Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 7:30pm
Mary Ellen Bute: Abstronics

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Presented in association with Center for Visual Music

A pioneer of visual music and electronic art, Mary Ellen Bute produced over a dozen short abstract animations between the 1930s and the 1950s. Set to classical music by the likes of Bach, Saint-Saëns, and Shoshtakovich, and replete with rapidly mutating geometries, Bute’s filmmaking is at once formally rigorous and energetically high-spirited, like a marriage of high modernism and Merrie Melodies. In the late 1940s, Lewis Jacobs observed that Bute’s films were “composed upon mathematical formulae depicting in ever-changing lights and shadows, growing lines and forms, deepening colors and tones, the tumbling, racing impressions evoked by the musical accompaniment.” Bute herself wrote that she sought to “bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding along with the thematic development and rhythmic cadences of music.”

The black sheep of a prominent Houston family, Bute first studied painting in Texas—some of her earliest works are sketches of horses and cattle for competition at county fairs—and she soon became fascinated with the possibilities of a new kind of art that would combine two-dimensional composition with movement in time. Her work led her to experiments with the Clavilux color organ, learning stage lighting at Yale, and collaborative research with Leon Theremin, with whom she planned to create an electronic instrument for producing live images.

Eventually she discovered that her goals could be achieved through motion pictures, and teamed with cinematographer (and future spouse) Ted Nemeth to produce a string of early pieces that combined frame-by-frame animation techniques with ingenious photography of objects like ping-pong balls and Fourth of July sparklers through a variety of prisms and distorting mirrors. In her later work, Bute incorporated the wiggling curves of oscilloscope patterns, filmed off of the device’s cathode-ray display; these are some of the earliest experiments in using electronically-generated imagery in filmmaking.

Though her films are seen only rarely today, her works were viewed quite widely in her lifetime, and in popular venues unusual for an avant-garde filmmaker. Her work often ran before regular Hollywood features at movie theaters in New York, beginning with her first film, Rhythm in Light, which appeared on the gigantic screen at Radio City Music Hall before the premiere of the first Technicolor feature, Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp. Some animations were even shown outside the cinema: later in her career, she created Imagination for broadcast on Steve Allen’s NBC program, and New Sensations in Sound was commissioned for RCA Victor’s sales conventions. Other projects included a feature film based on Finnegan’s Wake, distributed by Grove Press in the 1960s, and producing George Stoney’s live action short The Boy Who Saw Through, which starred a teenaged Christopher Walken.

Rhythm in Light, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1934, 5 mins
Synchromy No. 2, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1935, 6 mins
Dada, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1936, 3 mins
Parabola, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1937, 9 mins
Escape, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1937, 5 mins
Spook Sport, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1939, 8 mins
Tarantella, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1940, 5 mins
Polka Graph, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1947, 5 mins
Color Rhapsodie, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1948, 6 mins
Imagination, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1948, 3 mins
New Sensations in Sound, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, c. 1959, 3 mins
Pastoral, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1950, 9 mins
Abstronic, Mary Ellen Bute, digital projection, 1952, 7 mins
Mood Contrasts, Mary Ellen Bute, 16mm, 1953, 7 mins

Prints from the Cecile Starr Collection at Center for Visual Music. Above image courtesy Center for Visual Music.

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.