Art Music in the Abstract Animated Films of Oskar Fischinger and Mary Ellen Bute: Form, Structure, and Narrative1

by Christine Lee Gengaro


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 and experiences. 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 that affected Fischinger and Bute's aesthetic choices 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 meaning 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.