Ornament Sound

Still from Ornament Sound, 35mm film by Oskar Fischinger
© Fischinger Trust, courtesy Center for Visual Music

Oskar Fischinger, who is primarily known for his animated films synchronized to well-known pieces of classical or popular music, was also interested in the technical relationships between image and sound in film.

In ca. 1931, he realized that the optical soundtrack on film consists of abstract patterns. In the subsequent months, he systematically worked on the possibilities of producing sound by means of abstract drawings or ornaments on the film’s optical soundtrack. Thus, his experiments belong to the first films that do not work with recorded sound but with direct sound. In the films he produced, sound and image at least theoretically comprise a unit; one hears the same ornaments coming from the soundtrack as one sees on the image track.

Fischinger not only sent out copies of his experiments for screenings at the London Film Society and at the Bauhaus and many other places, but also published a press report, widely distributed under the title Tönende Ornamente or Klingende Ornamente (Sounding Ornaments), that elicited an enormous response.

Herein he states that he had hoped that this technique would not only lead to a union of image and music, but to a completely new, direct sound synthesis process for composers. The synthetically generated sounds, however—at least in the traditional understanding of what music is—are more like noise than actual music and thus anticipate later developments in the areas of electronic and New Music. Not only did Oskar Fischinger and John Cage meet after the former’s arrival in the United States in 1936, Fischinger’s concepts also inspired Cage’s notion of sound: He said that every thing in the world has a spirit which is released by sound, and that set me on fire, so to speak.[1]

John Cage in an interview with Joel Eric Sueben (1983), in <k>Conversing with Cage<k>, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 8.