Kinetic Art

Kinetic Art (1929)

Maybe this article shouldn't strictly be classed as a Theremin 'Invention', but Leon Theremin's work and experimentations with Joseph Schillinger and Mary Ellen Bute led to some stunningly vivid kinetic films.

In the mid 1930s, Mary Ellen Bute was the first American to make abstract motion pictures, and in the early 1950s the first person in the world to use electronic imagery in a film. She studied with many experimental music pioneers, including Joseph Schillinger and Leon Theremin. Bute's introduction to Ted Nemeth led to a partnership (and marriage in 1940) that produced 12 short musical abstract films with such materials as oscilloscopes, mirrors, and three dimensional objects - often to classical music. Her films were presented in commercial theatres across the country, usually as the short with a first-run prestige feature, such as Mary of Scotland, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, or Hans Christian Andersen--which means that millions saw her work, many more than most other experimental animators.

The diminutive Mary Ellen grew up in Texas, and retained a soft southern accent and gentil demeanor throughout her life. She studied painting in Texas and Philadelphia, but felt frustrated by the inability to wield light in a flowing time-continuum. She studied stage lighting at Yale in an attempt to gain the technical expertise to create a "color organ" which would allow her to paint with living light-and also haunted the studios of electronic genius' Leon Theremin and Thomas Wilfred whose Clavilux instrument projected sensuous streams of soft swirling colors.

Polka Graph (1952) Mary
Ellen Bute : Courtesy of William Moritz She was drawn into filmmaking by a collaboration with the musician Joseph Schillinger, who had developed an elaborate theory about musical structure, which reduced all music to a series of mathematical formulae. Schillinger wanted to make a film to prove that his synchronization system worked in illustrating music with visual images, and Mary Ellen undertook the project of animating the visuals. The film was never completed, and a still published with an article by Schillinger in the magazine Experimental Cinema No. 5 (1934) makes it clear why: the intricate image, reminiscent of Kandinsky's complex paintings, would have taken a single animator years to redraw thousands of times.

Mary Ellen continued to use the Schillinger system in her subsequent films, often to their detriment, for Schillinger's insistence on the mathematics of musical quantities fails to deal with musical qualities, much as John Whitney's later Digital Harmony theories. Many pieces of music may share exactly the same mathematics quantities, but the qualities that make one of them a memorable classic and another rather ordinary or forgettable involves other non-mathematical factors, such as orchestral tone color, nuance of mood and interpretation. In Mary Ellen's weakest works, like the 1951 Color Rhapsodie, she is betrayed precisely by this problem, using gaudily-colored, percussive images of fireworks explosions during a soft, sensuous passage--perfectly timed mathematically, but unsuited to mood and tone color.

Working in Color
Color Rhapsody (1951) Mary Ellen Bute : Courtesy of William
Moritz Beginning with the 1939 Escape, Mary Ellen began to work in color, and used more conventional animation for the main themes in the music, but still combining it with "special effect" backgrounds--sometimes swirling liquids, clouds or fireworks, other times light effects created with conventional stage lighting, such as imploding or exploding circles made by rising in or out a spotlight.

For the 1940 Spook Sport, Mary Ellen hired Norman McLaren (living in New York before he went to Canada) to draw directly on film strips the "characters" of ghosts, bats, etc., to synchronize with Saint-Sa´┐Żns' Danse Macabre. Mary Ellen kept McLaren's painted originals, and reused some of the images in later films, including Tarantella (1941), Color Rhapsodie (1951) and Polka Graph (1952), where they seem less at home stylistically than in their original context.

Combining Science and Art
Abstronic (1954) Mary Ellen Bute : The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive In 1954, Mary Ellen began using oscilloscope patterns to create the main "figures" in her films. In her publicity, which is often repeated, she claimed to be the first person to combine "science and art" in this way, and she sold her last two films Abstronic (1954) and Mood Contrasts (1956) on their novelty. Actually, Norman McLaren used oscilloscope patterns in 1950 to generate abstract images for his Around is Around, which was screened at the Festival of Britain in 1951--and described in technical detail in American Cinematographer. Hy Hirsh also used oscilloscope imagery in his 1951 Divertissement Rococo in his 1953 Eneri and Come Closer. The sort of shapes that Mary Ellen captured from the cathode ray tube for her films seems somewhat simpler or weaker than the forms McLaren and Hirsh use in their films. But she makes up for the "slinky" look of her main figures by imaginative backgrounds and animation supplements. In the 1954 Abstronic, Mary Ellen uses her own paintings, with a kind of surrealist depth perspective, zooming in and out in rhythmic pulsations synched with the beat of "hoe down" music. In the exciting Mood Contrasts (1956, incorporating animation from a 1947 film Mood Lyric), she created her most complex collage of animation and special effects, including a striking sequence of colored lights refracting through glass bricks in oozing soft grid patterns .

Mary Ellen made two more commercial shorts, a 1958 Imagination number for the Steve Allen television show, and a 1959 commercial for RCA, New Sensations in Sound, both of which are clever, sharply edited collages of effects from her previous films. In 1956 she made a live-action short The Boy Who Saw Through and spent the next decade working on a live-action feature based on James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. In the 1970s, feminists "rediscovered" Mary Ellen as a pioneer woman filmmaker, but by that time many of her abstract films were no longer available in good prints, and the original nitrates were dispersed to archives in Wisconsin, Connecticut and New York. She was still, however, celebrated justly for a major achievement in making her films and distributing them herself, against all odds, successfully. Mary Ellen is also quite important as a formative influence on Norman McLaren. The kind of titles Mary Ellen used to preface her films, explaining them to an average audience as a new kind of art linking sight and sound prefigure McLaren's similar audience--friendly prefaces to his National Film Board experiments. Mary Ellen also proudly announced that she had used combs and collanders and whatever else to make the imagery in her films, encouraging a delight in simplicity and novelty of experimentation. Surely this left its mark on McLaren, too.

On May 7, 1976, she gave a talk at the Art Institute of Chicago. The following was assembled from her remarks.

I was a painter in Texas and lived on a ranch until my Houston art teacher arranged for a scholarship for me at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. This was a whole new world for me. Practically all of the articles and journals that had reached my part of Texas were very against modern art.

So when I went to Philadelphia I was deeply impressed by the wonderful Picassos, the African art, the Paul Klees, the Braques, the Kadinskis. Kadinski used abstract, nonobjective canvas the way you experience a musical composition. Well, I thought it was terrific but these things should be unwound in time continuity. It was a dance. That became my objective.

I came to New York and tried to find the technical means. The most developed thing at the time was stage lighting. I went to an art school where we did many things with lighting, but that wasn't adequate, an art medium per se. Then by fluke I got into Yale, and they had a fabulous switchboard -- and I became one of its runners, reaching for my kinetic art form.

From Yale I got the job of taking drama around the world and got to see the Noh of Japan and the Taj Mahal of India, where gems surrounded the building. I looked into the gems and saw reflected the Taj Mahal and the lake and the whole thing appealed to me enormously. It was romantic and a kinetic, visual thing. I started entertaining myself by imagining these designs and patterns all in movement.

Back in New York I related all of this to Thomas Wilfred, who at that time had developed a color organ. This was in 1929. Then I heard from Leon Theremin and apprenticed myself to his sound studio to learn more about composition. He became interested in my determination to develop a kinetic visual art form and helped me with experiments.

We submerged tiny mirrors in tubes of oil, connected them to an oscillator, and drew where these points of light were flying. The effect was thrilling for us -- it was so pure.

But it wasn't enough. Finally we got a Bolex camera and started to make my first film, 'Rhythm in Light'. It was mostly three-dimensional animation, pyramids, and ping pong balls, and all inter-related by light patterns - and I wasn't happy unless it all entered and exited exactly as I had planned.

From Field of Vision Magazine No 13, Spring 1985

Theremin also recounted his work with Bute, this time to Galeyev. The interview has been translated from the Russian original. Unfortunately, it appears that either Theremin or the book's author has confused Einstein with Eisenstein.

Once upon a time, I had read in post-war magazine that the noted American film avantguardist, author of many light-musical films, Mary-Ellen Bute experimented in Theremin's studio when she was young. (An interview with Mary-Ellen Bute. - Film Culture, 1964-1965,N35,pp.25-26)

One day I asked Lev Sergeyevich about her.

"I remember her very well.", he said, "She was so young and pretty this Ellen Bute. She carried out together with Einstein light-musical experiments in my studio."

"You should know such a physicist?" I exclaimed, "With Einstein? With the very Einstein who is author of the Theory of Relativity?! I know from books that you met with him in Europe. I know also that you played duos with him (he on violin, you on the theremin) when he fled from fascist Germany to America... "

"There were not only duos and not only with me. I hired the studio specially for them. Mary drew various pictures on his instructions. All the walls were covered with them. They chose then the pictures to match to the music".

I hope I will not go mad! I wonder whether biographers of the great physicist know the fact? It is well known fact Einstein liked to be on friendly terms with young women. But does anybody know that he was friend with the woman on such unusual occasion?

From Galeyev: " Soviet Faust (Lev Termen - pioneer of electronic art)"
Published in Russian, in Kazan, 1995

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