Raumlichtkunst
Oskar Fischinger Raumlichtkunst, 1926-2012 © Center for Visual Music

The Art of Visual Music

Learning resource (Years 5-8)

Be inspired by evocative abstract moving image works and the power of visual music.

In this resource, learners discover the abstract moving image works created by legendary artist Oskar Fischinger. Created out of movement, shape, colour and sound, his works are described as visual music. They offer dynamic cross-disciplinary learning opportunities that bring together visual arts, media arts and music. This resource targets Years 5-8.

When you visit ACMI, your students can immerse themselves in the experience of Raumlichtkunst. If you can't make it in to our museum, your students can explore the art of abstraction and visual music through a range of clips on the Center for Visual Music Vimeo channel As well as the extraordinary achievements of Oskar Fischinger, your students will also be captivated by Len Lye and Mary Ellen Bute.

Introduction

We are used to learning through stories. Abstract artists are not interested in stories. Instead, abstract artists think there are other ways of expressing and sharing something that is meaningful and true. These ways can include shapes, colours, textures, light and music.

1. Can you think of an abstract artwork you have seen or experienced? Describe it and how it made you feel.
2. Think about a time or a situation when you have felt very happy. Use different shapes, colours, textures and techniques to communicate this feeling in an abstract drawing. Try not to look at what other people in your class are doing. Now compare the different works you have created.
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Oskar Fischinger Raumlichtkunst, 1926-2012 © Center for Visual Music

Oskar Fischinger, abstract art and visual music

“Fischinger is recognized as the father of Visual Music, the grandfather of music videos, and the great-grandfather of motion graphics.”

Oskar Fischinger -- Raumlichtkunst Exhibition Catalogue, Weinstein Gallery, 2018

Oskar Fischinger was an artist who created abstract art that combined film and animation with sound and music to make a direct connection with viewers. He described the animations he created as visual music because he wanted what people saw to be another dimension of the music they could hear.

The idea of visual music is that viewers become immersed in the dynamic mix of sight and sound, and 'feel' rather than think about what they are seeing and hearing.

When Oskar Fischinger first started exploring how to combine film, animation and music, he was doing something completely new. Like many artists, his innovation and exploration have had a big influence.

The movies, animations, videogames and music videos we watch today often contain elements of visual music, where sound and image combine in surprising ways. Think too about some of the videos made for social media platforms such as YouTube and TikTok. And of course video artists continue to experiment with sound and the moving image to create immersive artworks.

3. As a class, discuss the meaning of: immersed, dynamic and innovation.
4. Think of an example of visual music you have experienced when watching a film, animation or online video or playing a videogame? What was surprising about the way it combined sound and image?
5. Try creating your own music-inspired artwork. Listen to a favourite piece of music and draw what it makes you feel.
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Oskar Fischinger Raumlichtkunst, 1926-2012 © Center for Visual Music

Raumlichtkunst

Raumlichtkunst was originally presented almost 100 years ago as multimedia performances that were different each time. In creating his visual music experience, Oskar Fischinger used up to five projectors to project stunning abstract animations, coloured filters and slides which were combined with live music. This provided an immersive environment that inspired emotion and wonder rather than trying to tell a story. In an abstract artwork, the experience is the most important thing.

6. Raumlichtkunst means space-light-art in German. Discuss as a class what the combination of these words means to you.
7. Raumlichtkunst was an immersive experience. What does immersive mean? What are some of the immersive experiences you have had? What are the elements that contribute to an immersive experience?

Creating abstraction

To create the imagery for Raumlichtkunst that would become visual music for viewers, Fischinger used a range of techniques including hand-colouring black and white film and making patterns using wax and woodblock printing. During the performance, he used colour filters to add further impact

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Oskar Fischinger Raumlichtkunst, 1926-2012 © Center for Visual Music

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Oskar Fischinger Raumlichtkunst, 1926-2012 © Center for Visual Music

8. Look at the still images of Raumlichtkunst above. Describe Fischinger's use of colour, shape and silhouette. What is the effect of the combination of the different screens?
9. How do you think some of these effects have been created? (Just use your imagination. Don't worry about being right or wrong.)
10. Try to imagine the sound and music Fischinger might have used when presenting his work.

Other works by Oskar Fischinger

An Optical Poem, Oskar Fischinger, 1938

At the beginning of this short film, Fischinger explains his theory of visual music, that his animations are a way of visualising what happens in our brains when we listen to music.

11. How successful do you think this animation is in showing us what music looks like?
12. What stands out for you, when you watch it?
13. As a class, share your impressions.

Study no 8, Oskar Fischinger, 1931

Watch this brief excerpt and answer the questions below.

14. As a class, use what you have learned so far to explain how this animation can be described as visual music.
15. Watch it again together and try to write down the shapes and patterns you see.
16. Watch and listen one more time. As you listen write down all the different elements of your response -- your feelings, thoughts and questions. Try not to think about it too much

Colour and light

Fischinger was fascinated by the power of colour and the way that people respond to colour. His first abstract animations were shown alongside colours projected from Alexander László’s colour light organ. In some of his performances of Raumlichtkunst, Fischinger used three different projectors for his films plus two more to add and alter colour using a range of filters.

Fischinger was also involved in working on the three-exposure GasparColor film process which was the European rival to the popular American film colouring technology Technicolor. He made a number of visually stunning animations using this process. Radio Dynamics is an experiment in colour and movement that plays without sound. Watch the short clip, paying attention to colour, shape and movement.

Radio Dynamics: a colour composition

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17. After watching once, write down as many colours, shapes and movements as you can remember. Compare what stands out for you with what the person next to you remembered. Now watch the clip again and see what else you notice and can add to your list.
18. This animation doesn't have any sound or music and begins with the words: Please no music Experiment in Color-Rhythm. As you watched it, could you see the music through the rhythm of the movement and the choice of colours? Explain what kind of music is being communicated through colour and movement - is it loud or quiet, happy or sad, bouncy or slow?
19. Now either as a class, or in small groups, go through the clip slowly, pausing to discuss each change and the effect of the colour combinations.
20. What shapes do you see? How do the colours work in combination with the shapes?
21. Editing involves the cutting and piecing together of each fragment of animation. How would you describe the editing in this clip and its effect?

Space

Because Fischinger's works were performances and events, he thought about the experience of the audience in the space -the actual room they were in. If you were to put on a performance in your bedroom, it would have a very different feeling to one that took place in a train station. This was something Fischinger considered as he made his work.

He projected multiple films within the same room on different surfaces, using different colours. He may also have had them overlap, or played them at different times. The sound of the works would also be affected by the size of the space and the nature of the surfaces.

These techniques continue to be used today in visual and installation arts.

22. Imagine you are presenting an installation in a space in your home or school. It could be your bedroom, classroom, the oval. You decide!
23. Write down three words that describe the feeling of this place
24. What else stands out? Is it big or small? Is it fast or slow paced? What textures and colours can you find there? What is the light like?
25. Now that you have thought about the space where you will be presenting your (imagined) visual music installation, choose your music and decide on the design of your animation and how it will work in the space.
26. Share your plans with the person next to you.

Music video

Visual Music has influenced the history of music video. In fact Oskar Fischinger has been dubbed the grandfather of music video.

There are many different kinds of music videos. Some tell a story, but many are more abstract and use imagery as a form of visual music. It can be very powerful when the rhythm and patterns of the visuals work in combination with the music.

Michel Gondry has made some great examples of this kind of music video. Watch the beginning of this one he made for The White Stripes' song The Hardest Button to Button. Notice how every time there is a hit to the bass drum, Gondy visually duplicates the drum kit.

27. How does what you see in this music video add to the experience of the music?
28. Try watching the music video without any music. Do you still get a sense of the rhythm and beat of the music?
29. How important is colour to the experience of this music video?

Another Michel Gondry video that uses the techniques of visual music is Daft Punk’s Around the World. Watch this video and think about the similarities it shares with the previous video, as well as what makes it different.

30. How does this music video make you feel. Explain using some of these words in your description: colour, movement, rhythm, pattern, rhythm, shape, costume, setting and background, lighting.

Want to learn more about visual music?

Creative pioneers

Mary Hallock-Greenewalt created one of the first pieces of visual music in 1910 by painting directly onto the film instead of recording with it! She also invented an electric light organ that created coloured light as it was played

Mary Ellen Bute was another pioneer of visual music. She created what she called the Absolute Film that addressed the eye and the ear.

Len Lye was another creator of visual music and abstract animation using vivid colours, figurative and abstract expression within his work. You can see a sample of his work in this trailer

Norman McLaren experimented with a range of materials in animation from pure visual music to abstract animation and even animation using live actors. In Synchronomy, he drew patterns to create sound on the actual soundtrack area of a film reel and then reproduced the shapes as animation so viewers could see the sounds.

Heading into the future

One artist who has taken the idea of visual music to the next level is Rioji Ikeda. In his work, Test Pattern, Ikeda creates an immersive installation that the audience can stand within. The visuals and sounds are created from pure data. 

You can hear him talk about this work here

Create your own abstract animation

There are so many possibilities for creating your own abstract animation using colour, shape, movement and texture. Get started by producing an abstract drawing, and capture a frame each time you add a shape, line, colour, or texture. Use our worksheet (below) to get started.

You might then like to try a bigger challenge using cut-out animation to experiment with shapes that move, expand, shrink, or transform into other shapes.

Raumlichtkunst is generously supported by Naomi Milgrom AC and the Naomi Milgrom Foundation.