Soundies

Soundies were musical films produced in several American cities between 1940 and 1947. They were short films of songs, dances, or orchestra performances. They were shown on a coin-operated machine, a kind of film jukebox that you could use in nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and other public places. Some soundies were later reused as fillers for television.

The soundie was the precursor of the music video. The films, about three minutes long, were mounted on reels with several performances projected in a loop. As the intention was to reach a wide audience, the range of musical genres was diverse, from country to swing, jazz, gospel, folk, and even opera. In some cases, they included shots of women in swimsuits or other slightly erotic sequences to attract the sailors on leave, which led one senator to threaten to investigate the production and distribution of soundies, believing that these were lewd films that should not be shown in any decent public space.

Although some conservative politicians tried to turn soundies into films for sex shops, these were not low-budget films with erotic performers. Soundies were a launching pad for dancers, actors, musicians, and singers like Cyd Charisse, Doris Day, Ricardo Montalbán or Louis Armstrong. And more important, during the few years that they were in vogue, they were one of the few mediums in which artists of colour were free to produce their own films.

The first soundies were shot in 1940, but were not distributed until the following year, when the projection machine, called Panoram, was optimised. A Panoram cost about $600 (almost $12,000 today). Despite its high price, in just three years there were more than 10,000 Panorams throughout the United States. Although more than 1,800 soundies were produced and distributed in that short time, by 1946 the number of Panoram machines had dropped to just 2,000, presumably due to the restrictions of wartime.

Soundies were shot in 35mm and distributed in 16mm so that they could be projected on the Panoram, which as you can see in the following video was a bit of a mix between a jukebox and a television. It was a complex device, with a rear-projection system built with mirrors and a 45x50cm screen. Since each reel contained eight soundies that were projected in a loop, you could not choose which one to watch. To keep the audience interested, they changed the film reels every week.

Due to the technological limitations of the time, all the performers did playback, in some cases awful playback. However, perhaps the most curious thing is that soundies used the same tricks that contemporary music videos: absurd plots, half-naked girls, weird sets, and crazy choreographies. I’m sure some MTV executive has gotten ideas from this.

Mobile Painting: Art’s Newest Expression (1922)

Clavilux

Attempts have been made to coordinate color and music color and music, but thus without encouraging results. The color-organ, or Clavilux, invented by Mr. Thomas Wilfred, and presented recently in New York at the Neighborhood Playhouse, differs from these experiments, despite its name, in that its compositions are played in silence and depend for their effect entirely upon a combination of color, form and movement.

The color is produced by refracted light, which is projected upon either a plaster wall or a ground glass screen in luminous, mobile patterns. These patterns or images are capable of extraordinary transformations in all their elements whether of color, form or movement, independently of each other and in varying tempo.

It is difficult to realize precisely what this amazing range in visible effects means; especially when we consider that few natural phenomena change in all their visible elements at the same time. Sunsets come nearest, perhaps, to such simultaneous changes of color, form and movement; but the comparison does little justice to the ordered and significant arrangements possible by means of the Clavilux. It is, in fact, a peculiar characteristic of these images that they cannot well be compared to anything; and while this adds to the difficulties of describing them or philosophizing about their aesthetic possibilities, it unquestionably accounts, in some measure, for their strangely stimulating and imaginative quality.

The performances of the Clavilux were given not only without any musical accompaniment, but in total darkness. This increased the intensity of the experience and permitted the faintest hues and gradations to become apparent. Mysterious effects were indeed often achieved by very subtle and barely perceptible hues which emerged from the surrounding black in vague masses, changing gradually into deeper tones and more clearly defined shapes until they achieved distinct forms in brilliantly luminous colors which now moved in new rhythms, changed into other forms or faded and disappeared again.

Sometimes a form would arise, ascend slowly and then remain poised while new forms would come into being and revolve in front of the first figure, with very remarkable effects of depth and perspective, while, at the same time, the figures remained always transparent. The most complicated configurations seemed to be achieved with the same facility as the simplest, so that the compositions had a kind of magical continuity, one figure flowing imperceptibly into another, precisely as one color became transformed into another, without any apparent breaks or changes. The emotional intensity with which these images affect us is striking; they stimulate the imagination, and hold us fascinated and entranced throughout.

At times the basic themes or designs upon which the compositions are built seem merely abstract conceptions, often very beautiful in form and movement; at other times they seem to be definite symbolic shapes. The colors, being produced by refracted light instead of by pigment, are luminous and thus heighten the abstract effect.

Clavilux

In consequence, the mobile designs become suggestive in strange ways of many beautiful phenomena, either because of a similarity of color effect or, more often, because of a similarity of rhythm and movement in the basic forms. Thus we may have fleeting visions, or rather fleeting recollections, of an eclipse, a comet, visions of icebergs or again of great fires, beautiful changes, as of chemicals reacting upon each other; ethereal effects of swaying, gossamer, cloud-like forms: of motions that remind us of elemental things—of breathing, of the rise and fall of geysers, or of fountains, of the flowing of water, or the dissipation of smoke, of dancing figures, of revolving flower-like forms, turning slowly, of clouds fading and disappearing.

Throughout all these varying transformations the images have a tremulous vibrating character that animates their forms and adds to the dynamic nature of our inner reactions. The figures in their evolving movements are not necessarily suggestive of definite natural phenomena, but often give very vivid impressions of abstract or generic movements, as reaching, sinking, fading, rising movements that might indicate release, grasp, dissolution, involution, evolution, enveloping, revealing, turning, winding, seeking, floating—innumerable fundamental movements which impart amazing fascination to the mobile designs as they develop before us.

This general terms are both vague and abrupt compared to the actual compositions they are intended to interpret. Nevertheless, it will be seen from even this brief and random description that the Clavilux is capable of an infinite range of variation, to a degree which pigment and canvas could not possible attain in the expression of motion with its inevitable echo in our emotions. For, at best, painting is a static result and however unbalanced the masses in a painting may be in order to suggest motion, the picture remains fixed at precisely one moment of an extended action.

The progression possible by means of moving pictures has, of course, completely effaced this difficulty. But moving pictures have been concerned, thus far at any rate, with a literal apprehension of things, so that, in effect, they have merely tended to complete the work of the camera by overcoming the static nature of a single picture. In consequence, moving pictures are more literal even than photographs, and, generally speaking, more lacking in aesthetic qualities.

The Clavilux, while it possesses in perhaps even more perfect degree the quality of movement that characterizes the cinema, promises to develop in a diametrically opposite direction; so that in place of literal representation we will have abstract forms of a symbolic nature, or equally abstract forms unqualified by any derivative or superimposed significance.

In art it is unquestionably true that where most is sacrificed, most is gained. The cinema, which sacrifices nothing of external similitude, has gained precisely nothing, and has revealed nothing. It is not yet an art. The Clavilux is a language as abstract as music, and its effects promise to be as overwhelmingly rich and satisfying to mankind.

The progression which we see upon a motion picture screen is the literal representation of actual movement. The progression which the Clavilux reveals is the visual realization of emotions. This will seem more inteligible of we consider music to be the oral realization or oral interpretation of inner feelings. In this sense the compositions of the Clavilux are more nearly related to music than to any other art—but this does not imply any relationship between color and sound.

Clavilux

The Clavilux is comparable to music because of the intensity, power and range of its emotional effects; mainly, however, because its images appeal to our feelings with the strange and compelling immediacy of a direct language, requiring no mental translation to become emotionally intelligible.

Modernism in painting has largely concerned itself with achieving this result. Despite its innumerable schools, painting has always been representational. It remained for Expressionism to conceive of painting in a wholly new manner which sought not only to escape from the imitation, in pigment, of visible things, irrespective of the ulterior significance to be derived from them, but which essayed the far more difficult problem of directly expressing inward states, moods, or emotional reactions.

In a very general way, it may be permissible to say that while painting has been able to express itself only through an interpretation of the appearance of things, music has concerned itself directly with the significance it wished to express.

It is the aim of Expressionistic art to widen the range of painting in order to make it co-extensive with music. If it has failed it is not because composers are greater artists than painters. The modernists having largely freed themselves from the representational limitations of painting have faced something far more serious, its static quality. They have generally found themselves struggling desperately for expression through the use of broken or otherwise subverted forms, which seldom created an emotional reaction and never sustained it.

For in order to sustain an emotion it is necessary to suggest with some fidelity its entire development. Just as we are completely at a loss, in looking at most modern work, to comprehend how the artist arrived at his conception, so we are equally at a loss to carry it on imaginatively. In consequence we consider the work without significance, whereas actual it is merely an unrelated aesthetic conception of possibly very great merit, Emotions being illusive and volatile, are best expressed by a medium which is mobile and flowing, Expressionism may thus attain an unsuspected development by means of the Clavilux, which has given us the wholly new conception of mobile painting.

In so far as modern art is concerned with purely abstract aesthetic relationships of form and color, it will be possible to use the Clavilux with equally rich possibilities. Precisely what may result it will be difficult to foresee. Aesthetically we have nowhere ventured very far in this direction, possibly because, at bottom, we wish art to remain a medium of interpretation rather than an end in itself.

Mr. Wilfred played several compositions of abstract forms which, considering the newness of the medium, were very satisfying. Conceivably these might be developed along more intricate and subtle lines of a far vaster scale with very imposing results. Indeed, it is one of the hopes of Mr. Wilfred to develop the Clavilux into a orchestra of instruments and, in place of the screen, to use a plaster wall of great height and width. Figures of perhaps one hundred feet could be developed, in glorious effects.

And, while all these developments take no account of other arts, it will be possible to use the Clavilux with perhaps amazing effectiveness in the new stage craft, where strange and magnificent things will be accomplished; with music and the dance, as a new form of accompaniment, or conversely, these things may be used as adjuncts to the Clavilux.

“Mobile Painting: Art’s Newest Expression”, Roderick Seidenberg, International Studio, March 1922.

November Film (complete)

*WARNING: This film contains flashing images.*

*Some of the frequencies are quite low, so I recommend you to watch the film with headphones, but be careful with the sound volume.*

This film is the result of a 30 days challenge. It was originally published on a daily basis on Twitter—one-minute video per day from November 1 to 30 (2017). The sound was made in Audacity using tone and noise generators. Images are the audio files themselves saved as JPG, so what you see is what you hear.

You can find the original 30 one-minute films at my Twitter account: @null66913

November Film

November Film 06

This is what I’ve been doing lately. You can watch all my November one-minute films in this Twitter thread. All the films are similar, just tones and noise. I generate the frames using data bending techniques, so a bit of noise and a bit of glitch…