Mary Ellen Bute


CVM's Bute Research Pages


Bute 1


THIS PAGE: About the Films / Retrospective Program / Upcoming & Recent Screenings

Selected Bibliography and Texts

Selected Statements by Bute About her Films


Production Material, Ephemera

About Finnegans Wake


RIP Cecile Starr (1921-2014), Film historian, critic, author and Bute's long-term distributor

October 1 - New York - Cecile Starr Tribute event

About Bute's Abstract Films

A pioneer of visual music and electronic art, Mary Ellen Bute produced over a dozen short abstract animations between the 1930s to the 1950s. Set to classical music by the likes of Bach, Saint-Saens or Shostakovich, and filled with colorful forms, elegant design 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. 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." (Ed Halter)

Known for her pioneering early abstract films (some of which were screened regularly at Radio City Music Hall, New York in the 1930s), Bute made a series of Visual Music films which she called "Seeing Sound." The Retrospective Program (see below) features all 14 of her short abstract films, including some rarely-seen films, in 16mm prints: Rhythm in Light, 1934; Synchromy No. 2, 1935; Dada, 1936; Parabola, 1937; Escape, 1937; Spook Sport (animated by Norman McLaren), 1939; Tarantella, 1940; Polka Graph, 1947; Color Rhapsody, 1948; Imagination, 1948; New Sensations in Sound, 1949 (RCA Commercial); Pastorale, 1950, Abstronic, 1952 and Mood Contrasts, 1953.

See below for brief film descriptions.


Bute Retrospective Program and other print rentals

Presented by Center for Visual Music, with prints from our Cecile Starr Collection

For booking information please contact cvmaccess (at)

2015 update - Bute program and selected individual films may be booked from CVM. Abstronic is available digitally; others are 16mm. We are working to make others available on digital formats soon, pending funding.

October 1, New York: Bute films Spook Sport and Tarantella screen at Lincoln Center. Center for Visual Music and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, will present a Cecile Starr Tribute Celebration on Thursday, October 1, 6 pm, at Lincoln Center, New York. 16mm.

October 17, Newark, NJ. Tarantella screens at Newark Museum in a program from Center for Visual Music, "Color in Visual Music," part of the Museum's Color Festival, Family Day programming for children.





Past Retrospective programs and other screenings

March 25, 2015 - Mood Contrasts, 16mm print screens at Ann Arbor Film Festival.

December 17, 2014 - Mood Contrasts, 16mm print screens at Cinefamily, Los Angeles. Print courtesy CVM.

September 2014 - Seeing Sound: Mary Ellen Bute Retrospective at Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA

August 2014 - Tarantella screened at Milwaukee Film

June 2014 - Abstronic screened in Code + Motion at New Media Art and Sound Summit, Austin Museum of Digital Art

April 2014 - Tarantella screened in CVM's "New Restorations and Discoveries" program at Bard College (Hudson Valley, NY)

March 2014 - Abstronic screened in Code + Motion at Vector Game + Art Convergence Festival, Toronto

Nov. 5, 2013 - Mary Ellen Bute Retrospective at Light Industry, Brooklyn NY

April 10, 2010 - Seeing Sound: Mary Ellen Bute Retrospective at Northwest Film Forum's special series, Visual Music:Sensory Cinema Seattle, WA

January - May 21, 2010 - Spook Sport screens in CVM's second Nonobjective Films 1920-1950 series at The Guggenheim Museum, New York

October 2009-February 2010 - Tarantella screens in CVM's Nonobjective Films 1920-1950 Series at The Guggenheim Museum, New York, accompanying the KANDINSKY exhibition.

October 3, 2009 - Bute Retrospective at Deutsches Filmmuseum, Frankfurt, Germany

September 19, 2009 - Bute Retrospective at Seeing Sound Visual Music Symposium, Bath Spa University, Bath, UK

September 2009 - Mood Contrasts screened in CVM's "Essential Visual Music: Rare Classics" program at Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley

April 2009 - Bute Retrospective at European Media Art Festival, Osnabrueck, Germany

January 2009 - Mood Contrasts screened in CVM's "Essential Visual Music: Rare Classics" program at Billy Wilder Theatre, UCLA Film and Television Archive, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

October 2008 - Bute Retrospective at Cornell Cinema, Ithaca, New York

May 2008 - Bute Retrospective at Visual Music Festival at Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

2008-present, Mood Contrasts is included in CVM's Essential Visual Music: Rare Classics compilation program. This program has screened at UCLA Film and TV Archive/Hammer Museum; International House Philadelphia (Pastorale screened here); Cornell Cinema; GoMA Queensland, Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; USC and other venues.

November 2006 - Centennial Program honoring Pioneer Animator Mary Ellen Bute, presented at Los Angeles Filmforum & USC, organized by CVM in association with Cecile Starr. As part of this Centennial Program, CVM screened the Retrospective Program and also presented Bute's rarely-screened feature film, Passages from Finnegans Wake, 1965-67, 92 mins, 16mm, b/w, screened at USC. SPECIAL GUEST: Cast member Peter Haskell ("Shem") speaks about the film and working with Bute. Prints courtesy Cecile Starr, Women's Film Preservation Fund and Yale University Film Study Center.

March 2005 - Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. An Evening of Visual Music Films curated by CVM, Presented by CVM and MOCA. Revelatory moments from the history of visual music, an exploration into the true lives of the kinetochromatic scientists, and a breathtaking leap into the now-and-beyond of an art form passionately devoted to purified sound and light. This event includes film and video by Fischinger, Belson, Bute, Brakhage, McLaren, Dwinnell Grant, Dockum, Neubauer, Baily, Ellis, and others. (More about this show)


Image courtesy CVM



Seeing Sound: Bute Retrospective Program

with brief film descriptions

For bookings, contact CVMaccess (at)

Rhythm in Light, 1934, b/w, 5 min. Music: Grieg's "Anitra's Dance." Collaboration with Melville Webber and Ted Nemeth. Premiered at Radio City Music Hall, 1935. In the "Rhythm in Light," the artist uses visual materials as the musician uses sound. Mass and line an 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). Review in Time Magazine, Dec. 3, 1934.

Synchromy No. 2, 1935, b/w, 5 min. Music: Wagner's "Evening Star." Premiered at Radio City Music Hall (read a Literary Digest 1936 review here). "...pretty advanced and amusing" - New York Times.

Dada, 1936, b/w, 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, 1937, b/w. Music: Darius Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde." Based on Rutherford Boyd's extraordinary sculpture elaborating the parabolic curve.

Escape, 1937, color, 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. (Bute)

Spook Sport (animated by Norman McLaren), 1939, color. Music: Saint-Saen'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. Online clip (excerpt) at the National Film Board of Canada website is here. Image (c) CVM

tarantella Tarantella, 1940, color, 5 min. Piano music by Edwin Gershefsky. "An exciting new technique...Unusual and amusing..." (Film Daily) Chosen for the 2010 National Film Registry, by The Library of Congress. Image (c) CVM

polkagraph Polka Graph (Fun with Music), 1947, color, 5 min. Began as an actual chart of Shostakovich's Polka from "The Age of Gold." Award winner at Venice Film Festival. Image (c) CVM


Color Rhapsody, 1948, color, 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 (9/23/76)

Imagination, 1948, color, 3 min. Produced for 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 New Sensations in Sound, c. 1949, color. Advertisement produced for RCA sales meetings. Image (c) CVM

Pastorale, 1950, color. Music: J.S. Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze." A pictorial accompaniment in abstract forms.

Abstronic, 1952, color, 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, film artist Mary Ellen Bute combines Science an Art to create "Seeing Sound." (Press release from Ted Nemeth Studios). Bute's notes/sketch for Abstronic

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.) Image (c) CVM





Promotional Flyers produced by Ted Nemeth Studios. Collection and courtesy of Center for Visual Music.

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