Absolute Film

3 Compositional Principles

The painter Dwinell Grant pursued similar ideas with respect to musical structuring in his experiments with film in the 1940s. While in his five Compositions (US, 1940-1949) he devoted himself to the expansion of abstract composition into time and motion as well as to the testing of a visual counterpoint, in 1943 he created one of the most radical abstract films — the silent film Color Sequence — which consists exclusively of solid-color frames that have been assembled so as to rapidly follow one after the other. In doing so, Grant broke new ground in a number of respects. First, Color Sequence is the first film to work with pure, monochromatic frames, thus achieving the highest possible level of abstraction in each individual frame (film image). Second, Color Sequence can therefore be considered the first flicker film, even if this term was not introduced until much later.

The brothers John and James Whitney also tread virgin soil with their Five Film Exercises (US, 1943-1944), with which they strove to expand the concept of visual music. They wanted to create an audiovisual music by not only laying out a comprehensive structure based on fundamental musical forms, but also translating these into image and sound by means of comparable production processes. For this purpose they developed revolutionary techniques for the generation of sound and images.[4] They shot direct light for the first time, which they modulated with the aid of stencils. Based on a limited set of geometric forms, they thereby produced serial permutations. For the production of the sound they constructed an instrument that consisted of a series of individually controllable pendulums that could record the oscillations directly onto the soundtrack. They succeeded in this way in precisely controlling synthetic sounds and assembling them into more complex oscillation patterns, thus not only creating the equivalent to visual design, but also anticipating developments in electronic music.

In the 1950s, a strong interest in mystic and spiritual concepts developed on the west coast of the United States which was reflected in, among others, films by Harry Smith and James Whitney’s later works. Whitney’s examination, begun in the Exercises, of the relationships between elements, their transformation, and their variation was now extended by a cosmic dimension. This becomes evident in Yantra (US, 1955), in which he now no longer submits geometric, but mandala like forms to transformations and variations. Like a number of other works, Yantra was originally planned to be silent and was not supplemented by a soundtrack (extracts from Henk Bading’s Cain and Abel) until later.