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Mary Ellen Bute, from a talk given at the Chicago Art Institute, 1976

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. That 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 so deeply impressed by the wonderful Picassos, the African art, the [Paul] Klees, the Braques, the Kandinskys… He [Kandinsky] used abstract, nonobjective elements so you could experience a 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 it wasn’t adequate, an art medium per se. Then, by a fluke, I got into Yale… and they had a fabulous switchboard, and of course 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, oh, the Noh drama of Japan, and the Taj Mahal in 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. .. because it was romantic and because it was 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 by that time had developed a color organ. This was in 1929 .. . Then I heard about 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 to an oscillator, and drew where these points of light wereflying . The effect was thrilling for us-it was so pure. But it wasn’t enough. Finally we got a Bolex camera, and started analyzing, to make my first film, Rhythm in Light (1934) . It was mostly three-dimensional animation . Pyramids, and ping pong balls, and all interrelated by light patterns-, and I wasn’t happy unless it all entered and exited exactly as I had planned.
(Articulated Light Harvard Film Archive – Anthology Film Archives, 1956 )

Bulat Galeev, Statement about Theremin/Bute, Kasan 2006

Maybe you will be interested by the story my older colleague Lev Theremin told me many years ago. When L.Theremin lived and worked in USA (1929-1939), he had electronic music studio. According to his words, the great physicist A.Einstein conducted experiments in cooperation with young M.E.Bute in that studio, searching for correspondences between geometric figures and music. Theremin could not to recall in details how this work was done. He remembered a great number of abstract pictures hanged on the walls. I’d mentioned this episode in my book “Soviet Faust: Lev Theremin, a Pioneer of Electronic Art”.

Seppo Gruendler, Kurznotizen zu Fischinger/Bute, Graz 2006

Oskar Fischinger nahm neue Musik für seine Animationen, war kommerziell nicht interessiert, ging an seine Arbeiten mit einem sehr gestalterischen Impetus heran. ER Kündigte auch deswegen seinen Vertrag mit Walt Disney (Fantasia, verbot die Verwendung seiner Animationen) hatte aber eine Frau, die seine Arbeit vermarktete und seinen Nachlass verwaltet.

Mary Ellen Bute hatte immer einen sehr pragmatischen Ansatz, bei der Auswahl der Musik zu ihren Animationen. Sie hielt die Absrakten Filme für schwer vermittelbar und benutzte die Musik als Hilfsmittel/Transportmittel um die Radikalität ihrer Animationsfime einem größeren Publikum zugänglich zu machen. Sie war nach der Heirat mit Ted Nemeth stark in die Produktionsfirma ihres Mannes eingebunden. Die Animationsfilme wurden mit der dem US-amerikanischen Raum eigentümlichen Selbstverständlichkeit vermarktet. Als der Markt es verlangte, drehte sie TV-Filme. Trotzdem ist ihr letztes filmisches Werk (Finnegans Wake) ja auch nicht gerade als Massenkost zu bezeichnen. Um ihren Nachlass kümmert sich die Filmhistorikerin Cecile Star.

Mary Ellen Bute: “Light Form Movement Sound” Design. New York, c. 1935

The Absolute Film is not a new subject. lt is concerned with an art which has had as logical a development as other arts, perhaps slowly but naturally.

This art is the interrelation of light, form, movement, and sound-combined and projected to stimulate an aesthetic idea. lt is unassociated with ideas of religion, literature, ethics or decoration. Here light, form, and sound are in dynamic balance with kinetic space relations.

The Absolute Film addresses the eye and the ear. Other motion pictures, although making use of sensations of sight and sound, address not the eye and the ear but the intellect. For example, in realistic films, the medium is subordinate to story, symbol or representation. We view an Absolute Film as a stimulant by its own inherent powers of sensation, without the encumbrance of literary meaning, photographic Imitation, or symbolism. Our enjoyment of an Absolute Film depends solely on the effect it produces: whereas, in viewing a realistic film, the resultant sensation is based on the mental image evoked.

Cinematographers, painters and musicians find a common enthusiasm in the absolute film. Through using the motion picture camera creatively, cameramen find a seemingly endless source of new possibilities and means of expression undreamed of while the camera was confined to use merely as a recording device. But we must tum back to painters and musicians to find the ideas which probably motivated the Absolute Film into a state of being.

Work in the field of the Absolute Film is accelerating both here and abroad. The foundations for it were laid years ago, and it was more recently anticipated by Cezanne and his followers with whom we have an abstract art of painting taking form. Cezanne used the relationships between color and form, discarding the former mixture of localized light and shade by stressing relationship, he lifted color from imitating objective nature to producing a visual sensation in itself. His paintings of still lives: apples and tablecloth, are not conceived in a spirit of objective representation; they are organized groups of forms having relationships, balanced proportions and visual associations. His use of color on a static surface reaches a point where the next step demanded an introduction of time sequence and a richer textural range.

The Cubists tried to produce on a static surface a sensation to the eye, analogous to the sensation of sound to the ear. That is, by the device of presenting simultaneously within the same visual field the combined aspects of the same object views from many different angles or at different intervals. They tried to organize forms distantly related to familiar objects to convey subjective emotions aroused by the contemplation of an objective world.

The element of music appears in the paintings of Kandinsky. He painted abstract compositions based on an arbitrary chromatic scale of the senses.

The word color appears often in the writing of Wagner. In the “Reminis of Amber” (1871) he writes: “Amber made his music reproduce each contrast, every blend in contours and color–we might almost fancy we had actual music paintings.”

There is simply no end to the examples which we might cite. Some musicians have gone on record as having color associations with specific instruments.

These experiments by both musicians and painters, men of wide experience with their primary art material, have pushed this means of combining the two mediums up into our consciousness. This new medium of expression is the Absolute Film. Here the artist creates a world of color, form, movement and sound in which the elements are in a state of controllable flux, the two materials (visual and aural) being subject to any conceivable interrelation and modification.