The Visual Music Film

Aimee Mollaghan

    Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review


    The Visual Music Film explores the concept and expression of musicality in visual music film, in which moving image presentations are given musical attributes such as rhythmical form, structure and harmony. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, it formulates a way of looking at these films that, due to their hybrid nature, can never be adequately scrutinised using methodologies drawn from only one discipline. This book therefore undertakes an analysis of the musicality of the visual music film from a musicological perspective while also negotiating this body of work in theoretical, philosophical and, to a certain extent, historical terms, providing close detailed readings of a selection of core films by such filmmakers as Norman McLaren, Jordan Belson, Oskar Fischinger, Guy Sherwin and John Whitney. Introduction From the Pythagorean fascination with the music of the moving celestial bodies to the lively moving images of Oskar Fischinger’s abstract animation, there has been an enduring fascination with the representation of music in a visual form. One of the most intriguing aspects of visual music is not only the endurance of the idea in its myriad forms but also why this idea persisted for so long. Given this lasting fascination with visual music, it seems incongruous that there is a relative paucity of scholarship appraising the visual music film as a distinct entity. Laying out the overarching structure of the book, this introductory chapter articulates the need for a critical survey of these moving image texts, proposing a uniquely interdisciplinary framework for scrutinising these films that takes into account their inherent hybrid audiovisual qualities. Chapter 1: Questions of attribution and contribution: What constitutes a visual music film? The historical antecedence of the visual music film as a hybrid art form has given rise to ambiguity surrounding its taxonomy. Bearing this in mind, Chapter 1 provides an overview of the scholarship and debates primary to the interdisciplinary methodology of this book, establishing a framework for examining the aesthetics of the visual music film that draws on a musical paradigm. The first area of discussion addressed in this chapter is the discourse surrounding the idea of the musical analogy that underpins the visual music film. The second significant issue examined is the historical positioning of visual music as an extension of painting. Finally, this chapter draws on the issues raised during investigation into the musical analogy and asserts the need for a comprehensive study of the formal aspects of the visual music film’s unique synthesis of film, art and music through a close reading of Symphonie Diagonale (1921–24) by Viking Eggeling. Chapter 2: The formal absolute in the visual music film The universal language of absolute music not only provided the ideal paradigm for the visual music film, but the late-nineteenth-century formalist debate in music over absolute and programme music also established a theoretical precedent for the public discourse on visual music after 1900. The term absolute has been applied to the abstract visual music film from its inception, reinforcing the connection of this body of work to music. This book extends this analogy further by incorporating the categories of the formal absolute and spiritual absolute as developed by musical theorists as a theoretical framework with which to explore the visual music film. This chapter therefore examines the evolution of the concept of absolute music as developed in the nineteenth century. It pays close attention to the legitimisation of music as an art form that could to be considered in both purely musical and transcendent terms at the same time. Following on from this it considers how the development of the visual music film relates to the concept of formal absolute music, from the abstract black-and-white modernist animations of Hans Richter and Walther Ruttmann in Germany in the 1920s to the minimalist Line films of Norman McLaren in Canada in the 1960s. Chapter 3: The spiritual absolute in the visual music film Chapter 2 established that there was, in music, a move from a purely formal aesthetic of the absolute to one where absolute music could function on a formal and a spiritual level simultaneously. There was also a comparable move in the aesthetic paradigm of visual music. The strict formalism of Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and later Norman McLaren was to give way to a cinema of the spiritually absolute located in the West Coast of America. Drawing on the debates surrounding absolute music set out in Chapter 2 and questions surrounding the notion of the sublime, this chapter will examine the spiritually absolute films of James Whitney and Jordan Belson. Focusing on changing parameters of music, viewing contexts and attitudes towards ‘transcendence’ in the wake of the expanding American counterculture that was located in the San Francisco Bay Area of the American West Coast, it addresses how Belson and Whitney attempt to simulate and achieve expanded states of consciousness through their visual music films. Chapter 4: Experimentation and technological innovation Visual music has always been intrinsically bound to technological experimentation and innovation by individual filmmakers as they strive to express music in visual terms. Chapter 4 explores the technology employed by individual visual music filmmakers in their craft, considering three major areas of technical advancement. It begins with the development of colour processing and the effect that it had on the visual music film through a textual analysis of Kreise (1933–34) by Oskar Fischinger. Secondly it investigates how particular styles of musical composition dictated the development of specific technical processes, such as painting directly onto the celluloid strip, by specifically focusing on Begone Dull Care (1949) by McLaren and A Colour Box (1935) by Lye. Finally, it scrutinises the techniques used for creating an animated synthetic soundtrack through close analysis of Synchromy (1971) by Norman McLaren and the optical sound films of filmmaker Guy Sherwin. Chapter 5: Conceptions of harmony in the work of John Whitney Chapter 5 marries the inquiry into technological innovation of the second half this of book with the aesthetic, philosophical and musical concerns of earlier chapters by considering the work of visual music pioneer John Whitney. By paying close attention to the films Permutations (1966), Matrix III (1972) and Arabesque (1975), the culmination of Whitney’s theories on mathematical harmony, this chapter investigates Whitney’s philosophy of digital harmony and his attempts to create visual music films through the use of harmonic structures drawn from mathematics. Further to this, it examines how Whitney imbues his work with a metaphysical quality by virtue of his use of mathematical harmony as the foundation of his work, creating a connection between number, the cosmos, music and image and thus extending ideas of universal harmony beyond what even the Pythagoreans had envisaged so many centuries ago. Conclusion The final chapter of The Visual Music Film offers a conclusion to the book. Summarising and critically reflecting on debates explored throughout, it reasserts the need for an assessment of the visual music film that takes into account its expressly musical characteristics, offering itself as a jumping off point for further research in this area. 1John Whitney, ‘Notes for Five Film Exercises’, Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art. Peterboro, NH: Byte Books, 1980, p. 144. 2 Oskar Fischinger, ‘The Composer of the Future and the Absolute Sound Film’, James Tobias (Trans.), Oskar Fischinger 1900–1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction, Cindy Keefer and Jaap Guldemond (Eds.). Eye Filmmuseum/Center for Visual Music, 2013.
    Original languageEnglish
    Place of PublicationBasingstoke
    PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
    Number of pages216
    ISBN (Print)978-1-137-49281-4
    Publication statusPublished - 4 Sept 2015


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