Rhythm in Motion
Part 2 of a 3 Part Essay on Music and Motion.
>>> PART 1 Read Here

The artistic developments in search of a ‘visual music’ took on a whole new realm for experimentation once the technological possibilities of movement were available. Film as a medium for expression amongst the early avant-gardes was a natural progression and in releasing the painting from its static state of the canvass, artists were given the means for spatial as well as rhythmic manipulation of their ideas. In line with this major evolution in the visual field, once again sound and music was to play a large part in influencing the artists’ visual palette.

In the Language of Vision, first published in 1944, Gyorgy Kepes writes, ‘The invention of the motion picture opened the way to a hitherto undreamed scope and flexibility of rhythmic organisation.’ (pg. 58 Dover Edition 1995). He continues with an analogy to music, quoting from a number of musical theorists on composition and making a direct link with the plastic qualities of color, tone, value, texture, form etc. with melody, counterpoint and rhythm. The shared temporal quality of motion picture and music had obviously been noted well before Kepes’ observations, however as he states himself, ‘The new possibilities of the synchronization of the temporal and spatial structure of the vision are, however, still barely touched upon.’

Early foundations though in these ‘possibilities’ had been experimented with, and one of the first purely graphical films with music still surviving today is Walter Ruttmann’s ‘Light Play Opus Nr. 1’, completed in 1921. It used colour painted directly on to the film stock, making use of tone and hue upon simplistic graphic forms that repeat in light synchronisation to an orchestrated music. Ruttman had gone to great lengths to indicate precise colour information on the musical score itself as an aid to the musicians. Although repetitive and rudimentary, the film had been a painstakingly difficult and complex creation for its time. It should be given more attention than it receives and stands as a brilliant example of the direction in which many would follow. It has been well documented that this particular piece had a decisive effect on a certain young compatriot who was to take the idea of painting music in motion as his life long creative quest, Oskar Fischinger. Fischinger had met Ruttman at the premier for Opus 1 and it is at this point that the influence as indeed the inspiration took its hold on the young artist. The work of Fishinger is a weighty subject and has been carefully documented by the late William Moritz of which a good number of his writings can be read on line. What is clear about Fishinger and his work, is that he remains, albeit with unfortunately modest recognition to this day, an historic cornerstone in the industry of the moving image. He helped develop new perspectives and was an inspiration for a generation of artists to come.

Oskar Fischinger with his ‘Sound Scrolls’

That first generation of artists to arise and draw upon these new perspectives in motion and sound comprised of Norman Mclaren, Len Lye, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson and the brothers John and James Whitney. All, except the Whitney brothers were to begin with painting directly on to film as a means to create and all were to work in strict syncopation with music. And a new style of music was to take hold, that of Jazz. It is interesting to note here, as a short parenthesis, how jazz became a huge influence not only on the avant-garde but also in creating strong ties with the modernist movement in general. The rise of graphic design saw it’s use for many an album cover from Columbia Records with designer Alex Steinweiss and Jim Flora to Reid Miles for Blue Note and David Stone Martin for Verve. This of course marks the beginnings of a strong tie between the two mediums of music and graphic design which were to develop in a sort of harmonic symbiosis and continue right up to the present day. Classical music on the other hand had already undergone huge developments in the early twentieth century. Arnold Schönberg, the father of modern music had exploded the traditional form of scale and compositional form, his developments having an enormous effect on the beginnings of abstract painting with notably Kandinsky at the helm. Jazz, however, brought with it a completely new dimension and a new energy that excited many visual artists working in the film medium. Jazz had rhythm, from rag time to swing, be-bop to improvisation and this quality alone was to inspire a colourful visual palette for decades to come.

Len Lye’s ‘Colour Box’ title screen. 1935

A notable early work that epitomises this marriage and a sense of true experimentation between the two mediums is Len Lye’s extraordinary 1935 work, ‘Colour Box’. It is a mix of jazz and African rhythm, ‘La Belle Créole’ which is visually interpreted by myriad colours of pure graphic rhythm. The creation was one of the first really successful, as well as critically acclaimed pieces of early moving abstract works. What is striking in ‘Colour Box’, is the complex and dynamic spectacle that meets the eye. The explosion of colour conjures fascination leaving the imagination to swell yet the rhythmic syncopated style that is coordinated with the music keeps the attention focused. Even the juxtaposition of the music’s composition is cleverly interpreted in the visual continuity of the film. The pure abstract quality may be nerving for your average passer-by and for some the film has little to offer than it’s enlightened technique of painting directly onto film. However, the technique was indeed an interesting new perspective and one that developed into what became known as ‘cameraless animation’. The visual with the sonic had therefore come a step closer and the possibility for the artist to paint directly in sync with the musical composition became a reality.

Harry Smith. Copyright Brian Graham. 1988

Ten years on from ‘Colour Box’, Harry Smith must take claim as the first video disc jockey of modern times. It’s the mid Forties and Smith projects his early abstract works in a west coast jazz club, Bop City. Whilst the musicians perform live improvisation, Smith modulates his images on the fly using a multi-speed projector. Harry Smith was a prolific artist and had made at least seven films alone, which were dedicated to Dizzie Gillespie’s music. Inspired by the occult and eastern philosophy, as were many of his colleagues of the time, he often spoke of his films in terms of synesthesia much like Kandinsky, searching for an ultimate relationship between colour and sound.

John & James Whitney. Lapis 1963-1966.
Copyright Estate of John and James Whitney

Two other West Coast artists, John and James Whitney also shared a fascination with eastern philosophies. John, being perhaps the better known of the two for his groundbreaking work in computer graphics and his presence in the film industry. They both had met with Oskar Fischinger at a gallery in 1939. Although the encounter could be seen as a motive for developing in line with Fishinger’s work, they eventually went on to pursue a much more intricately detailed and purely electronic view of what visual music could be. This came with John’s innovations in new technologies culminating in the creation of ‘Variations’ and two ‘Film Exercises’. John had invented a pendulum system, which enabled him to compose electronic sounds in tight synchronisation with the visual. He later went on to construct his ‘cam-machine’ – an analog computerised motion camera enabling him to have fine control over plotting graphics on to film. This was most famously used in collaboration with Saul Bass on the film titles for Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. John went on to set up business for the production of further commercial work in film and founded in 1952 the company, Motion Graphics Inc. Arguably, the first use of the term motion graphics in film history. The Whitney brothers had started to work with jazz scores in their early film work but were to develop an affinity for more Worldly rhythms as well as themselves compose some of the earliest electronic music in the mid Fifties.

The Whitney Brothers
Copyright Carl Machover

Squarewave Cards used by Norman McLaren
Copyright National Film Board of Canada

The discovery of a new way to create sound via electronic means was however nothing new and indeed had opened up a different perspective in bringing sound and image together. It had been termed ‘Tonal Handwriting’ to begin with and later on, ‘Animated Sound’. Another man was pioneering not only in the visual realm in both animation and film but also directly in the musical, taking off where early Russian experiments with Avzaamov and the Swiss born Rudolf Pfenninger had layed down important work. Scottish born Norman McLaren was directly influenced by his own ‘visions’ and desire to express music through visual means and some of his earliest works demonstrate this with superb results. He described three methods of working for creating sound with film: Painting or inking directly onto blank film, scratching into black film stock and photographing and exposing on film ‘sound cards’ that each depict pitch and tone. It is this third technique, which had first been developed by Pfenninger in his piece ‘Tönende Handscrift’, (Tonal Handwriting) that McLaren takes to perfection with his 1971 ‘Synchromy’. ‘Synchromy’ is a purely graphic work and the most explicit example of the technique. A mammoth 7 minutes over of ‘visual music’ perfectly justifying McLaren’s claim that, ‘you see what you hear.’

Original exposure sheet by Norman McLaren
Copyright National Film Board of Canada

In his ‘Workshop Experiments in Animated Sound’, 1957 we encounter visual ‘bleeps’ and ‘blips’, foreseeing some of today’s electronic music scene and visual work by half a century and the likes of arcade video game music by twenty years. Other works of McLaren are also equally interesting and were successful films, the likes of ‘Blinkity Blank’, 1955 and ‘Neighbours’ 1952 both used synthetic sound techniques and are critically acclaimed pieces. And there is ‘Loops’, 1940, ‘Canon’, 1964 and even one of his very first films for the GPO in London, ‘Book Bargain’, 1937 had started out with experiments with sound.

>>> Part Three : Sonic Pixels

Resources :

>>>The history of synthetic music drawn directly on filmstock.

>>> The Harry Smith Archives.

>>> “Who’s Who in Filmmaking: James Whitney.”
Sightlines. v.19 n.2 (Winter 1985/1986): 25-27.

>>>The IOTA Center.

>>>Norman McLaren – The Master’s Edition. DVD. ONF 2006

>>>Oskar Fischinger. Ten Films. DVD. Center for Visual Music 2006

Krasner, Jon.
Motion Graphic Design & Fine Art Animation. Focal Press, 2004

Sons & Lumière. Une Histroire du Son dans l’Art du XX Siècle
Editions de Centre Pompidou, Paris 2004