Sight Unseen Presents Seeing Sound: Mary Ellen Bute Retrospective

80 minutes, 16mm, digital

Director: Mary Ellen Bute

Seeing Sound: Mary Ellen Bute Retrospective
Presented in association with Center for Visual Music
The Parkway, Theatre 3
5 West North Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201
$10 general admission/$9 students/$8 members
Notes courtesy Center for Visual Music’s Bute Research site
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)
Known for her pioneering early abstract films (some of which were screened regularly at Radio City Music Hall, New York in the 1930s), Bute made a series of Visual Music films which she called “Seeing Sound.” The Retrospective Program from Center for Visual Music features all 14 of her short abstract films, including some rarely-seen films, most in 16mm prints: Rhythm in Light, 1934; Synchromy No. 2, 1935; Dada, 1936; Parabola, 1937; Escape, 1937; Spook Sport (animated by Norman McLaren), 1939; Tarantella, 1940; Polka Graph, 1947; Color Rhapsody, 1948; Imagination, 1948; New Sensations in Sound, 1949 (RCA Commercial); Pastorale, 1950, Abstronic, 1952 and Mood Contrasts, 1953.
Center for Visual Music (CVM) is a Los Angeles archive dedicated to experimental animation and visual music. Prints are from the Cecile Starr Collection at CVM.
More about Mary Ellen Bute:
Rhythm in Light, 1934, 16mm, b/w , 5 min
Collaboration with Melville Webber and Ted Nemeth. Premiered at Radio City Music Hall, 1935. In the “Rhythm in Light,” the artist uses visual materials as the musician uses sound. Mass and line and brilliant arabesques from the inexhaustible imagination of the artist perform a dance to the strains of Edward Grieg’s music. The visual and aural materials are related both structurally and rhythmically – a mathematical system being used to combine the two means of expression. – Ted Nemeth Studios flyer
Synchromy No. 2, 1935, 16mm, b/w, 5 min
Music: Wagner’s “Evening Star.” Premiered at Radio City Music Hall
Dada, 1936, 16mm, b/w, 3 min
For Universal Newsreel. “Animated with Dada humor to a waltz tune. Witty and delightful, it flashes off the screen too soon.” – CUE magazine
Parabola, 1937, 16mm, b/w, 9 min
Music: Darius Milhaud’s “La Creation du Monde.” Based on Rutherford Boyd’s extraordinary sculpture elaborating the parabolic curve.
Escape, 1937, 16mm, color, 5 min
Music: Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Escape was based on a simple plot set against a musical background, and employed geometric figures for the action. (Bute)
Spook Sport, 1939, 16mm, color, 8 min
Music: Saint-Saen’s “Danse Macabre.” A new abstract movie in the ‘Seeing Sound’ series by M.E. Bute. “Fun abstract movie that PEOPLE are TALKING ABOUT, filled with disembodied spooks, bats and bones.” -Allene Talmey, Vogue
Tarantella, 1940, 16mm, color, 5 min
Piano music by Edwin Gershefsky. “An exciting new technique…Unusual and amusing…” (Film Daily)
Polka Graph, 1947, digital, color, 5 min
Began as an actual chart of Shostakovich’s Polka from “The Age of Gold.” Award winner at Venice Film Festival.
Color Rhapsodie, 1948, 16mm, color, 6 min
Music: Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” Premiered at Radio City Music Hall 1951. “[Bute] transcends her influences; her visual imagination triumphs. I like the romantic flair of COLOR RHAPSODY, its visual density…I think it is time to re-see and re-evaluate all of Bute’s work in a new light.” – Jonas Mekas, Soho Weekly News
Imagination, 1948, 16mm, color, 3 min
Produced for Steve Allen show. “…surrealist film…unreal and delectable shapes floating about…the work of Mary Ellen Bute – a pioneer in this sort of thing whose talents should be more often used.” – Gilbert Seldes, Saturday Review
New Sensations in Sound, c. 1949, 16mm, color, 3 min
Advertisement produced for RCA sales meetings.
Pastorale, 1950, 16mm, color, 9 min
Music: J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” A pictorial accompaniment in abstract forms.
Mood Contrasts, 1953, 16mm, color, 7 min
Music: “Hymn to the Sun” from The Golden Cockerel and “Dance of the Tumblers” from The Snow Maiden by Rimsky-Korsakov. Premiered at Radio City Music Hall. “An abstract film made in this fashion provides, in the making as well as the seeing and listening, one of the most thrilling experiences the motion picture affords.” (Jesse Zunser, “Kinetic Space,” CUE Magazine
Abstronic, 1952, digital, color, 7 min
Music: Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down” and Don Gillis’s “Ranch House Party.” These electronic pictures of the music are a natural phenomena which take place in the sub-atomic world; they are then captured on the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope and filmed with the motion picture camera. The colored backgrounds are hand done and superimposed on the electronic animation of the musical themes. -Ted Nemeth Studios