Raumlichtkunst, (c. 1926/2012)
[SPACE LIGHT ART]
Three projector HD reconstruction by Center for Visual Music.
Open until February 10, 2018.
Weinstein Gallery SoMa
444 Clementina Street
San Francisco, CA
Tuesday–Saturday: 10 am–5 pm
Sunday & Monday: By Appointment
On January 31, Glossary attended a talk at Weinstein Gallery on the work of avant-garde filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, presented by Cindy Keefer, Director of Center for Visual Music (CVM). The talk coincides with an exhibition featuring a 3 projector HD reconstruction of Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst, (c. 1926/2012) created by CVM.
This highly recommended exhibition introduces one of the most influential film-makers of the avant-garde, whose work is a precursor to animation, music videos and advertising graphics.
As per the exhibition catalog, “Fischinger is recognized as the father of Visual Music, the grandfather of music videos, and the great-grandfather of motion graphics.” Over fifty films and 800 paintings comprise his production legacy, much of which is archived and curated by CVM, as well as held in several collections around the world.
For this Review as Dialogue, we took a slightly different approach than in previous versions: it’s a paraphrased excerpt of the talk peppered with quotes from Keefer. Enjoy:
Weinstein Gallery is the first west coast gallery to exhibit Raumlichtkunst, (c. 1926/2012). “It is Roland Weinstein’s dream to open this second space in SoMa and to present work like this to the public—free—because we believe that art should be for everyone,” says Managing Director and Curator, Kendy Genovese. Previously Raumlichtkunst traveled to Len Lye Centre/Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York, Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Australia, Palais de Tokyo, Paris and the Tate Modern. Many other works by Fischinger have been presented worldwide; to learn more about this and other projects by CVM, a comprehensive list can be browsed on the events page of their website.
Center for Visual Music (CVM) is a non-profit archive dedicated to visual music, experimental animation and abstract cinema. They are based in the Los Angeles area, and are in the process of relocating to Northern California this year. “We preserve, curate … we are dedicated to education, scholarship, new research and distribution of the film, performances, media, and research in this tradition, as well as and related documentation and artwork,” states CVM Director Cindy Keefer.
"We have the world's largest collection of Visual Music resources," says Keefer. They manage the films of Oskar Fischinger, Jordan Belson, Mary Ellen Bute and others. In addition they also have significant collections in the genre of visual music such as the original research of Dr. William Moritz, works by Richard Bailey and Jules Engel and photography by Hy Hirsh. They have curated exhibitions worldwide that feature objects and film from their collection. Part of their mission is to restore films, funded by some government grants, occasional museum funding and private donations.
“Basically we are always fundraising because we always have films to restore! We always have old volatile [film] nitrate, we always have old decaying films that are fading,” quips Keefer. The audience chuckles, as those who are all too familiar with non-profit institutions and art restoration can attest: the work just keeps coming, and the need to ask for funding is a constant.
What is Visual Music?
“Our definitions are rather historical," says Keefer. There are many definitions of visual music that Keefer shared with the audience, including a brief history and a few examples excerpted here.
"For nine decades visual music was a term to refer to films that had a very strong interrelationship between the visuals and the music. This term was also used by art critic Roger Fry, around 1912 to refer to a painting , but as far as film, no one used the term until the 1930s to refer to visual music.” Visual Music has a long and ancient history that dates back as far as Aristotle and Pythagoras’ “Music of the Spheres.”
The history of visual music performances began in the 1730s with Color Organs, machines and harpsichords that were modified so that one could assign a note to a particular color. The earliest visual music film is dated approximately 1912 in Italy. Visual music film that we are familiar with today including contemporary music videos, advertising and even early Hollywood animations—stems from the Absolute Film Movement which began in Germany in the 1920s—which Fischinger was a part of.
Film historian William Moritz, who is Fischinger’s biographer, defines visual music as: “a music for the eye comparable to the effects of sound for the ear.” “He (Moritz) asks us to contemplate,” says Keefer, “what are the visual equivalents of melody, harmony, rhythm and counterpoint.”
“Visual music is a time-based structure similar to the kind or style of music,” says Keefer. “A new composition created visually, but as if it were an audio piece—it can have sound or exist silently.” Fischinger’s Ornament Sound drawings fall into the category that describes visual music as, “direct translation of images to sound.” True visual music creates a relationship between the visuals and their meaning and interpretation as carriers of sound—directly opposite from music videos, which apply visuals to already existing audio.
Fischinger’s Visual Music
Oskar Fischinger is German American artist, born in 1900 (Germany) and died in 1967 (Hollywood). His first love was music—he studied violin. While many painters were turning to film as a way to activate their paintings, Fischinger was creating film by activating music; he made many films, some silent and others accompanied by live organists. Fischinger believed, that from Raumlichtkunst, all arts would merge from this new art: “Plastic, dance, painting, music become one,” he wrote.
Comprised of hundreds of successive drawings or animation created by arranging objects, Fischinger’s process is testimony to the rigor and dedication of fully actualizing purely analog, abstract film—making it the epitome of time-based media.
Before Raumlichtkunst was created in Munich, 1926-1927, composer Alexander László was touring a series of performances titled Farblichmusik (Color Light Music) using projected images with his color organ piano, the “Farblichklavier” (spectrum-piano). He invited Fischinger to show his abstract animations at his concerts to give the performance more dynamism and a modern flavor. The critics loved the films, but panned the music! Needless to say, their working relationship came to an abrupt halt after the disparate ravings. Fischinger went on to create his own performances, sometimes using up to five simultaneous projectors and 3 screens, accompanied by live percussionists. Early iterations were called “Raumlichtmusik” (Space Light Music), but critics encouraged him to change it to “Raumlichtkunst” (Space Light Art).
Now, audiences can see a completely digitally restored/reconstructed version of Raumlichtkunst. The visual restoration is based upon the history of tinted film available in Munich during the 1920s, and research on Fischinger’s use of color in his other work. As previously mentioned, the originals included live percussion music accompaniment—but no recordings of these exist, nor complete listings of the performers who may have been present, and there is no written documentation of the music.
The CVM appointed music historians to research hypothetical music choices for that time—who would Fischinger have heard, or been exposed to in Munich in 1926? Research did not glean any definitive results because in general, avant-garde music was not being recorded. Through the historian’s recommendations the CVM reconstruction of Raumlichkunst includes the first known percussion recording of that era, Ionisation by Edgar Varèse (1929) and two versions of Double Music by John Cage and Lou Harrison (1941), a nod to Fischinger’s negotiations with Cage to produce a soundtrack for a different project encouraged in the 1940s by Hilla Rebay of the Guggenheim Foundation that ultimately was never realized. Below is an example of Double Music.
(note: audible music starts at 00:18)
Amadinda Percussion Group, J. CAGE-LOU HARRISON: DOUBLE MUSIC (San Francisco, April 1941) · Zoltán Kocsis · John Cage · Amadinda Percussion Group, Legacies 2: Works for Percussion Vol.1 ℗ 1999 HUNGAROTON RECORDS LTD.
In the spirit of how Raumlichtkunst would have been performed live or toured in the late 1920s, the CVM version changes constantly. Using three different film loops that are off-set and each running at different times, the combinations of images that the viewer sees will never repeat. The music is not live, it is also designed to weave in and out of visual changes. Though the film is the feature of the exhibition, also on view are works on paper that comprise other films, in addition to examples of this Ornament Sound drawings, ephemera and photographs.
On view until February 10.
 The work of Wassily Kandinsky, in this instance a reference to “color music.” “The improvisations become more definite, more logical and more closely knit in structure, more surprisingly beautiful in their colour oppositions, more exact in their equilibrium … They are pure visual music; but I cannot any longer doubt the possibility of emotional expression by such abstract visual signs.” Spalding, Francis. Roger Fry, Art and Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1980, 168.
This year CVM has released a new DVD of Fischinger's work, which is available for purchase!
When Glossary visited Raumlichtkunst earlier this month, we chatted with Genovese about some of the exciting film and sound artists that are working in the Bay Area today, including Paul Clipson, Joshua Churchill, John Davis, Chris Duncan and others. This weekend, as we were developing content for this article we learned that Paul Clipson tragically and unexpectedly passed away on Saturday, February 3. This article is dedicated to him.
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