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Ezra Masch plays the blues (and greens, and yellows ... )

Luke Quinton

Ezra Masch sits alone, in front of his Rhodes electric piano, between the narrow white walls of the University of Texas' Visual Art Center. It's dim in here, and Masch is facing a wall completely covered in a bank of unlit aluminum lights.

He checks his cellphone. Masch has been here, playing little improvisations, for about an hour already. It's a slow Friday afternoon — a lot of students have started their weekend already, though a few stop to watch from the balcony above. These are sort of his scheduled office hours.

"I haven't done any singing in here yet," Masch says, turning to me. "If you don't mind, I might do some now."

I had been picturing a more colorful "Phantom of the Opera," noodling around in the dark.

Masch, this tall, bearded introvert turns back to his Rhodes and starts a slow layer of blues, "bat bat bat BAT bat bat." From every touch of his finger, a light beams. A different color for each note.

Then he jumps out of his chair and howls, "I put a SPELL on Youuu!"

This is unexpected.

The exhibit, "Music of the Spheres," ironically invokes 1960s psychedelia and mysticism. Its centerpiece is this display, a public performance of Masch's color organ.

The notes seem to embody each color, especially the long-held chords. You start thinking: "That note is so ... purple! That chord sounds so green and yellow!"

And the Rhodes' sound is ethereal, like a gentler music box.

"I love playing the piano and watching the hammers move," Masch says. "I first wanted to make the color organ to represent that in a visual way, but on an architectural scale."

The original color organ was invented around the time Isaac Newton was writing about the color spectrum at the beginning of the scientific revolution. It was a harpsichord rigged with pulleys that revealed panes of colored glass, lit by candles.

But Masch's organ is wired with printer cables and a circuit board that receives the signal for each light to illuminate.

"It definitely has a mothership or spaceship sense to it," he says.

The bank of lights are split in half, for his right and left hands, and they're lined up in octaves, starting with the color red.

"It's almost something a guy would make in his garage to try to communicate with aliens, with funky soul music."

Masch is introverted, but his art shouts out.

The first thing you notice is his solo show in the UT VAC is an entire wall of white lines that converge into stars, against a black background.

It's an intoxicating print, a blitz of intersecting lines, with beautiful and stylish patterns.

It's called "Hobby-Eberly," after the telescope of the same name at UT's McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. It is reminiscent of Masch's visit there, of being inundated with stars.

"It's so disorienting. You can lose your sense of space," he says.

The exhibit is part sculpture, with its wall of "spheres" and dangling black cords, but it only really works when Masch is operating it, so he schedules practice times throughout the week.

"Sometimes I spend much longer in here, and two hours have passed and I don't realize it."

All this practice will stop on Wednesday, when Masch will turn his chair around and create a full-on performance in the space.

This is the contradiction. He's a tall, reserved guy, but his last show, for the East Austin Studio Tour, involved a limousine, fog machine and a space suit, and Masch launched into a gregarious onstage persona, working the crowd with a call and response.

Although he's a self-trained pianist, Masch, grew up playing the drums at Philadelphia open-mike shows in a blues band with a neighbor, when he was just 14.

Later, he would go from singing Jewish songs with his family on Friday nights to working on freestyle rap with his friends.

He's tight-lipped about the costumes and plans for his upcoming performance. It'll be his first time singing in public, but his art is about pushing himself to take "big risks," he says.

If his performance is as raw and strangely beautiful as his practice, the mothership might come.

"Ezra Masch: Music of the Spheres"

When: through Oct. 22

Masch rehearses 2 to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to noon Wednesdays, 3 to 4 p.m. Fridays.

Where:UT Visual Arts Center, Art Building, 23rd and Trinity streets

Cost:Free

Info:www.utvac.org .