Beauty in the Abstract: 'Visual Music 1947-1986'

Mary Ellen Bute's Color Rhapsodie (1948)

These films present pure sensual pleasure unfettered by story, character and other left-brain constructs. In other words, this stuff is beautiful.


Director: various
Cast: N/A
Distributor: CVM
Year: 1947-1986
US Release date: 2017-02-27

The Center for Visual Music (CVM) in Los Angeles is a nonprofit film archive devoted to preserving and promoting the avant-garde, animated and abstract media that it calls "visual music". CVM's new DVD showcases films from five American artists. At their best, which is often, these films present pure sensual pleasure unfettered by story, character and other left-brain constructs. In other words, this stuff is beautiful.

Perhaps we should say Bute-iful. Mary Ellen Bute was a major filmmaker and a pioneering woman film artist who needs to have her output collected in one handy package, if anyone's listening. She did many things but is best remembered for films that illustrate musical works with abstract animated colorful shapes, a phenomenon associated with Oskar Fischinger and the Bach segment of the film he influenced, Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940).

This DVD offers three films made by Bute with her producer-photographer husband, Ted Nemeth. Polka Graph (1947) spins a geometric dance of squares, lines, asterisks, ghosts and skylines to Shostakovich's polka from his 1930 ballet, The Golden Age.

Color Rhapsodie (1948), which seems to invent previously unseen colors, prints footage of fireworks into gorgeous contortions to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #2. Discerning musicologists and film buffs will recall this piece from Tom & Jerry's The Cat Concerto and Bugs Bunny's Rhapsody Rabbit, which had duked it out on theater screens the previous year. It can never lend itself to too much animated anarchy.

From 1952, Abstronic pairs two hoedown-ish pieces, the actual hoedown from Aaron Copland's Rodeo, and a similar piece from Don Gillis, an under-recalled "pop" classicist who made heavy or rather light use of American vernaculars. In the visuals, a central melodic line is represented by repeating figures or squiggles against backgrounds of falling or floating and a visual motif that looks like falling scythes to cut the hay. It ends on galactic spirals.

Jordan Belson's Mandala (1953)

Another important filmmaker, Jordan Belson, is represented by three works evoking Hindu and Buddhist mysticism over gong sounds. Mandala (1953) uses pointillist style to create shifting circles that remind us of planets, cells and symbols. Meditation (1971) begins with white motes and sparks against a blue background, leading to smoke, water and lava imagery while the gong shimmers like chimes beckoning a wayward voyager. Chakra (1972) begins with a mushroom cloud contained in an orb, this destruction transitioning to blue/red rebirth in water imagery until we close on a yellow eye-sun.

Charles Dockum's Demonstration of Mobilcolor Projector (1966)

Demonstration of Mobilcolor Projector (1966) conveniently explains and demonstrates an invention: "a new approach to the art of light and motion by Charles Dockum, illumination engineer". Dockum's complex projector uses four frames, each projecting a color-coded "theme" like part of a Rorschach blot. They can be superimposed in various combinations, and also each frame can rotate through 360 degrees. The result is "a marriage of art and science for color symphonies". The two silent films demonstrating the technique, dating from 1952 and 1969, exhibit a bi-lateral tendency that recalls kaleidoscopes and the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Barry Spinello's Sonata for Pen, Brush and Ruler (1968)

Barry Spinello's Sonata for Pen, Brush and Ruler (1968) doesn't involve photography but painting directly on the film stock, as in some works of Harry Smith and Stan Brakhage. It's a dance of lines, shapes, colors and a few words. In theory, there's a soundtrack, but it sounds only like the random popping of dirty sprocket holes. This film is as visually dazzling as anything else, although that soundtrack is a challenging tic.

The final three films come from Jules Engel, a multi-talented artist who actually worked on Fantasia and later at the pioneering UPA Studio. Landscape (1971), mostly red and blue flashes with metronomic throbs, isn't recommended for epileptics. If that's a bit daunting, his last two items are oriented for bald pleasure.

Jules Engel's Play-Pen (1986)

Mobiles (1978) and Play-Pen (1986) are unabashed celebrations of modern art with music. The first film collates lines and dots into a Calder mobile to lovely ringing tones by Barry Schrader. The second film evokes Mondrian and others with abstract geometries to convey what their work would look like with movement. Rob Miller provides a virtuosic guitar score in several styles.

These films are about pleasure and accessibility, proving what seemingly needs proving over and over, that avant-garde cinema isn't about baffling and annoying people.

This collection could only have been improved by being longer and offering liner notes, but what the heck. Most DVDs don't offer this much beauty.

Images courtesy of Center for Visual Music.





Laura Nyro's "Save the Country" Calls Out from the Past

Laura Nyro, a witchy, queer, ethnic Russian Jew, died young, but her non-conformist anthem, "Save the Country", carries forth to these troubled times.


Journalist Jonathan Cott's Interviews, Captured

With his wide-ranging interviews, Jonathan Cott explores "the indispensable and transformative powers of the imagination."

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus and the Culture Wars

Infodemics, conspiracies -- fault lines beneath the Fractured States of America tremble in this time of global pandemic, amplify splinters, fractures, and fissures past and present.


'Switched-On Seeker' Is an Imaginative Electronic Reimagining of Mikal Cronin's Latest LP

Listeners who prefer dense rock/pop timbres will no doubt prefer Mikal Cronin's 'Seeker'. However, 'Switched-On Seeker' will surely delight fans of smaller-scale electronic filters.


IYEARA Heighten the Tension on Remix of Mark Lanegan's "Playing Nero" (premiere)

Britsh trio IYEARA offer the first taste of a forthcoming reworking of Mark Lanegan's Somebody's Knocking with a remix of "Playing Nero".


Pottery Take Us Deep Into the Funky and Absurd on 'Welcome to Bobby's Motel'

With Welcome to Bobby's Motel, Pottery have crafted songs to cleanse your musical pallet and keep you firmly on the tips of your toes.


Counterbalance 23: Bob Dylan - 'Blood on the Tracks'

Bob Dylan makes his third appearance on the Acclaimed Music list with his 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. Counterbalance’s Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn are planting their stories in the press.


Luke Cissell Creates Dreamy, Electronic Soundscapes on the Eclectic 'Nightside'

Nightside, the new album from composer and multi-instrumentalist Luke Cissell, is largely synthetic and electronic but contains a great deal of warmth and melody.


Bibio Discusses 'Sleep on the Wing' and Why His Dreams Are of the Countryside

"I think even if I lived in the heart of Tokyo, I'd still make music that reminds people of the countryside because it's where my dreams often take me," says Bibio (aka Stephen Wilkinson) of his music and his new rustic EP.

Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.


A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.


The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.