Bute: Science and Story


Mary Ellen Bute utilized absolute music as Oskar Fischinger did, at times imposing narrative gestures on certain pieces, but she also branched out into pure programmatic music, finding great success with a film that featured “characters.” Born in Texas in 1906, Bute studied art and dance from childhood but also had a fierce passion for science. She studied stage lighting and taught drama in the 1920s. Her experience of the paintings of Kandinsky was deeply influential to her life’s work. As a music lover and visual artist, she attempted at first to capture the images music inspired on canvas, in a manner similar to Kandinsky's style.32 But Bute seemed to be striving for rhythmic and mathematical visuals that, like music, would move through time.33

In 1929 Bute met Leo Theremin whose work with the instrument that bears his name seemed to Bute to be a way to bring movement to music.34 She assisted Theremin in presenting the paper,
The Perimeters of Light and Sound and Their Possible Synchronization which was a project exploring the possibilities of “drawing” with electronics. Their experiments ended due to “extreme lack of funds” and Theremin’s return to Russia.35

Interested in studying music in more depth, Bute began work with noted musicologist Joseph Schillinger whose mathematical formula by which all music could be analyzed—the “universal law of composition”—helped her synchronize visual images to musical sound.36 Bute created the film
Synchromy with Schillinger using this theory. In 1934 Bute met animator Ted Nemeth (who would later become her husband) and the two began collaborating on a series called “Seeing Sound” that would explore the relationship of music and visual images. Synchromy 2, set to an aria from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, achieved modest success. Her next film Escape, superimposed a programmatic idea onto a piece of absolute music. Escape, set to Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Toccata in D Minor, portrays a triangle that seems to escape from a prison-like grid (see Figure 4). The smoky background and dark colors of the film convey a sense of sinister oppression. The trapped triangle, by contrast, is red (see Figure 4). The bars of the grid appear in time to the music and each musical gesture is accompanied by a synchronized movement (see Clip 1). As the music builds to a climax, the triangle “escapes” from the grid and seems to swell along with the music, as if the bars were not strong enough to hold this bold shape. Escape was not originally conceived as a visual analogue to the music and certainly the music on its own does not suggest the specific narrative Bute imposed.37 The film was actually completed before the music was added. Bute made some visual adjustments to match the musical motifs.38 Bute’s choice of the title Escape and the images themselves are the best indication of the artist’s narrative aims. Furthermore, in musical terms, a toccata is a piece of music designed to show the potentialities of an instrument and the skills of a performer. Toccatas often sound improvisatory in nature—as if the performer were creating such complexity in the moment—even if the music has been meticulously planned. They tend to cover the range of an instrument, from high to low, the range of dynamics from loud to soft, and display the virtuosic skills of the performer. It is fitting then, that Bute chose such a work for this film, because like a toccata, Escape reveals the artist’s skills and virtuosity in her medium. Although the images from the film are made up of simple components, it is Bute’s skill that renders these geometric shapes into a film of surprising dramatic complexity.

One of Bute’s most well-known films is
Spook Sport, an eight-minute short synchronized to the music of Camille Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre. The music is programmatic in nature. It tells a discernable story and portrays a number of characters which Bute identifies with a “cast of characters” card at the beginning of the film. The audience recognizes the characters throughout the film and consequently feels more comfortable with the visual images. Bute also tells the audience the place and time of the action. The “credits” card also reads: “Place: a deserted graveyard, Time: midnight” (see Figure 5).

The music begins with the harp plucking out the same pitch twelve times; the clock is striking midnight. Bute and fellow animator Norman McLaren show a clock with its hands on twelve and at each clock-strike another spook appears around the clock’s face (see Figure 6). In the music, a lone fiddler seems to step forward to “tune” his instrument (a solo violin plays double-stopped open strings). The sound is eerie because the one of the violin’s strings is tuned a half-step lower than usual, an effect called
scordatura. Two of the film’s ghosts undulate in time to the tuning. As the flutes begin to play the first theme of the “dance,” the twelve spooks surround the ghosts. The solo violin then plays a waltz-like theme as the spooks and ghosts dance under the full moon.

Although the animation moves in time to the music throughout the film, there are two particular moments that feature specific gestures synchronized to the music. When a xylophone plays a prominent theme in the music, the animation features the ghosts dancing over a xylophone made of bones (see Clip 2). Similarly, when the timpani plays a motif later in the piece, bone mallets play drums in time to the music (see Clip 3).

The piece
Danse Macabre features a parody of the Dies Irae melody, the traditional plainchant performed at Masses for the dead. In keeping with the lighthearted nature of the music, Saint-Saëns gave the dies irae a courtly dance rhythm. Bute and McLaren mirror this courtly waltz by having the ghosts swing an animated bell that dances to the lively tune. As the piece grows more active with the musical representation of the wind whipping up, the dance of the spooks grows more active as well. The two main themes of the music appear simultaneously with all instruments playing in a dense texture. Consequently, all the “characters” with the exception of the sun, appear on screen. The spooks create geometric shapes and the ghosts undulate in front of the face of the moon (see Clip 4). The music dies down as dawn approaches and the graves open up to receive their occupants for the day. As the oboe plays what is thought of as the rooster crowing, a picture of a rooster appears (see Figure 7). The music plays the last spook to his grave and the sun appears on the screen (see Figure 8). Day is back and the spooks and ghosts are gone. Spook Sport is a splendid example of animation which responds to pre-existent music both in terms of the narrative and in terms of actual sound.

Mary Ellen Bute continued to animate classical and newly composed music through the 1940s. She began to feel, though, that she had reached the limit of what one could do with traditional animation and serendipitously met up with Ralph Potter from Bell Telephone Labs.39 Potter suggested that she could “animate” using a modified cathode ray oscilloscope that would react to the music by creating electronic pictures of the sound. In 1952 she created a film and a technique called “Abstronics” a combination of “abstractions” and “electronics.” Bute described the technique in this way:

  By turning knobs and switches on a control board I can “draw” with a beam of light with as much freedom as with a brush. As the figures and forms are produced by light on the oscilloscope screen, they are photographed on motion picture film. By careful conscious repetition and experiment, I have accumulated a repertoire of forms.40
Bute only experimented with Abstronics for a short time, turning to live-action films soon after.
Bute began making abstract animated films after Fischinger, and was heavily influenced by him,41but she also developed a unique personal style. Lewis Jacobs, a journalist of the time, stated:
  [Bute’s films] were variations on Fischinger’s methods, but less rigid in their patterns and choices of objects, tactile in their forms; more sensuous in their use of light and color rhythms, more concerned with the problems of depth, more concerned with music complimenting rather than corresponding to the visuals.42

Although Fischinger seemed to be the patriarch of the abstract animated film, it is clear that Bute’s personal style and her contact with Joseph Schillinger, Norman McLaren, Ted Nemeth, and Ralph Potter, helped her develop filmmaking techniques distinct from that of her predecessors and unique among her contemporaries.