Mary Ellen Bute

CVM's Bute Research Pages : Bibliography   : "Expanding Cinema's Synchromy 2"


Original publication:

anon. "Expanding Cinema's Synchromy 2." Literary Digest (August 8, 1936). Letters and Art column.


Visual Music appeared last week on the screen of New York's Radio City Music Hall. As the title "Synchromy No. 2" flashed off the screen, a series of three-dimensional geometrics waved and danced there to the gravely lyrical music of Wagner's "Evening Star" aria from "Tannhäuser" in accompaniment to Reinald Warrenrath's voice.

As the music progressed to a climax, circling, classic-featured plaster heads weaved their way into the moving design; then came a final crossing of brilliantly lighted, snowy stairs. Notes, words and pictures closed on a pitch of exaltation.

While the excitement of the preview audience echoed through the theater's vast cavern, Mary Ellen Bute whispered exaltantly: "We've done it! It went over!"

"Right!" returned Theodore Nemeth, grinning happily.

Disney Method - For fourteen months, the pair had been working in their plaster-walled villa-studio in a courtyard back of a Chinese laundry on Forty-sixth Street. The preview's wondering audience, and, later, visitors to a contracted showing at Radio City, have little time in the eight-minute exhibition to realize that "Synchromy No. 2" has been produced by a Disney-like method of photographing each pose of Miss Bute's logarithmically-planned models.

"From Mickey Mouse to a serious expression of music in terms of light is not a great transition for a cameraman," comments Ted Nemeth, whose trick photography has been used widely by advertising and newsreel services.

"The difference," he explains, "is that Disney photographs flat cartoon surfaces, while we have to take shots of three-dimensional models set up on a little stage the size of a platter. For the single reel of one of our expanding cinemas, I have to take 7,000 separate, yet closely related, photographs."

It was not tediously skilful photography alone that kept Texas-born Miss Bute and Massachusetts-born Mr. Nemeth busy for so long a time on their second experimental synchromy.

"We are trying to express music in terms of light," declares the charming script-writer of the duo, with a trace of her native Lone Star State drawl. "It's not a new idea - goes back to Aristotle's idea of poetic motion in the 'Poetics,' and was foreshadowed by the modern Theremin instrument and the Clavilux."

Stroboscopics - Only a crinkle about her eyes tells of Miss Bute's ten years' study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Yale Drama School, the Sorbonne, Gerald Warburg's studio and Hunter College. With Prof. Léon Theremin, who constructed a music-box played by mere flourishes of the performer's hands, Miss Bute studied stroboscopics (visual study of motion). She has assisted Thomas Wilfred, perfecter of the Clavilux light organ used to accompany religious meditation with shifting color at St. Marks in-the Bouwerie [sic].

Behind Miss Bute's models of the mathematical order which exists in music are the esoterically trigonometric investigations of the editorial board of Scripta Mathematica, learned journal of Yeshiva College in New York City. The professors work out equations for the scale of the model and tempo of the visual music which Miss Bute arranges and Mr. Nemeth photographs.

"My interest in the relations between light and sound rhythms began when I was a child on my father's ranch," the studious young lady explains. "I read about abstractionist French art and Marcel Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase' in The Literary Digest (February 19, 1921)."

She met photographer Ted Nemeth at the New York Film Service Laboratories in 1934; his professional interest in the technical possibilities of floating lights and rotating cones drew them together in her long-studied project.

Their first synchromatic film, "Rhythms in Light," appeared at Radio City in 1934. The theater's managers, who had decided to take a flyer on a weirdly fascinating experiment, were surprized [sic] to have patrons tell them that its jiggling phosphorescence did aid appreciation of Grieg's "Anitra's Dance" from the "Peer Gynt Suite."

Song Lingers - Voice was added to "Synchromy No. 2" because the experimenters believed in leaving as a song Wagner's "Evening Star."

"The Yeshiva mathematicians, who inspire us, eventually aim to construct music from the equation in a sequence of pictures, not pictures from already-written music," Miss Bute notes in a lowered prophetic voice.

"Right now, we're taking the next step forward," says Ted Nemeth, pointing to fantastic geometric colored drawings with which the walls of the room containing their photomicrographic-lensed camera are lined.

"Our next movie will be in color. It's because we'll be going ahead for years, exploring the enormous possibilities of this different art-form, that we call our small organization the 'Expanding Cinema'."



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