into account.


A major part of this class will consist of presentations by students. These presentations must be more than a simple recited equivalent of a term paper. They should include interactive components, clear points, visual aids, and a detailed analysis of a particular work (when available). Presentations will be delivered in teams generally of three students each, and the correspondence between the different topics must be coordinated. A written term paper about the topic will also be due generally one week after the presentation. Papers will be graded not only on content but also on writing style, communication, format, and mechanics. A revision of the paper will be required by the end of the semester and will be graded separately.

Topics for the presentations will be distributed early in the semester. If you would like to request a particular topic, either one listed or not, I will try to accomodate your interests. Detailed information about your topic and my expectations will be available two weeks before a presentation. Presenters will meet with me one week before their presentation to discuss progress and direction. Presentations will be graded in part by your peers.


Because of the seminar format of this course, your attendance and participation in class discussions is vital to the success of everyone's experience. Your conscientious participation in the peer evaluation process is also very important. Therefore, class participation will be a significant factor in your grade, and each unexcused absence beyond the first will result in one letter grade deduction from your final grade in the class. Examples of reasons for excused absences include illness (with note from student health), family death, and religious holidays. Examples of unexcused absences include clinic trips, travel for sports, visits to grad schools, and airline travel for fall break.

Late assignments

Presentations cannot normally be made up. Other assignments will be penalized two letter grades per week late. However, I will always accept late work for some credit, no matter how late. Extensions are granted normally only for presenters (see below).


Dates may be revised depending on class progress.
DateTopicAssignment due
9/5Introduction to the course; Correspondences
9/12The nature of color; Color in art
Introduction to POV-Ray
Assignment 1
9/19Composition, form, and proportion in art
The nature of abstraction
Assignment 2
9/26Theories of abstraction
Color organs and Lumia artists
Presentation group 1
Assignment 3
10/3Early abstract filmPresentation group 2
Assignment 4
10/10The art of Oskar FischingerPresentation group 3
Midterm project proposal
10/17John WhitneyPresentation group 4
Midterm project interim version
10/24Other abstract animatorsMidterm due
10/31Midterms critique
11/7Animated Music: Bute, McLaren, othersPresentation group 5
11/14No class -- HSA advising
11/21The art of the "inner eye": Belson, James WhitneyPresentation group 6
Final project proposal (by email)
11/28Free radicals: Lye, Smith, and othersPresentation group 7
Final project storyboard
12/5Contemporary artists
Final project interim critique
Final project interim version
12/12Contemporary artistsFinal project due
12/14 8:30 PMFinal project screening
Shanahan Recital Hall

HMC Academic Computing's Policy on Appropriate Use of Computing and Network Resources applies to all students enrolled in this course. All students enrolled in this course are bound by the Harvey Mudd College Honor Code in regards to activities related to this class, even non-HMC students.


Many of the following items will be primary sources for presentations. In that case, they are on reserve at Sprague library. There is also a good annotated bibliography by Fred Callopy at
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Updated on January 14, 2012, by Bill Alves (alves