Presented by the MFAH in association with Aurora Picture Show and the Center for Visual Music. 16mm prints from the Cecile Starr Collection at the Center for Visual Music.

Appearance by Kit Smyth Basquin, Ph.D.

Post-film Q&A moderated by film committee member Margarita de la Vega-Hurtado

“A pioneer of visual music and electronic art, Houstonian Mary Ellen Bute (1906–1983) produced more than a dozen short abstract animations from the 1930s to 1950s. Set to classical music by the likes of Bach and Shostakovich, and filled with elegant colorful forms and sprightly dance-like rhythms, Bute’s filmmaking is at once formally rigorous and energetically high-spirited, like a marriage of High Modernism and Merrie Melodies. 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.’ ” —film historian Ed Halter

Bute’s early abstract films (some of which screened regularly at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in the 1930s) included a series of Visual Music films she called Seeing Sound, featuring some rarely seen films in 16mm prints, such as 1935’s Rhythm in Light, a modern artist’s interpretation of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite”; and 1940’s Spook Sport, where ghosts, bats, and bells move to the music’s rhythm in a graveyard.

Film descriptions from the Center for Visual Music’s Mary Ellen Bute website.

• Rhythm in Light (B/W, 1934, 5 min.) Music: Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance.” Collaboration with Melville Webber and Ted Nemeth. Premiered at Radio City Music Hall, 1935. In Rhythm in Light, the artist uses visual materials as the musician uses sound. Mass and line and brilliant arabesques from the inexhaustible imagination of the artist perform a dance to the strains of Edward Grieg’s music. The visual and aural materials are related both structurally and rhythmically—a mathematical system being used to combine the two means of expression. —promotional flyer, Ted Nemeth Studios

• Dada (B/W, 1936, 3 min.) For Universal Newsreel. “Animated with Dada humor to a waltz tune. Witty and delightful, it flashes off the screen too soon.” —CUE magazine

• Parabola (B/W, 1937) Music: Darius Milhaud's “La Creation du Monde.” Based on Rutherford Boyd’s extraordinary sculpture elaborating the parabolic curve.

• Escape (Color, 1937, 5 min.) Music: Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Escape was based on a simple plot set against a musical background, and employed geometric figures for the action. —Mary Ellen Bute

• Spook Sport (Color, 1939, animated by Norman McLaren) Music: Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Danse Macabre.” A new abstract movie in the Seeing Sound series by M.E. Bute. “Fun abstract movie that PEOPLE are TALKING ABOUT, filled with disembodied spooks, bats and bones.” —Allene Talmey, Vogue

• Tarantella (Color, 1940, 5 min.) Piano music by Edwin Gershefsky. “An exciting new technique ... Unusual and amusing.” Chosen by the Library of Congress in 2010 for the National Film Registry. —Film Daily

• Polka Graph (Fun with Music) (Color, 1947, 5 min.) Began as an actual chart of Shostakovich’s polka from “The Age of Gold.” Award winner at Venice Film Festival. Screens digitally.

• Color Rhapsodie (Color, 1948, 6 min.) Music: Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” Premiered at Radio City Music Hall, 1951. “[Bute] transcends her influences; her visual imagination triumphs. I like the romantic flair of Color Rhapsody, its visual density.... I think it is time to re-see and re-evaluate all of Bute’s work in a new light.” —Jonas Mekas, Soho Weekly News

• Imagination (Color, 1948, 3 min.) Produced for The Steve Allen Show. “... Surrealist film ... unreal and delectable shapes floating about ... the work of Mary Ellen Bute—a pioneer in this sort of thing whose talents should be more often used.” —Gilbert Seldes, Saturday Review

• New Sensations in Sound (Color, c. 1949) Advertisement produced for RCA sales meetings.

• Pastorale (Color, 1950) Music: J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” A pictorial accompaniment in abstract forms.

• Abstronic (Color, 1952, 7 min.) Music: Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down” and Don Gillis’s “Ranch House Party.” “These electronic pictures of the music are a natural phenomena which take place in the sub-atomic world; they are then captured on the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope and filmed with the motion picture camera. The colored backgrounds are hand done and superimposed on the electronic animation of the musical themes. In this movie, Mary Ellen Bute combines science and art to create Seeing Sound.” Screens digitally. —press release from Ted Nemeth Studios

• Mood Contrasts (Color, 1953) Music: “Hymn to the Sun” from The Golden Cockerel and “Dance of the Tumblers” from The Snow Maiden by Rimsky-Korsakov. Premiered at Radio City Music Hall. “An abstract film made in this fashion provides, in the making as well as the seeing and listening, one of the most thrilling experiences the motion picture affords.” —Jesse Zunser, “Kinetic Space,” CUE magazine

16mm prints from the Cecile Starr Collection at the Center for Visual Music.

About the Speaker
Dr. Basquin has owned, curated, and directed art galleries. Prior to retiring from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, she worked there as an administrator with prints and drawings for 13 years. She has written a biography about Mary Ellen Bute that she hopes to publish soon.

► Please note that the garage at 1144 Binz Street is closed on February 2 & 3. Paid parking remains available in the garage at 5101 Montrose Boulevard. Plan ahead for your visit with parking information.

Mary Ellen Bute
Running Time
60 minutes
16mm and Digital, B/W