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September 29, 2014

Seeing Sound - A Mary Ellen Bute Retrospective

Presented in association with Center for Visual Music

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 Kandinskys… [Kandinsky] 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…

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...

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. – Mary Ellen Bute, excerpts from “Reaching for Kinetic Art,” Field of Vision Magazine, Spring 1985

A pioneer of visual music and electronic art, Mary Ellen Bute produced over a dozen short abstract animations between the 1930s to the 1950s. Set to classical music by the likes of Bach, Saint-Saens or Shostakovich, and filled with colorful forms, elegant design and sprightly, dance-like-rhythms, Bute's filmmaking is at once formally rigorous and energetically high-spirited, like a marriage of high modernism and Merrie Melodies. In the late 1940s, Lewis Jacobs observed that Bute's films were ‘composed upon mathematical formulae depicting in ever-changing lights and shadows, growing lines and forms, deepening colors and tones, the tumbling, racing impressions evoked by the musical accompaniment.’ Bute herself wrote that she sought to "bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding along with the thematic development and rhythmic cadences of music.’ – Ed Halter, critic, curator and professor in the Department of Film and Electronic Arts, Bard College

Some of Mary Ellen Bute’s pioneering early abstract films were shown at Radio City Music Hall in the 1930s and often screened before Hollywood features or even at RCA Victor sales conventions, possibly making her one of the most widely-seen avant garde filmmakers in the US at the time according to film historian Cecile Starr. Usually working on 35mm, Bute refered to some of her films as "Seeing Sound" and this retrospective includes those dynamic works in addition to all of her other short abstract films, including some which are rarely screened. The Harvard Film Archive welcomes curator/archivist Cindy Keefer from the Center for Visual Music to introduce Bute’s innovative, exuberant work.

Prints from the Cecile Starr Collection at the Center for Visual Music

Introduction by Cindy Keefer
Monday September 29 at 7pm

All films directed by Mary Ellen Bute

Rhythm in Light

US 1934, 16mm, b/w, 5 min


Synchromy No. 2

US 1935, 16mm, b/w, 5 min



US 1936, 16mm, b/w, 3 min



US 1937, 16mm, b/w, 9 min



US 1937, 16mm, color, 5 min


Spook Sport

US 1939, 16mm, color, 8 min



US 1940, 16mm, color, 5 min


Polka Graph

US 1947, 16mm, color, 5 min


Color Rhapsody

US 1948, 16mm, color, 6 min



US 1948, 16mm, color, 3 min


New Sensations in Sound

US 1949, 16mm, color, 3 min



US 1950, 16mm, color, 9 min


Mood Contrasts

US 1953, 16mm, color, 7 min



US 1952, digital video, color, 7 min


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