Research 2.3 Visual Music

Abstract Animation or Visual Music

Abstract animation of music originated in early experiments to develop machines
to link the musical scale with a corresponding scale of colour and light. The first of such machines was developed long before the advent of film, in 1730 by French mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel. His Ocular Harpsichord replaced the pitches of a harpsichord with projected coloured light.

In the twentieth century abstract animation, also known as “Visual Music” and “Absolute Film” was pioneered by the animators Mary Ellen Bute, Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger. These artists developed methods and devices to translate visual imagery into and alongside sound.

From the 1960s onwards, artists such as John Whitney (the father of computer
animation) used computer technology to enable the creation of sound and
complex, abstract moving images. Contemporary artists code and connect via
midi and software programs such as Max MSP, Processing and Isadora to
perform in real-time or to compose.

Music and forms for Sequential structuring

Abstract animators work on the basis that all processes when removed from their concrete context, become inherently universal and repeatable: ‘pure movement’. There can be said to be three key ‘movement strategies’ that govern the creation and structuring of abstract animation:
evolution, deconstruction and patterned movement.

When watching abstract animation work, expectations connected with viewing narrative work should be suspended. As no story arc is present and the structure is more like music than literature, the mind is able to wander. The viewer enters a different type of experience; perhaps more like that of watching clouds. Thoughts emerge and disappear.

Len Lye for example recalled being enthralled with their fast, scurrying motion of clouds after a rain storm.

“All of a sudden it hit me – if there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion. After all, there are melodic figures, why can’t there be figures of motion?”

Len Lye, edited by Roger Horrocks and Wystan Curnow, Figures of Motion (1984)
Auckland University Press, Oxford University Press.

Mary Ellen Bute: Rhythm in Light

Rhythm in Light (1934) was Mary Ellen Bute’s first completed film, appearing the same year as Schillinger’s discussion of synchronization in Experimental Cinema. It had been preceded by several studies and an earlier attempt to film
Schillinger’s ideas using standard animation techniques that was abandoned because the imagery was too complex for standard production with hand animation. Rhythm in Light reflects this shift from the painterly and cel animation
techniques employed by the absolute filmmakers (Ruttmann, Eggeling, Richter) in the 1920s in favour of the same procedures of abstracting from reality by using already abstract subjects employed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Running just under three minutes long, following the opening credits it proclaims itself a “A Pictorial Accompaniment in abstract forms” followed by the explanation that “It is a
pioneer effort in a new art form – It is a modern artist’s impression of what goes on it the mind while listening to music.” The explanatory element in Bute’s film is
a common feature of American abstract films of the 1930s produced for commercial distribution—an element also shared by Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1936).
Harry Smith
Oskar Fischinger, Wax Experiments (1921-1926)

Oskar Wilhelm Fischinger (1900 – 1967) was a German-American abstract animator, filmmaker, and painter, notable for creating abstract musical animation many decades before the appearance of computer graphics and music videos. He created special effects for Fritz Lang’s 1929 Woman in the Moon, one of the first sci-fi rocket movies, and influenced Disney’s Fantasia. He made over 50 short films and painted around 800 canvases, many of which are in museums, galleries, and collections worldwide. Among his film works is Motion Painting No. 1 (1947), which is now listed on the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Viking Eggeling
Hans Richter
Walter Ruttman

Walter Ruttmann (28 December 1887 – 15 July 1941) was a German cinematographer and film director, and along with Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and Oskar Fischinger was the most important German representative of abstract experimental film. He is best known for directing the semi-documentary ‘city symphony’ silent film Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis. His audio montage Wochenende (1930) is considered a major contribution in the development of audio plays.
1921. This piece has soft modulated bold but flowing shapes that often evoke simple landscapes. The paper-like shapes, often with torn edges, are sometimes semi-lucent and sometimes merge into each other or divide. The dreamlike effect is enhanced by the flickering boil of the background.
A much darker ‘night’ piece in blues, blacks and reds. Similar flowing shapes, but often jabbed and ivershadowed from the top by sharp triangles and oppressive ‘city’ squares and rectangles.
1925. A very rhythmic piece around danving black andcwhite lines – African in reference. With a sensuous blue section, and more violeht red and black.
1924. A more geometric piece in blue/black, black/white and red. Mysterious shapes evocative of ancient pyramids and temples flow in and out superimposed, sometimes showing power, sometimes sensuously. Much of the effect js achieved by very subtle differences in colour, sharp/soft/ragges/translucent edge lines.
1922 ‘the champion’ advertisement for Excelsior Reifen tyre company using abstract shapes with cartoon narrative.