9 dec, Visual Music and the Beat Generation

This programme is devoted to visual music by master animators such as Hy Hirsh and Jordan Belson and jazzy films of the Beat Generation. Many of the highlights from the history of abstract animation were made in the fifties, in a climate characterized by a unique mix of jazz, interest in ‘altered states’, eastern religions and modern technology. Many of the filmmakers in this programmed developed ways to improvise abstract images as a visual equivalent of how jazz musicians play. A programme that starts from the smoking of joints in ‘Vipers’ via the cosmic visions of Whitney and Belson to the utopian city models of artist Constant in ‘Gyromorphosis’.

Programme compiled and presented by abstract filmmaker Joost Rekveld, with live music by Ambush Party.


Shinkichi Tajiri: Vipers (1955, 9’)

An experimental film portrait of bohemian life in Paris in the beginning of the fifties, featuring Tajiri and his neighbour and fellow filmmaker Hy Hirsh, who would both move to Amsterdam a few years later.
“I wanted to show the ritual of rolling and lighting a joint, and put a series of seemingly unrelated images together in order to visualize the feeling of being high. When the film was finished, we took it to the festival of 16mm films in Cannes and received the Golden Lion for the ‘Best use of film language'”.


John Whitney: Celery Stalks at Midnight (1952, 3’)

One of the earlier works of John Whitney, who was very much influenced by Oskar Fischinger and who later became one of the pioneers of computer animation. Throughout his career John Whitney was searching for ways to compose images and relate them to sounds, ultimately in real-time. In this films one of the techniques he uses is the technique of oil-wipe animation, which allows for hand gestures to be turned into an animation of abstract lines.


Hy Hirsh: Come Closer (1953, 7’)

Hy Hirsh is a figure that unites many of the strands in this programme, not only because he was friends with Shinkichi Tajiri, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith, but also in his improvisatory attitude to filmmaking. As more of the filmmakers in this programme did, he constantly re-edited his films and would also show them as live performances with several projectors and live music. ‘Come Closer’ is originally a stereoscopic film based on oscilloscope patterns that are coloured and layered together using the optical printer. We will show a single -reel version.


Harry Smith: No. 7: Color Study (1952, 6’)

Harry Smith was a man of many incredible talents and a lively interest in drugs, mysticism and the abstract patterns produced by folk cultures. At the end of the fourties he made large abstract paintings that were abstract and meticulous visual translations of jazz compositions. Influenced by the films of Oskar Fischinger, Smith shifted to making abstract films that were originally intended to be shown to the accompaniment of bebop music. Many of these early films show visual elements that are directly inspired by some of Fischinger’s works. “Color Study” was his first film that was not drawn directly onto the film strip and that he made with optical means.


Jordan Belson / James Whitney: Haut Voltage/High Voltage (1959, 3’)
James Whitney: Yantra (1950-57, 8’)

Both “Yantra” as well as “Haut Voltage” came out of experiments by James Whitney to develop a kind of alphabet for the expression of visual ideas. Inspired by buddhism, he finally decided to construct all of his films out of two building blocks only: the single point and the full frame of the film. “Yantra” is one of the masterpieces of abstract cinema, and is built out of a small number of animated sequences that work as musical themes throughout the film. An important step in making it happened in 1959, when Jordan Belson showed the film during an event at the San Francisco Museum of Art and synchronized the previously silent images to an edit of Dutch electronic music composer Henk Badings’ Cain and Abel.
“Haut Voltage” consists of material that Whitney made for a film that he first called ‘Yantra II’, but which he never realized. Jordan Belson edited the material and showed it at the same event in combination with music by Pierre Henry. It was most likely never meant for a normal cinema screening.
(Image of “Yantra” copyright Center for Visual Music)


Jordan Belson: Allures (1961, 7’)

Allures brings together elements of the kinetic research that Belson was doing for the famous Vortex series of multimedia concerts at the Morrison Planetarium in the fifties. For these concerts, developed visual sequences using the projectors of the planetarium, his own film footage and devices he built himself. Usually classified as “animation”, even though it was not made using traditional animation techniques, Allures is a spectacular sequence of moving figures and points. It was the film in which Belson discovered a new visual language that he continued to develop until his death in 2011.


Hy Hirsh: Gyromorphosis (1956, 7’)

This film is based on a sculpture from the New Babylon project by the dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. From 1956 to 1974 Constant was presenting blueprints, texts and scale models for his visionary, global city, where the Homo Ludens of the future would live as a new kind of nomad, free from material wants and possessions, no longer bound to fixed locations or fixed relationships with either family or tribe. Mankind would live in an ever-evolving environment, interacting with constantly changing constellations of people and fulfilling life through play.
Gyromorphosis was the first film Hy Hirsh made after he moved to Amsterdam. He wrote: “Gyromorphosis strives to bring into actuality the inherent kinetic qualities seen in the construction-sculpture of Constant Nieuwenhuys of Amsterdam. To realize this aim I have put into motion, one by one, pieces of this sculpture and, with coloured lighting, filmed them in various detail, overlaying the images on the film as they appear and disappear. In this way, I have hoped to produce sensations of acceleration and suspension which are suggested to me by the sculpture itself.”


Thierry Vincens: Giraglia (1968, 6’)

A spectacular abstract film made by the man responsible for the special effects in the 1968 cult film ‘Barbarella’.

Blog post by Joost Rekveld.

Hand-out Hand out Visual Music Beat Generation


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