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.


Architect’s Congress 1933

László Moholy-Nagy’s cinematic diary is a record of the 4th Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) that took place in summer 1933 under the theme “The Functional City”. The congress was held aboard the Greek passenger steamer Patris II that cruised between Marseille, the Aegean Islands, and Athens, where an exhibition and the closing session took place. This silent 29-minute film depicts lectures, working sessions, and discussions taking place in an informal and relaxed ambient in the Mediterranean Sea. In contrast was the tense political atmosphere in Nazi Germany that led among other things to the closing of the Bauhaus school.