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-Saens, and Shoshtakovich, and replete with rapidly mutating geometries, Bute’s film making 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.”
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, Roubon Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp.
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