James Joyce sketch by
                  Bradford Haas

Ted Nemeth & Mary Ellen

Mary Ellen Bute
"Film Pioneer"

Editor's Notes:

We're delighted to be able to add to the current online histories of Mary Ellen Bute by dedicating a section of this issue to her film Passages from Finnegans Wake.   Kit Smyth Basquin's Introduction to a Screening of the film not only offers a personal glimpse into Bute's history but recounts the aesthetic choices she made as an artist in her rendering of Joyce's great work.

Bute was absolutely a pioneer in the field of abstract animation.  And in her quest for what could be called a new, 'mechanical' paintbrush she was able to work with some of the most celebrated innovators of her times.  Her associations with these inventors and color & music theorists helped  shape her own aesthetic path, which in turn helped her shape theirs.

With these notes we hope to provide a little background information on some of her colleagues and direct the reader to additional sources about their achievements.

"These experiments by both musicians and painters, men of wide experience
with their primary art material, have pushed this means of combining the two
mediums up into our consciousness.

This new medium of expression is the Absolute Film. Here the artist creates
a world of color, form, movement and sound in which the elements are in a
state of controllable flux, the two materials (visual and aural) being subject to
any conceivable interrelation and modification."

-- Mary Ellen Bute
   Light * Form * Movement *Sound
    Originally published in Design Magazine, 1956.
    Online  from the Center for Visual Music Library

It is in many ways fitting that the abstract film pioneer Mary Ellen Bute would be the first person to produce a selection from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake on film.

Joyce himself was a fan of cinema. There are many references to film in his works (too numerous to mention here--a quick internet search will yield enough to confirm the point).
He spoke to the noted filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein about filming Ulysses, and many people have discussed the impact of editing & other cinematographic techniques on his writing style, as well as the impact of his stylistic innovations upon film. He appreciated popular entertainment, and the cinema was a lively art that fell quite neatly into that category.

And Joyce himself was for a short time the manager of a Dublin cinema, the Volta Cinematograph. While living in Trieste he contracted with some local businessmen to open a cinema in Dublin. In 1909 he opened the Volta Cinematograph, an event that was heralded in the The Evening Telegraph on December 21, 1909:    
45 Mary Street, Dublin in 1948
"Yesterday at 45 Mary St. a most interesting cinematograph exhibition was opened before a large number of invited visitors. The hall in which the display takes place is most admirably equipped for the purpose, and has been admirably laid out…[1]  

For more information on Joyce and the Volta (an association that lasted only a few months) see Luke McKernan's Bioscope Blog. He wonderfully provides a short history, a few stills from the films shown at the Volta, and comments on his visit to an exhibition in Trieste: ‘Trieste, James Joyce e il Cinema: Storia di Mondi Possibili’.

Joyce was writing for history, but he was also writing for his age--and the mechanical & scientific discoveries of his time had filtered quickly into the popular culture--microphones, phonographs, even early television are referenced in the Wake.

Mary Ellen Bute came to film with a yearning to explore the abstract possiblities of visual art through many of the newer mechanical, and electronic, discoveries. According to Wheeler Dixon's The Exloding Eye: A Re-visionary History of the 1960's via Catrina Nieman, Bute was "frustrated by what she thought of as the "inflexibility" of painting--the confines of the frame, the flatness of the surface and, above all, its insistent muteness." [p.37]

And from Bute herself:

"There were so many things I wanted to say, stream-of-consciousness things, designs and patterns while listening to music. I felt I might be able to say [them] if I had an unending canvas." [Dixon, p.37]
In the modernist tradition, her encounters with the visual art of Kandinsky, Klee, Braque & African Art attracted her to the possibility of animating the non-objective canvas.

This desire to pursue the manipulation of light aesthetically initially led her to study stage lighting at Yale's new Drama School.  The school was started in 1925 by George Pierce Baker, considered the country's leading playwrighting teacher, and Stanley McCandless,
an architect and stage lighting designer.  Bute was one of the first ten women admitted and studied there from 1925-26.  

Even here Bute was showing her ability to connect with those at the forefront of their profession.  Both Baker and McCandless were proponents of what was called the 'New Stagecraft Movement', which held that all elements of a production, such as set design and lighting, were to be treated with equal merit as a means of conveying the artistic ethos of the play.   Lighting & sets became dramatic elements of the play.  Newer technical equipment such as electronic switchboards and electric stage lifts factored easily into this new approach.

The school offered an exciting mix of technology and new ways of thinking about the presentation of theater.  The university theater was new.  Donald Oenslager, another emerging talent of the New Theater Movement, offered the first professional university course in scene design.  McCandless, who had trained as an architect, began the first course on stage lighting.  McCandless stayed close to his architectural roots and, in the modernist vein, made it a goal to merge architectural & lighting principles.  This interest in the aesthetics of form & the mechanics of lighting led him to become one of the most influential people in the history of lighting design. 

Working in such an artistically charged atmosphere with state of the art equipment seems to have confirmed Bute's desire to find the right technological means of expressing her own artistic vision.

Her continued pursuit of animating light & form led her to work with other innovators of the time who were merging art with technology.   The online article, Reaching for Kinetic Art, recounts some of her comments from a 1976 talk at the Art Institute of Chicago:
From Yale I got the job of taking drama around the world and got to see the Noh of Japan and the Taj Mahal of India, where gems surrounded the building. I looked into the gems and saw reflected the Taj Mahal and the lake and the whole thing appealed to me enormously. . .

. . . I started entertaining myself by imagining these designs and patterns all in movement. Back in New York I related all of this to Thomas Wilfred, who at that time had developed a color organ. This was in 1929. 
from remarks at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1976, reprinted from Field of Vision Magazine, No 13, Spring 1985

Thomas Wilfred Art Institute of Light
Art Institute of Light
Pamphlet, 1933


Clavilux Performance
Popular Mechanics, April 1924

Thomas Wilfred was a Danish singer and Theosophist who developed a large-scale light organ called the Clavilux.  Another proponent of the New Stagecraft Movement, the 'visionary architect & theorist'
Claude Bragdon, designed Wilfred's studio & with him formed  'The Prometheans', a society dedicated to the development of 'color music'.  In 1926 Wilfred demonstrated his Clavilux in a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York with the Philadelphia Orchestra directed by Leopold Stokowski.   Wilfred's interest in theosophy converged with his desire to pursue light as an artistic medium in itself:

"Light is the artist's sole medium of expression. He must mold it by optical means, almost as a sculptor models clay. He must add colour, and finally motion to his creation. Motion, the time dimension, demands that he must be a choreographer in space."  
                                                                                                              --Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968)

From other quotations by Bute we can see that she agreed with his notions of aesthetic intention:
"This art [Absolute Film] is the interrelation of art, form, movement
 and sound -- combined and selected to stimulate an aesthetic idea."

-- from Light * Form * Movement *Sound
Originally published in Design Magazine, 1956.
Online  from the Center for Visual Music Library
Mary Ellen Bute Artist's Research Page

“Untitled,” Opus 161
       A 1925 Time magazine review of a Clavilux concert described the 'metal boxes' with a 'keyboard' that promptly surprised the audience with its performance of light:

"On the screen, like dyes filtered through fathomless deep-sea canisters, colors fainted, burned, swelled, darkened, dwindled, incredibly clear; patterns crossed, shapes passed, cubes collided, vortices spun down through hell, sucking the sight with them, and the earth, like a small ball knitted by music out of cloud and fire, whirled voiceless through the gulf where sound and color merge."
                                           --Time Magazine, Monday Jan. 5 1925

A Lumia show sample can be seen here: www.lumia-wilfred.org

Ultimately, however, Bute wanted greater control over the light forms & movement than the Clavilux offered.  In the thirties she apprenticed herself to Leon Theremin, an inventor who developed a musical instrument (aptly named the 'theremin') that could be played by moving the hands around metal antennas that controlled an oscillator that in turn produced electric sounds.  

She worked with Theremin to develop a custom optical instrument: 

"We immersed a tiny mirror in a small tube of oil connected by a fine wire which was led through an oscillator to a  type of joy-stick control.  Manipulating this joy-stick was like having a responsive drawing pencil, or paintbrush that flowed light and was entirely under the control of the person at the joy-stick."

The owner of the townhouse which housed the studio would play the instrument:

"She would exclaim: "What a lovely sound! I could embrace it!" I felt that way about this little point of living light--it seemed so responsive and intelligent.  It seemed to follow what you had in mind rather than the manipulation of the oscillator." [2]

Theremin photos

   Theremin unit,
1927 magazine cover, & 1928 Metropolitan Opera House announcment

Theremin concert at Carnegie Hall


The Theremin Electric Symphony
Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.  The
article begins: "The Electric Cello, developed recently by Leon Theremin, has now been accepted by the music public as an instrument of high artistic merit."
                     - Modern Mechanics
                       June 1932

In 1932 she and Theremin demonstrated their findings to the New York Musicological Society and Bute read one of his papers, "The Perimeters of Light and Sound and their possible Synchronization".

While working with Theremin, Bute expanded her knowledge of light & color.  Lauren Rabinovitz  reports that Bute's writings & lectures around this time "are specialized discussions of sound and light physics as well as a rich synthesis of the work of color harmonists since the seventeenth century." [3]  

Theremin's studio was visited by both artists & scientists.  Around this time Bute also began working with musical theorist Joseph Schillinger, who was himself familiar with Theremin's studio.  She was also acquainted with Schillinger through her work in the Visual Department of the Gerald Warburg studio.  Warburg, the famous cellist, had been a student of Schillinger's & was a well-financed supporter of the arts.  He was a founder of the Stradivarius Quartet, and offered support to individual artists as well.  In the 1920's he temporarily subsidized composer Ernest Bloch.   And in 1932, using Schillinger as a middleman, he commissioned a custom electric organ from Theremin.

Schillinger and Rythmicon
   Schillinger and
  the Rhythmicon


Above: Schillinger Artwork at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Right: Schillinger's Graph Notation: Rondo movement of Piano Sonata, no. 8, op. 13
in C minor "Pathétique" by Beethoven.
Joseph Schillinger Papers, Archives of
American Art, Smithsonian Institution


Schillinger notation

Schillinger had developed the Schillinger System of Music which was a mathematically based method of composition.  According to Wikipedia, "In 1932, he joined with composer-theorist Henry Cowell to publicly introduce the Rhythmicon, the first electronic drum machine, which Cowell and Léon Theremin had collaborated in inventing."  The introduction was a success.  The composer Charles Ives commissioned one from Theremin with modifications and said he was relieved to "know especially that the new one would be nearer to an instrument, than a machine..."  He commissioned the Rythmicon for Nicolas Slonimsky  and Henry Cowell.

Nicolas Slonimsky commented that the Schillinger System of composition "seemed to work in practical application". While many avant-garde composers such as Cowell had approached Theremin and Schillinger in their quest for new instruments that would produce new sounds, the 'practical application' of the Schillinger compositional system attracted an even broader range of interest. According to Albert Glinsky's Theremin biography, George Gershwin came to study with Schillinger three times a week for four and a half years. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and a host of Broadway and Hollywood figures 'flocked to study at his apartment'. (Glinsky, p. 133)

Bute's association with Schillinger and his method of composition ultimately led to her finding her 'moveable canvas', which was film:

Visual composition is a counterpart of the sound composition, and once I had learned to do the sound composition, I began to seek for a medium for combining these two and found it in films.  I was determined to express this feeling for movement in visual terms, which I had not been able to achieve in painting, and I was determined to paint in film...

                                                                             - Mary Ellen Bute, "Composition in Color and Sound"
                                                                             unpublished lecture typescript, n.d., p.1, Bute papers
                                                                             quoted by Lauren Rabinovitz, 'Mary Ellen Bute', p.133,
                                                                             Chapter 13, Jan-Christopher Horak's, Lovers Of Cinema:
                                                                             The First American Film Avant-Garde, 1919-1945

Her work with Schillinger led to the film Synchromy (1933), an abstract compilation of light and sound with 'Kandinsky-like' drawings prepared by Bute and Elias Katz.   She worked on the film with noted film historian Lewis Jacobs. 

Her continued work on her pioneering film projects led her to another collaboration, both personal and professional, with producer-camerman Ted Nemeth who became her husband and her partner in Ted Nemeth Productions.  

Ted Nemeth Mary Ellen Bute Unseen

Mary Ellen Bute & Ted Nemeth
in their NYC studio with Rutherford Boyd's sculptures.  The sculptures were animated in the abstract film
Parabola, c. 1936.

Photo Credit: Anthology Film Archives
from: Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941
  Disc 3:
Light Rythms, Music & Abstraction

She continued to seek out talented partners for her work.  On the Mary Ellen Bute LichtMusik webpage at you can see her artist's eye at work as Rutherford Boyd's sculptures are animated in Black & White film to Darius Milhaud's La Creation du Monde.

Rutherford Boyd, Mary Ellen
                                      Bute, Parabola     Left: Cover Photo
Science into Art: The Abstract Sculpture and Drawings of Rutherford Boyd (1882-1951)

Right: Image from Parabola, an example of the mature artist's
eye at work from:
Mary Ellen Bute: LichtMusick
Institut für Medienarchäologie

She worked on films with the noted Canadian animator Norman McLaren, and continued her pursuit of mechanical means of light manipulation by working with Dr. Ralph Potter of Bell Labs in developing an oscilloscope to use for drawing.  Images of Bute with the oscilloscope can be found on the Center for Visual Music website.

It's been noted that Mary Ellen Bute's artistic career lay outside the purview of the isolated artist working privately.   Her films were shown at movie theaters around the country, including Radio City Music Hall. 

Though her artistic beginnings were in painting, her interest in finding the right mechanical method for pursuing her vision led her immediately into the performing arts.  Perhaps it's not surprising that she found a more public, commercial sphere for her work than other avant-garde film artists of her day. 

Wilfred and Theremin, in addition to being inventors and theorists, were "show men".   Both performed at Carnegie Hall and worked toward having their work shown in accepted, commercial venues.  Though Bute's vision was outside of the typical Hollywood film short, she was quite comfortable with professionally negotiating  to have her film screened at large movie theaters, as a short interlude before the screening of the main attraction.

Perhaps her associations with well-established composers and inventors eased this process for her.   As Cecile Starr has noted, her career did not conform to that of the smaller, independent film club enthusiast.

There are other sites that cover Bute's work with animated film --you can find links to these sites on our Mary Ellen Bute Links page.

Before her death she was preparing a film about Walt Whitman.  It was unfortunately never finished.  It would have been interesting to see what her inventor's eye would have brought to the Whitman heritage.



The National Archives of Ireland
"James Joyce and Ulysses" online exhibit

Commentary No. 10 - Department of Justice file on cinemas in Dublin (1922)

When Joyce was living in Trieste he and his family frequently went to the cinema, and it struck him that Dublin had no cinema. He persuaded a group of Triestine businessmen to put up the money to establish one, with 10% of the profits to go to himself. He came to Dublin in 1909, secured a premises at 45 Mary Street, renovated and fitted it out, hired staff, got a licence, and opened to the public on 20 December 1909. He called it the Volta after a cinema he liked in Trieste. The Evening Telegraph of 21 December noted: "Yesterday at 45 Mary St. a most interesting cinematograph exhibition was opened before a large number of invited visitors. The hall in which the display takes place is most admirably equipped for the purpose, and has been admirably laid out…The chief pictures shown here were 'The First Paris Orphanage', 'La Pourponierre', and 'The Tragic Story of Beatrice Cenci.' The latter, although very excellent, was hardly as exhilarating a subject as one would desire on the eve of the festive season."

Lack of exhilaration must have characterized further programmes, for the venture collapsed in July 1910, and the building was sold to the English Provincial Theatre Company, at a loss to the investors...

A selection from Film Ireland 16 by Dennis Condon further examines Joyce & the Volta: http://www.britmovie.co.uk/forums/random-film-tv-radio-talk/19272-volta-myth.html

The Volta Myth
It is a widely-held belief that Ireland’s first dedicated cinema was the Volta, managed initially by James Joyce. But what if it wasn’t? Denis Condon examines earlier cinematic venues, including the Popular Picture Palace at the Queen’s Theatre.

’In England there is a growing demand for cinematograph entertainments’, announced Dublin’s Evening Mail in February 1908. ‘Every important town has its permanent “picture show”, and the Colonial Picture Combine see no reason why Ireland should not be adequately represented in this respect.’ The occasion of this statement was the opening of what was soon being advertised as the People’s Popular Picture Palace at the former Queen’s Theatre in Dublin’s Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). This venue was probably Dublin and Ireland’s first dedicated cinema, opening almost two years before Ireland’s best-known early cinema, James Joyce’s Volta opened its doors on 20th December 1909.

It is curious how persistent the myth of the Volta has been in both popular and academic accounts of Irish cinema. The link between Ireland’s most celebrated 20th century writer and the most powerful medium of the 20th century makes such a good story that the misconception that the Volta was the first cinema in Dublin – and according to some accounts in Ireland – has circulated virtually unchallenged since it appeared in Richard Ellmann’s 1959 Joyce biography. The Volta was undoubtedly an important early cinema, and the Joyce connection has provided the focus for some fine research. The significance of the Volta has, however, been inflated to the extent that it has essentially come to represent Ireland’s first cinemas, and thereby to distort our view of early cinemas and the audiences who attended them.

2.  Albert Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, U. of Illinois Press (2000),
Chapter 5: The Ether Wave Salon, p. 139, from a speech by Mary Ellen Bute before the Pittsburgh
Filmmakers, Pittsburgh, June 30, 1982, (MS), courtesy of Kit Basquin.

Lauren Rabinovitz, Chapter 13: "Mary Ellen Bute", pages 215-334 from
Jan-Christopher Horak, Lovers Of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde, 1919-1945,
University of Wisconsin Press (1998)

Additional Sources

Robert Russett & Cecile Starr, Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology,
Van Nostrand Reinhold (1976).

John Gage, Color & Culture, University of California Press (1999).

Science into Art:
The Abstract Sculpture and Drawings of Rutherford Boyd (1882-1951)
Publisher: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Publication Date: 1983


Center for Visual Music - Mary Ellen Bute Research Site

This comprehensive site includes information about
- The Films / Retrospective Program / Upcoming & Recent Screenings
- Selected Bibliography and Texts
- Selected Statements by Bute About her Films
- Biographies
- Production Material, Ephemera
- About Finnegans Wake

Colour and Sound, Visual Music
by Maura McDonnell (2002)
An informative, illustrated history of 'colour music' with references to the futurists among others.

Modern Mechanics 1924
"Birth of Music Visualization (Apr 1924)
great source for older images & articles on unusual inventions

Yale University Manuscripts & Archives - Digital Images Database
Clavilux Images - photos, ads, and schematics

Theremin - Wikipedia entry:

The theremin is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without contact from the player. It is named after its Russian inventor, Professor Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928. It was originally known as the termenvox or aetherphone, the former of which was subsequently anglicised to theremin /ˈθɛrəmɪn/[1] (sometimes misspelled as theramin). The controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas which sense the position of the player's hands and control oscillator(s) for frequency with one hand, and amplitude (volume) with the other. The electric signals from the theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.

The theremin is associated with an eerie sound, which has led to its use in movie soundtracks such as those in Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Theremins are also used in art music (especially avant-garde and 20th- and 21st-century new music) and in popular music genres such as rock.

----Note:  there are many Theremin videos on youtube.com , including a virtuoso performance by Theremin star Clara Rockmore:

Clara Rockmore plays the Theremin