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.”

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…