Introduction: Art Music and Abstract Animation
In the first half of the twentieth century,
makers of experimental, abstract animated films often chose pre-existent
music for their soundtracks.
These animators achieved varying degrees of success with their work;
some films reached a mainstream audience while others remained unseen.
In many cases, the popularity of a film depended in large part on the
effectiveness of the animation coupled with the familiarity of the
music on the soundtrack. In the films of Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967),
contemporary music and music of the Classical and Baroque periods lent
structure to the visual images, allowing the animator to demonstrate
aspects of form. Other filmmakers, like Mary Ellen Bute (1906-1983),
used popular music, art music, and nineteenth century programmatic
music—that is, music that draws upon an extra-musical story or
idea—as a way to manipulate abstract images in a narrative context.
Art music and its foundations in form and narrative inspired some stylistic
elements of Fischinger’s animation and some of the content of
Bute’s films; in their work, each artist drew upon his and her
previous musical experience. Both artists seemed to understand the
power of music in helping viewers to accept new visualizations, effectively
making their work more palatable to a mainstream audience. This is
especially true of music that the audience had heard before. For this
reason, many of the pieces Bute and Fischinger chose for their films
are part of the canon of Western Art Music, a collection of well-known
pieces from the classical music repertoire.
Although both Bute and Fischinger combined music and animated images--often
tightly synchronized, and non-representational in nature--their
career trajectories diverged radically as did their opportunities
Fischinger was commercially and artistically successful in Germany before
the Nazi regime labeled abstract art degenerate. Once he emigrated to
the United States, he struggled to find funding for his films.
His goals, like that of a feature-length, animated
movie of strictly non-representational images, inspired entirely by music,
never came to fruition, but he never stopped experimenting with new techniques
and media. Bute achieved commercial success early in her career. She
sold short films to Radio City Music Hall with little trouble
and received payments
from the Hall that rivaled what Disney was paid for his short animated
films. In time, she developed new animation techniques that combined
her creative process with her affinity for science. She
discovered many possibilities in the animation that she was creating,
but she began
working with live actors in narrative films in the 1950s.
Since both Bute and
Fischinger felt that music was such an important part of their art, we
may wonder: to what degree did Bute and Fischinger’s
skillful use of music contribute to their commercial and artistic
success and how did their
respective social and financial situations affect their artistic choices?
In this article, I briefly illustrate each animator's musical and
artistic background, and I discuss some of the particular situations
affected Fischinger and Bute's
and professional decisions.
Each animator had different motivations for using art music in
their work. Fischinger knew that a mainstream audience would
attempt to find
in his abstract art or at least wonder what his images represented.
He saw music as a way to help viewers accept his
art with little
resistance.2 Certainly, Fischinger
used music because of the grace he perceived in its forms—a structural
beauty he both drew upon and mirrored, but the artist also understood
that music would provide a familiar voice
to counterbalance his new images. Mary Ellen Bute, on the other hand,
began making films to “entertain [her]self.”3 When
she began trying to sell her work in earnest, she saw the potential
for using music that
would be familiar to the average moviegoer.4 Because
her films were shown before popular features at Radio City Music Hall,
this music would play
to “the little old ladies from New Jersey” as Bute referred
to some of her audience.5 In
their later careers, Fischinger continued to use a variety of musical
styles, including classical, through his very
last film, whereas Bute eventually considered the potential of music
newly composed in combination with images.