An Invitation from Lowell Cross

Welcome to our web site, dedicated to the invention of the first multi–color laser light shows with x–y scanning: their prehistory, first public performances, and subsequent developments.

My earliest musical involvements with x–y displays were motivated by my decision that the “performances” of my own (and all other) tape–only compositions of electronic music were lacking in one important ingredient: visual interest.

I could not have formulated the concepts that led to the development of laser light shows without a background in certain disciplines. I studied mathematics, physics, music, art history, and other liberal arts as an undergraduate at Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) in Lubbock. I composed my first pieces of electronic music incorporating kinetic video art while a graduate student at the University of Toronto in 1965—when multi–color ion lasers were only beginning to be marketed for scientific applications. In Toronto, I studied electronic music, musicology, and with Marshall McLuhan, media and society.

After progressing from oscilloscopes to modified video systems (see “first–person statement” below), and after becoming acquainted with the general properties of lasers, I knew that lasers, with specialized accessory equipment, offered possibilities for large–scale kinetic multi–color public displays in conjunction with musical performances. Essential components in this history of laser light shows were, and are, electromagnetic mirror galvanometers (“galvos” or “scanners”).

I was introduced to one application of mirror galvos by a professor at Texas Tech, Dr. Louis John (L. J.) Powers, Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He assisted me in making a form of notation for an early electronic tape piece of mine, 0.8 Century (1962). With a strip–chart recorder equipped with two mirror galvos and focused light beams from an ordinary source (not a laser), he recorded for me on a continuous roll of photosensitive paper an “oscilloscopic” printout of both channels of my stereophonic electronic piece (see excerpt in John Cage, Notations, New York: Something Else Press, 1969).

In 1968–1969, after my wife Nora and I moved to Oakland, CA, I was able to bring together my ideas for lasers and mirror galvos (or “scanners”). I met Professor Carson D. Jeffries (1922–1995), a renowned physicist at the University of California at Berkeley and gifted builder of kinetic sculptures. I proposed to Carson my plans for x–y scanning of laser beams in the fall of 1968. My suggestions to him were met with great enthusiasm, and on May 9, 1969, we presented at Mills College the first multi–color laser light show with x–y scanning.

We named our first laser projection system VIDEO/LASER (= VIDEO/LASER I), which we assembled from borrowed equipment, generously loaned to us by interested high–tech manufacturers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Carson’s expertly–machined scanner mounts. Also, we invited the pianist–composer David Tudor to collaborate with us, in a work that the three of us called Audio/Video/Laser, which combined our electronic music with kinetic laser imagery for the first time.

Visitors to this web site are cordially invited to peruse, view, and hear the elements relating to the prehistory and circumstances of the first laser light shows, and to become familiar with their chronology and further development.