Promises of Music for the Eye

The theme of this chapter is absolute film as it evolved in the 1920s. It was an art form in which the new medium of film was felt to be closely related to music. For this reason, absolute film mainly emphasized the specific character of the medium in its structure. The focus was on pure form, color, light projection, rhythm, the optical process and the texture of the film material itself, rather than on the representation of reality. Filmmakers dreamt of a dance of absolute forms, and the results of this were seen at the time as popular sensory sensations. The term Augenmusik (Eng.: music for the eye) should be understood in the same synesthetic and culinary sense as the phrase a feast for the eye: Both speak of physical, sensual pleasures that involve several sense organs simultaneously and address the body as a whole. The word Augenmusik was used for the first time by the film critic Bernhard Diebold in his enthusiasm after seeing the first screening of Walter Ruttmann’s film opus 1 in 1921. In his abstract films, Walter Ruttmann, who had been trained as a painter, was concerned with painting with time that was to be organized according to musical principles. Poets and painters played an important role in the development of avant-garde film in the 1920s. They felt the laws of cinematography to be the most closely related with those of painting and dance. For this reason, Walter Ruttmann considered cinematography to be one of the fine arts. He hoped that a marriage of music and painting (Bernhard Diebold) would help realize the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk. The analogy with music was also a central focus in the 1920s for Viking Eggeling, who, together with Hans Richter, worked on a the theoretical basis of film as an art of motion. Eggeling created for it a complex, polymorphic and combinatory language of graphemes. Strict rules and a rigorous system were to be used to express a new basso continuo of painting. It was hoped that a universal language could be created, one associated with political utopias of unrestricted comprehension. The development of sound film or sound track in around 1930 led to a completely new approach. Engineers and film artists like Rudolf Pfenninger, Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren created sounds from nothing by drawing forms on the sound track that could be perceived visually and acoustically at the same time. Len Lye is also famous for his painted films. With A Colour Box (1935), he made a vibrant film synchronized with popular Cuban dance music, which was used by the British General Post Office as advertising. The Seeing Sound films by Mary Ellen Bute are also connected with pop culture. Bute had studied painting and stage lighting, and created unusual and surprising animation films through her manifold experiments with film techniques. In contrast with the theoretically charged works by Richter and Eggeling, she wanted to render visually what happens in the mind when music is heard. Her success during her lifetime—she had performances in front of a mass audience in New York’s Radio City Music Hall—led to her being marginalized, but precisely this enabled her to realize that which Eggeling and Richter envisaged only in theory: a universal language suited to the masses. A line can be drawn from these early experimental approaches to today’s VJ culture and contemporary digital productions in the context of electronic music.

Hans Richter, Präludium, 1919

Hans Richter, Rhythmus 21, 1921/24

Viking Eggeling, Symphonie Diagonal, 1921–23

Viking Eggeling und Hans Richter, Universelle Sprache, 1921

Walther Ruttmann, Lichtspiel opus 1, 1921

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Sonatine II (rot), 1923/24

Rudolf Pfenninger, Tönende Handschrift 1 – Das Wunder des gezeichneten Tons, 1932

Oskar Fischinger, Ornament Sound, 1932

Oskar Fischinger, Radio Dynamics, 1942

Mary Ellen Bute, Rhythm in Light, 1934

Len Lye, A Colour Box, 1935

Norman McLaren, Pen Point Percussion, 1951

Peter Kubelka, Arnulf Rainer, 1960

Norbert Pfaffenbichler & Lotte Schreiber, 36, 2001

LIA, Construction 76, 2008