Alternative History of Visual Music

Lola Dement Myers

Sound and film have been ubiquitously grouped together since the development of sound in cinema in the mid 1920s. Last week, we covered what sound and music are in relation to film, how sound aids or detracts from visual cinema, and the differences between sound and music. Sound, in relation to picture, usually comes second in the process of making a film. In traditional cinema, the sound of the film is often determined by the visuals. But what happens when an artist creates a film where sound is the dominant medium? When sound determines the visuals of an avant-garde film, Visual Music is created. This type of film includes work by Mary Ellen Bute, Oskar Fischinger, Norman Mclaren, and Stan Brakhage.

When discussing Visual Music, it is important to recognize two figures, Mary Ellen Bute and Oskar Fishchiner. While both are considered pioneers of Visual Music and started their practice around the same time, Fishchiner is more often credited than Bute. This is due to multiple reasons including the public’s lack of access to high quality Bute films and the general lack of credibility given to female artists. In fact, in the fifteen page essay, Visual Music‘s Influence of Contemporary Abstraction, Bute’s name is only mentioned three times and her work is covered once in a three sentence paragraph. This essay is a brief but thorough history of the relationship between Visual Music and abstraction, but it fails to give more than a few sentences on one of the first artists to directly experiment with visual representation of sound. In contrast, this article has multiple pages on the work of Oskar Fischinger.

Mary Ellen Bute is considered a leading pioneer of Visual Music. She completed eleven animated films in her career and left two films unfinished. Her films were widely popular; they were shown across the country as precursors to feature length films in movie theaters. Today her work would be the equivalent to movie trailers. Mary Ellen Bute grew up in Texas and studied painting until she became frustrated with her “…inability to wield light in a flowing time-continuum [Moritz, Paragraph 2.]” She later studied lighting at Yale. During her time in college, she became fascinated with a “color organ,” a device that helps visualize sound through color. This mechanism was also used by Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren.

Bute’s work has a strong connection to science and involves the visualization of sound. In many of her films, Bute uses an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope is a laboratory device that displays a graphic of waveforms through electronic symbols. Essentially an oscilloscope creates the visual representation of a sound. Bute used this device along with traditional animations to create her work. These films are shot on 35mm film and generally span around six to twelve minutes. Bute has often talk about her “quest to visualize invisible rhythms.” Through films like Abstronic, 1952 Bute uses a combination of standard animation and a cathode ray oscilloscope to create a vibrant and kinetic animation. Often Bute refers to the form the oscilloscope creates as “characters.” Many of the characters in her work are created through mathematical sequences. The characters consists of “dancing” wavelength. Although the forms Bute is using in her work are directly derived from specific sounds, these sounds are not necessarily used in the audio portion of the piece.

Mary Ellen Bute is recognized by the title “mother of Visual Music.” Her male counterpart, Oskar Fischinger, is also known by a similar nicknames: “…father of Visual Music, grandfather of music videos and great-grandfather of motion graphics [Keefer, pg. 81.]” Although Fischinger initially began his career in Germany and Bute in Texas, both artists started their work within three years of each other. Visually, the work of Bute and Fischinger are very similar. Both utilize recognizable shapes including circles, diamonds, and squares. Because of the time period Butes and Fischinger were working in, many of their films have an inherent visual connection to the 40s and 50s. Bute recognized the similarities between her work and Fischinger. In 1931 Universal studios presented a piece by Fischinger; After seeing it, Bute contacted Universal asking them to show one of her films. Her short piece entitled Dada was show by Universal five years later.

Today, it would be relatively simple to create similar animations to those of Mary Ellen Bute and Oskar Fischinger, but during the 1930s these works were revolutionary. This new combination of traditional animation and visual sound inspired many current and past artists including Jordan Belson, Jeremy Blake, and Björk. When animation is studied, Oskar Fischinger is one of the first names learned, yet many film educators fail to explain the extent, contributions, and genius of Mary Ellen Bute’s work.

  1. What factors contribute to the similarities of Mary Ellen Bute’s and Oskar Fischinger work? Consider the time period they were working in and there locations during the time of their career.
  2. How do you think Mary Ellen Bute’s work could be integrated more thoroughly into the history of animation?
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