Synesthesia and the 1920s Avant-Garde In this age of music visualization through computers, certain films from the Germany/Sweden/Hungary avant-garde resonate with familiarity. In an age of film marked by the recognition of the cinema as an art in its own right, I find it almost ironic how readily such examples of “pure cinema” experiment with synesthetic music visualization. Such films as Ruttman’s “Opus I,” Eggeling’s “Diagonal Symphony,” and Fischinger’s “Optical Poem” and Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from Fantasia construct a series of visual images that correspond to music. They are, in essence, a visual soundtrack to the music, ceding primacy to the auditory. These films contrast with Richter’s “Rhythm 21” and Moholy-Nagy’s “Black-White-Gray,” in that the latter are silent, as the filmmakers work exclusively with the elements native to cinema: motion, visuality, rhythm.
In 1919, Rilke was thinking about the relationship between the optical and the audible with reference to the phonograph. In his essay “Primal Sounds,” Rilke muses on a human skull, comparing the cranial sutures to phonographic grooves. Related to Rilke’s remark, one image that resonated with me from Richter’s “Ghosts Before Breakfast” was the spinning Columbia record. Essentially, Richter was rendering visible an auditory medium. Indeed, with the development of the phonograph, the visual phenomena of music no longer consisted exclusively of a concert hall full of musicians. Rather, music began to look like a phonograph record.
Richter’s juxtaposition of film and phonograph seems to gesture to the media’s cross purposes. His contemporary filmmakers, like Ruttman and Fischinger, were transposing the acoustic into the optical. The phonograph, by contrast, transposes the optic (or tactile) grooves of the record into the acoustic.