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Caption: Mary Ellen Bute with her oscilloscope, courtesy Center for Visual Music
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It's been a wham-bang season for New Music Circle—they've brought everyone from Mephista to the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet to Caboladies to the Lotte Anke Trio to town. And on April 5, they are presenting something completely different: "Seeing Sound: Visual Music Films," a program from L.A.'s Center for Visual Music, screened in association with Webster Film Series. The films were chosen by Cindy Keefer, curator/archivist and the director of CVM; the program is a collection of rarely seen abstract and experimental films that fall under the category of visual music. "I curated this new program with films demonstrating a wide range of approaches to music which have been used by some of the most important pioneers of visual music," Keefer explains. The concept of "visual music," is sometimes easily misunderstood—we asked her for a proper definition, which you'll find in the Q&A below. (You can also peruse CVM's library for essays on the definitions and history of visual music here.)
The lineup includes the work of Mary Ellen Bute, pictured above, who, Keefer says, "fed her music soundtracks through an oscilloscope, filmed the patterns made by the music, and included these patterns in her animated films" (including Abstronic, which screens on April 5), as well as Jordan Belson, who died just a few years ago at the age of 85. In its obituary, the New York Times described Belson as "part avant-garde animator, part optical alchemist, part mystic, part psychologist of perception," whose short fiilms, made between the late forties and the mid-aughts,"defy ready classification."
"Seeing Sound," will also include several films by Oskar Fischinger, whose work may be familiar to St. Louisans thanks to the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, who showed his drawings and paintings in 2007. (You can see an excerpt of "Kreise (Circles)" here: https://vimeo.com/55181698.) Fischinger in particular has a fascinating career arc (he worked in mainstream studios while producing his own avant-garde films, and invented a device called The Lumigraph), and if your interest is further piqued after watching his films, you can pick up an advance copy of Keefer's new book, Oskar Fischinger (1900-1969): Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction, co-edited with Jaap Guldemond, at the screening (you can also find it at CVM's site).
Here is the program in its entirety:
- Walther Ruttmann, Opus IV, 1925, 16mm, b/w, silent, 4 mins.
- Oskar Fischinger, Studie nr 5, 1930, 35mm, b/w, sound, 4 mins. Music: “I’ve Never Seen a Smile Like Yours” from the film The Perfect Alibi.
- Oskar Fischinger, Kreise (Circles), 1933-34, 35mm, color, sound, 2 min. Music: Venusberg ballet music from Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner, and the ending of “Triumphal March” from Sigurd Jorsalfar by Edvard Grieg
- Oskar Fischinger, Composition in Blue, 1935, 35mm, color, sound, 4 min. Music: Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai.
- Oskar Fischinger, Allegretto, 1936-43, 35mm, color, sound, 2.5 min. Music: “Radio Dynamics” by Ralph Rainger
- Oskar Fischinger, Radio Dynamics, 1942, 35mm, color, intentionally silent, 4 min. An experiment in color rhythm.
- Norman McLaren, Dots (1940) and Loops (1940), 35mm, color, sound, c. 5 min. Sound: drawn sound by Norman McLaren.
- Len Lye, Kaleidoscope, 1935, color, sound, 4 min. Music: Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra. Originally 35mm, screened on 16mm.
- Len Lye, Colour Flight, 1938, color, sound, 4 min. Music: “Honolulu Blues” by Red Nichols and a rumba by the Lecuona Cuban Boys. Originally 35mm, screened on 16mm.
- Mary Ellen Bute, Abstronic, 1952, color, sound, 7 min. Music: Aaron Copland's "Hoe Down" and Don Gillis's "Ranch House Party." Originally 35mm, screened digitally
- Harry Smith, Film # 11, Mirror Animations, c. 1957, color, sound, 3:34 min Music: "Misterioso" by Thelonious Monk. Originally 16mm, screened digitally
- Jordan Belson, World, 1970, 5.5 mins. Originally 16mm, screened on video
- Stan VanDerBeek & Kenneth Knowlton, Poemfield no 2, 1966, color, sound, 6 mins, 16mm.
- Barry Spinello, Six Loop Paintings, 1970, color, sound, 11 mins. Sound: direct sound drawn by Spinello on the film’s optical soundtrack, 16mm.
We spoke with Keefer by email about how to properly define visual music; Oskar Fischinger's work; and the role of CVM in preserving and presenting visual music. Her answers follow the clip.
It seems like there is often confusion regarding the definition of what “visual music,” is—can you give a short definition to our readers?
First, visual music is not music videos or synesthesia, though some music videos may be considered to be visual music.
There is a 100-year history of Visual Music on film, and a bibliography stretching back many centuries. But what is VM? There are a number of definitions today, rapidly expanding and changing as this field grows.
Film historian William Moritz wrote in 1986 of “a music for the eye comparable to the effects of sound for the ear.” He asked us to contemplate, “What are the visual equivalents of melody, harmony, rhythm and counterpoint?”
Some simple definitions include:
A time-based visual structure that is similar to the structure of a kind or style of music. A new composition created visually but as if it were an aural piece. This can have sound, or exist silent.
A visualization of music, which is the translation of music or sound to a visual language, with the original syntax being emulated in the new visual rendition.
For more on the definitions of visual music, see "On Curating Recent Digital Abstract Visual Music," by Jack Ox and Cindy Keefer.
In an earlier email, you mentioned that Oskar Fischinger is considered the “Father of Visual Music.” Can you explain his work a bit more?
Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) is the most important and influential filmmaker in visual music. He produced over 50 short films and 800 paintings, and is recognized as the father of Visual Music, the grandfather of music videos, and the great-grandfather of motion graphics. He made some of the very first music videos in 1930 for Electrola Records. His films and paintings are in museums worldwide. His films have influenced generations of filmmakers, animators and artists, continuing to the present day.
Can you touch on the Center for Visual Music, the work that CVM does, and your role?
CVM is an archive dedicated to visual music, experimental animation and abstract cinema.
CVM is committed to preservation, curating, education, scholarship and distribution of the film, performances and other media of this tradition, and related documentation and artwork. We hold the world's largest collection of visual music-related resources. Our collections include films, video/digital work, papers, books, artwork and animation drawings, artifacts, and much more.
CVM’s lectures, programs, preserved films and other materals from our collections are regularly featured in museum exhibitions, cultural centers, archives, universities and festivals worldwide. We recently had Oskar Fischinger installations and exhibitions at Tate Modern, London and The Whitney Museum, New York.
CVM preserves and promotes significant historical films of this tradition; currently we are preserving films by Oskar Fischinger, Jordan Belson, and Charles Dockum. We also curate and program contemporary work; more information on both can be found on our website, centerforvisualmusic.org.
I am the director of CVM and one of its founders; other of our founders include Dr. William Moritz, Barbara Fischinger, John Whitney, Jr., and Jules Engel. We were founded in 2003 in Los Angeles.
This program focuses on the pioneers of visual music, but I was curious about contemporary practitioners in the field; who are the artists today who are carrying on the legacy of the artists included in “Seeing Sound?”
Visual music thrives today, especially in the UK and Europe; there are many hundreds of contemporary practitioners worldwide. One of the filmmakers in the show at NMC, Barry Spinello, is currently working on a new film.
"Seeing Sound: Visual Music Films," screens Friday April 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $6, $5 for seniors, students and Webster alumns, and $4 for Webster staff and faculty; admission is free for current Webster students. The screening will be held at the Winifred Moore Auditorium on the Webster U. campus, 470 E. Lockwood. For more information: email@example.com or 1-888-NMC-STL 1.