With kaleidoscopic and surreal imagery that dances across the screen in perfect succession to its musical accompaniment, the film and animation of Mary Ellen Bute puts the viewer in an alluring dreamlike world where music is not only heard but also seen. Active from the 1930s until her death in 1983, Bute was on a continued quest to unite images and sound through her work. In this pursuit she explored many different tactics of animation and experimental filmmaking, most famously oscilloscope-generated imagery. The latter practice involves using the oscilloscope, an instrument designed to observe and track electrical signals and use information about voltage and configuration gained from this process to describe shapes. Bute began filming the images generated by music she fed through this instrument. Cindy Keefer a curator, archivist, and director for the Los Angeles based Center for Visual Music (CVM) explains, "She then combined those images with that same music and layers of animation. Other animators began to film oscilloscopes after this, but her work makes her one of the earliest, and a pioneer in electronic art."
Before she became a pioneer in electronic art, Bute had a long journey through different fields of visual expression, first beginning with a study of painting in her home state of Texas. When the limiting dimensions of paint and canvas became bothersome she moved on to the study of light, enrolling in a stage lighting program in Yale University's drama department. It was here her fascination for taking painting to new dimensions by using light, not acrylics, truly blossomed. She was greatly inspired by the rise of experimentation and invention surrounding light art and hoped to gain the expertise through her studies to master the color organ, a machine for creating visual music the nature and mechanics of which has been developing since the 1700s.
Her first foray into the medium she would eventually flourish and innovate in was through a collaboration with composer Joseph Schillinger. Schillinger had been developing a composition theory that functioned around the idea all music could be systematized as series of mathematical formulae. It was his wish to create an adjoining film that would prove his theory could be extended to the illustration of music, and Bute took on the animation job. Unfortunately the images projected by Schillinger's theory were so complex, time constraints prevented the film from reaching full completion. It nevertheless displayed Bute's talents as an animator, and Schillinger's theories about the mathematization of music and visuals were ones she often turned to throughout her subsequent career.
While in view Bute's work seems ethereal, aerial flights of fancy performed by whips of light and cascades of moving shapes synchronized in perfect time to musical accompaniment, the making of them was far from esoteric. She approached the joining of sound and vision with a scientific precision, keeping up on new technologies and going to painstaking measures herself to create the shape and light configurations in her films sometimes drawing animations by hand on film or shooting inanimate objects out of focus or reflected in broken mirrors. "Beginning in the late 1930s, Bute called some of her films 'seeing sound,' and 'visual music,' and claimed they 'combined Science and Art to create Seeing Sound,' says Keefer of the role music plays in Bute's work.
CVM has had Bute's films in their collection since its inception in 2003, and over the years they have built a substantial collection of films and materials relating to her work. They have a traveling retrospective film program which includes 16mm prints of her experimental animation. CVM regularly does screenings of the retrospective, sometimes in part and sometimes in full, around the world so fans of Bute have a rare opportunity to see her work in high quality as opposed to the less ideal versions floating around online. They have also recently released Visual Music from the CVM Archive, 1947-1986: Belson, Bute, Dockum, Engel, Spinello, a new DVD that contains HD transfers of Bute's films.
As the rise of the internet and emerging visual and audio technology makes the relationship between audio and visual art more analogous, it's important to look back on the pioneers whose work paved the way for these developments. Mary Ellen Bute was not the kind of person satisfied with letting her ideas remain abstract thoughts, stating in 1936, "We need a new kinetic, visual art form - one that unites sound, color and form." Looking at her oeuvre in hindsight, it is clear the work is a well thought out experiment in seamlessly combining these elements.
For more information on upcoming screenings of the Mary Ellen Bute retrospective, visit the Center for Visual Music's Bute research site here. Click here to get your copy of Visual Music from the CVM Archive, 1947-1986: Belson, Bute, Dockum, Engel, Spinello.