Light cadences in rhythm: Mary Ellen Bute born Nov. 21, 1906

MARY ELLEN BUTE, born Nov. 21, 1906, produced trailblazing films with rhythmic light cadences. You are invited as John celebrates the creativity of this innovative filmmaker with a playlist of experimental psychedelic tunes on Crosscurrents, Monday Nov. 21st at 8:00 AM.

Listen live at, 102.7fm, or 103.1fm.

Mary Ellen Bute was a pioneering independent American filmmaker who, over the course of twenty five years, produced a collection of innovative short and feature length films, her most famous being an adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In addition to filmmaking, she was the founding member of the Women’s Independent Film Exchange.

Born November 21, 1906, Mary Ellen grew up in Texas. She studied painting in her home state and in Philadelphia and, although inspired by Klee and Kandinsky, she became frustrated with the limitations of the traditional canvas. Her desire to explore a more animated artistic practice led her to Yale’s new Drama School to study stage lighting from in 1925.

After graduation, one of Mary Ellen’s first collaborations was with musician Joseph Schillinger who worked with mathematics, music, light and sound. To showcase their innovative work, Schillinger and Mary Ellen worked together to produce the short film Synchromy. Although the film was never completed, Schillinger’s theories proved hugely influential for Mary Ellen and she continued to experiment with light, sound, music and mathematics throughout her career.

Mary Ellen went on to make experimental short films throughout the 1930s and 40s her first being Rhythm in Light in 1934. The film synchronizes black and white images to Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt and uses cellophane, ping pong balls, egg beaters and experiments with focus to create abstract forms.

Bute’s early abstract films (some of which were screened regularly at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in the 1930s), included a series of Visual Music films she called Seeing Sound, featuring some rarely seen films in 16mm prints, such as 1935’s Rhythm in Light, a modern artist’s interpretation of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite”; and 1940’s Spook Sport, where ghosts, bats, and bells move to the music’s rhythm in a graveyard.

SOURCE:New York Times; The Heroine Collective; Houston Fine Art

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