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.”

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

Music and the Bauhaus

The following text was published in the catalog of the congress Bauhaus and Greece: the Idea of Synthesis in Art and Architecture was held from 29 May to 1 June 2019 in Athens. It portrays some of the connections of the Bauhaus to music making references to the 1923 Bauhaus Weimar exhibition, renowned composers, and key works. The approach is historical however its author uses theoretic musical terms. Altogether I find it very instructive and it could trigger ideas for developing Phono-Bau.

Since its foundation in 1919 – as the successor of the Grand-Ducal Saxon Art School, Weimar and the Grand Ducal School of Applied Arts –the Bauhaus hardly deviated from its preference to design and architecture (within which aestheticism and utilitarianism are inscribed as its inherent ambiguities). However, certain “regional” events organized by the School were offering the opportunity to its students and friends, to get acquainted with modern musical production that followed parallel search paths. Besides, some of Bauhaus’ key members were personally associated with distinguished music creators and shared with them a common artistic reflection based on the Wagnerian idea about a “universal artwork”.
Typical of this was the case of the friendship between Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg, that started with their common engagement with the Expressionist group “Blue Rider”. From the beginning of 20th century’s second decade onwards, the relation evolved into the homologous and almost simultaneous shift of the former towards abstract art and the latter, towards atonal music (since the end of the first decade of the same century). It is no coincidence in this respect, that the first “abstract” paintings of Kandinsky are part of a series whose titles (“Compositions” and “Improvisations”) refer to music, which seems to combine its structural components – its elemental forms and sound colors – according to nothing else but an “internal necessity”.
This expression is repeated constantly in the book Kandinsky published in 1911 under the title Concerning the Spiritual in Art, where the geometrical and chromatic elements that constitute the alphabet of artistic expression are thoroughly described. From his part, in his theoretical study Theory of Harmony, published the same year, Schönberg, ventured the extension of the concept of “melody” from the linear combination of different phonemes towards the linear sequence of sound colors, proposing the neologism “sound-color melody”. Schönberg had already tested his idea in the third part of his 1909 Five Orchestra Pieces, alternating different combinations of orchestral sound colors on a static atonal harmony. It is no by coincidence that this piece was chosen as representative of his work, at a 1920 concert where his music was presented to the Weimar audience for the first time.

Therefore, one would expect that this emblematic representative of the avant-guard in music (who was to participate in the Council of the Association “Friends of the Bauhaus” founded by Gropius in 1924) would be the central person in the musical part that was to frame the great Bauhaus 1923 exhibition, being the most important event in the School’s history. The Bauhaus director personally curated this exhibition, ran from 15 August to 30 September, while the selection of musical works and the organization of the concerts were assigned to Hermann Scherchen, an active defender of the musical avant-garde. Theatrical performances and lectures completed this accompanying circle that covered the first week of the exhibition.
Schönberg was apparently the great absent of this important event: being a Jewish, he, Kandinsky’s musical companion, had been informed (just four months earlier) that his bosom friend had adopted anti-Semitic views during a conversation in the School. In the letter of protest sent by Schönberg on April the 19th, Kandinsky responded apologizing, yet, in a way that convinced neither Schönberg himself nor, still, most of the contemporary commentators of the incident. And according to testimonies of the era, this was the reason why Schönberg canceled his planned participation in these musical events of August 1923. Meanwhile, due to a strike in Thuringia, a “mechanical cabaret” composed (after assignment) by the then young H. H. Stuckenschimdt – a future biographer of Schönberg –, was canceled.

At the first concert during the exhibition, on August 18, pianist Egon Petri, student of Ferruccio Busoni, performed works of his teacher, which were the most conservative” of the whole circle of events: Toccata, Perpetuum Mobile, Prelude and Study in Arpeggios as well as three of the five Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing. This first long-lasting musical program included the performance by the soprano Emma Lübbeke-Job and pianist Beatrice Lauer-Kottlar of the song cycle The Life of [Virgin] Mary composed by Paul Hindemith on the homonymous poetic circle of Rainer Maria Rilke. These fifteen songs, opus 27, are written in a more conservative musical idiom than that followed by the composer in his other works of the era: the melodic line is often extremely simple, while the more complex pianistic accompaniment does not exceed the limits of an extended tonality.

The program of the second concert, performed the next day, included the Ernst Krenek neo-Baroque [First] Concerto Grosso and Igor Stravinsky’s music-theatrical The Soldier’s Tale. Scherchen directed the Weimar State Orchestra in the first work, while the second was played by members of the same orchestra, accompanying actors Karl Ebert (the narrator), Fritz Odemar (the soldier), Hermann Schramm (the devil) and Ilse Petersen (the princess).

The Soldier’s Tale was the result of the collaboration between Stravinsky and the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand de Ramuz. The constant iconoclastic mood of the former and the creative imagination of the latter, along with the limited means for stage presentation, that could, naturally, be anticipated by both co-creators during the Great War, made this hybrid work one of internal (morphological and stylistic) but also external (dramaturgical) originality. The narrative, that somehow refers
to the Faustian archetype, is musically attributed via the incorporation of elements of fashionable dance music –and especially of Jazz in an early osmosis with the fine artistic idiom– combined with distinct doses of modernity (polytonic moments on a basically diatonal substrate) and primitivism (occasional “Russian” folk color in the melodic themes, “mechanistic” rhythmic patterns). Thus, Stravinsky’s music, but in part Ramuz’s text too, are transformed to a sample of a musical modernism at the opposite side of Schönberg’s atonality, analogous to the modern artistic character of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, Léger’s Wedding, and Chagall’s I and the village.

Just for the record, we have to note here that among the earliest performances of the work is its premiere in Athens on January 1926, translated by Nikos Poriotis and under the music direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos: a whole twenty years before its American premiere, with Maestro Mitropoulos again.

The extrovert eclecticism that characterizes The Soldier’s Tale is aligned with the well balanced twofold pursuit of the Bauhaus during the Weimar period: high aesthetic quality and functionality. The School’s subsequent orientation, particularly under the direction of Hannes Meyer, towards mass production and one-dimensional functionalism disrupted the innovative balance and tended to equate “modernity” with the fashionable term “modern”. The musical ideal of such a transformation could no longer be the combination of a modern “high” style with popular forms, but these same forms with some external smear of “boldness”. Let us cite an excerpt from the manifesto that Meyer published in the Swiss magazine “Das Werk” in 1926:

Instead of the accidental strokes of the axe – a chainsaw. Instead of the black charcoal line – the precise straight-edge-drafted line. Instead of the easel – the drafting machine. Instead of the hunting horn – the saxophone. […] Instead of lyrics – the light values of colours. Instead of sculpture – construction. Instead of caricature – photomontage. Instead of a drama – a sketch. Instead of opera –musical revue. Instead of fresco – commercial posters.

If we maintain the “saxophone” as a substitute for the “corno” and consider “dance music” as a co-version of “musical revue” we are transferred to the authentic world of dance jazz, which spread in Europe from the 1920s onwards. Indeed, the most permanent musical genre cultivated actively in the Bauhaus, thanks to an amateur band that appeared from the mid-20s and was established from then on, turned out to be jazz music. Sporadical “dadaist” elements that colored the fixed “beat” rhythm of improvisations (a creaking chair or a revolver shot, in the place of a rim-shot of the drum-stick or a blow to the bronze “plate”) could not form a more permanent self-identity, a musical “Bauhaus style”.

However, the fact remains that, the Jazz Orchestra of the School made a career as one of the most popular ensembles of the genre in interwar Germany and that the attempt to syncretism with the incorporation of middle European folklore motifs was a precursor of the “ethnic” trends of today – an era in which recognizable stylistic elements of Bauhaus have been assimilated as elements of modern decoration and modern life.

© 2019 Haris Xanthoudakis

Experimenting on communication through this blog, 1 : Clarifying “Αbout”

this is Not Bauhaus

Although i like very much the proposal, when it comes to dealing with it, in order to go on with the first part of the project, it seems like i have many gaps in my understanding… So, if i am not getting too analytical, i need to ask things-or put some thoughts here, like thinking loud, in order to break it down and understand better and start talking with examples, as planed! (If you guys, as you ve also met and talked on some things, have an idea that can “unstick me”, plz do)

So, what do we mean by “Explore the role of music and sound in the synergy of arts having as a starting point Bauhaus’ modernism.” What do we mean by Bauhaus modernism?

“Identify the aesthetics and music composition elements that have characterized modernism: from the geometric movements of Oscar Schlemmer’s man/machine dancers to Kraftwerk’s Robots.” ….”The first part of the project will focus on the analysis of selected works identified with modernism and which are benchmarks for multimedia artistic creation.” I feel that thinking of modernism, it broadens our subject. Modernism has begun long before Bauhaus movement and the threshold point of the Futurist’s input in the history of music (that gradually evolved into electronic, electroacoustic etc music) was again before (and far from) Bauhaus, as also far from its logic. So, what our focus should be?

Is it our focus multimedia art and the role of music to this? In this case, we should not go into “aesthetics and music composition elements that have characterised modernism” generally, right?

Gesamkunstwerk as well is not a term introduced by Bauhaus in to the art universe, although they used it as a key term in their concepts. (thinking about legacy)

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.


László Moholy-Nagy played a key role at the Bauhaus movement as a teacher, graphic artist, and impassioned advocate of avant-garde photography. To be sure, he explored the optical and expressive properties of light in a series of images he named “Photograms”. The images were made without a camera by placing ordinary objects, including his hand and a paintbrush, on a sheet of photosensitive paper and exposing it to light.

Phono-Bau is a reference to – and a paraphrase of – the “Photograms”: while this technique left ghostly traces in Moholy-Nagy’s pictures, the Phono-Bau idea is to construct a music composition out of the pieces of modernism.

On the other hand one of the initial ideas of this project is to “use” the Photogram concept as a technique for structuring audio layers or as one of the Phono-Bau “performance rules”. To be discussed and analyzed further…