ABC in Sound

Inspired by advances in sound recording and fascinated by the production of synthetic sound, Hungarian artist and Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) explored the idea of reverse-engineering an alphabet of sounds from the visual representation they produced by the grooves on gramophone discs. Taking this a step further, after the release of Rudolph Pfenninger’s Tönende Handschrift (Sounding Handwriting), he produced this film of ‘visual sounds’ which showed the image of the track that was passing through the sound head of the projector – so that the audience could directly compare the image with the sound that it made.

Excerpt from the BFI National Archive

The story of this film unfolds in the following article which highlights as well its similarities to Oskar Fischinger’s Ornament Sound Experiments. As the author suggests:

In 1922 “Moholy-Nagy [wrote] an article for the art journal De Stijl, entitled “Production-Reproduction,” discussing theories for producing “graphic sound”- namely, that gramophones could be used to create their own sounds through the materiality of the grooves. He saw this method not only as a system on which to play music, but as an instrument in itself, and set out on a career-long dabbling in “sound writing” (hence, of course, the scholastically titled ABC in Sound).

Both Fischinger and Moholy-Nagy were fascinated with the idea that sound could be created through mechanics alone. In other words, away from the hand of the artist, composer, or technician. They united image-making and sound-creation through combining the two through the strikingly simple principle of making sound waves visible, and making the visible into sound. […]

Part of Moholy-Nagy’s interest was in reverse engineering the idea of a film soundtrack—a recent development at the time as “talkies” began emerging where cinema-goers previously could only see silent films, often accompanied with a live piano soundtrack. He was interested in the idea of the mutability of form—sound waves as their own kind of graphic notation. […]

Moholy-Nagy’s interest in experimental and atonal sound was career-long, and when he’d moved to Chicago in 1937 to become the director of the New Bauhaus, he hired none other than John Cage to teach a course in experimental sound.”

More related information in Oscar Fischinger’s text on “Klingende Ornamente”.

A Brief History of Optical Synthesis can be found at Derek Holzer‘s Tonewheels project.


Music and the Bauhaus: notes 1

An article published on 22 August 2019 in The New York Times suggests that maybe the time has come to review and reconsider the relationship of the Bauhaus with music. The author (Joshua Barone) goes on exploring different aspects of this relationship. The following excerpts are the most pertinent to the Phono-Bau project:

“Although its mission was to combine all art forms, the school never had a proper music department. But musical thinking permeated the lives of its students and faculty. Some took a synesthetic approach to color and tone, or used the language of symphonies to describe their work; many were amateur instrumentalists who came together in an exuberant, ad hoc band; and some also cultivated relationships with groundbreaking composers, including Schoenberg and Stravinsky.”

“When Bauhauslers performed music, it was both simple entertainment and — through an embrace of folk and jazz, as well as noisy non-instruments made from everyday objects — an extension of the school’s innovative ethos. In what amounted to a return to fundamental thinking, painters were considering systems of color; sculptors, forms and space. There were experiments with light, materials and motion. “

“… there were also champions of the avant-garde, such as Wassily Kandinsky, who was close with Schoenberg, and Oskar Schlemmer, who used a piano-roll score by Hindemith for a version of his “Triadic Ballet.” In experiments with phonographs, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy prefigured musique concrète and the work of John Cage.”

” Despite not having a definitive musical identity, the Bauhaus nonetheless had an appetite for what music could offer the worlds of art and architecture. Kandinsky described his works as compositions, using words like “rhythm” and “melody.” Scriabin was a house favorite for his synesthetic blend of music and color, which Gertrud Grunow, who taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar, echoed in her theories about the relationships between sound, color and space. Music, to her, was essential for creative energy. And Heinrich Neugeboren, in designing a monument to Bach by visualizing the lines of a fugue, attempted to make literal Goethe’s famous description of architecture as frozen music.”

Paul Klee speaks:

“We construct and construct and yet intuition still has its uses, without it we can do a lot, but not everything, one may work a long time, do different things, many things, important things, but not everything. When intuition is joined to exact research it speeds the progress of exact research, exactitude, winged by intuition, is temporarily superior. But exact research being exact research, it can get along, if tempo is disregarded, without intuition, it can get along as a matter of principle without intuition, it can remain logical, it can construct itself, it can boldly bridge the distance from one thing to another, it can preserve an ordered attitude in chaos.

Art, too, has been given sufficient room for exact investigation, and for some time the gates leading to it have been open. What had already been done for music by the end of the eighteenth century has at last been begun for the pictorial arts. Mathematics and physics furnished the means in the form of rules to be followed and to be broken. In the beginning it is wholesome to be concerned with the functions and to disregard the finished form. Studies in algebra, in geometry, in mechanics characterize teaching directed toward the essential and the functional, in contrast to the apparent. One learns to look behind the façade, to grasp the root of things. One learns to recognize the undercurrents, the antecedents of the visible. One learns to dig down, to uncover, to find the cause, to analyze.”

Excerpt from “Bauhaus 1919-1928” edited by Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, Ise Gropius, The Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1938

Bauhaus Jazz Band

The Bauhaus band started with the musical improvisations of a group of painters and sculptors on trips around Weimar. Accordion-music and the pounding of chairs, the rhythmic smacking of a table and revolver shots in time with fragments of German, Slavic, Jewish and Hungarian folk songs would swing the company into a dance. This dance music soon became known all over Germany and was played at artists’ festivals everywhere; but since it could never be successfully transferred to paper, it remained gaily impromptu, even later when the instrumentation was expanded to include two pianos, two saxophones, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, banjos, traps, etc.

Excerpt from “Bauhaus 1919-1928” edited by Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, Ise Gropius, The Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1938

Gertrud Grunow

Gertrud Grunow / Photo: unknown, 1917

Gertrud Grunow (1870 – 1944) was a German musician and educationalist who formulated theories on the relationships between sound, colour and movement and was a specialist in vocal pedagogy. She taught courses in the “theory of harmonisation” at the Bauhaus in Weimar, where she was the school’s first woman teacher and the only woman teacher during the school’s Weimar years.

Grunow believed that people’s ability to express themselves depends on their personal sense of colour, sound and form. Her courses involved the sensitisation of all the sensory organs, mental training and individual psychological sessions.

She developed a ‘twelve-tone circle of colour’ which was analogous with the twelve-tone music of the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951).

Excerpt from Wikipedia

Born in Berlin in 1870, Grunow already had many years of teaching experience when she joined the Bauhaus in 1919. In fact, she was already teaching aspiring singers and musicians in Düsseldorf as early as the late 1890s. But following her exposure in 1908 to a course on rhythmic gymnastics (“Eurhythmics”) led by the Swiss composer, musician and music pedagogue Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, she began to develop the pedagogical ideas which later formed the basis for her teaching at the Bauhaus. The key innovation of Delacroze’s music pedagogy was having students express music through body movements, informed by his observation that most of them were physically and mentally unbalanced, with their musical expressiveness suffering as a result. Dalcroze assumed that movement had an effect on musical consciousness. Therefore he conceived a rhythmic-gymnastic training intended to “control … physical expression.”

Excerpt from “Gertrud Grunow’s Theory of Harmonization” by Linn Burchert

See also Gertrud Grunow Webseite and Documentary