An analysis of the creative process of Visual Music pioneer Oskar Fischinger from a practice-led perspective

Lead Research Organisation: Bath Spa University
Department Name: Sch of Music and the Performing Arts


Oskar Fischinger is a key figure in early abstract cinema. He is associated with many creative and technical innovations, but perhaps best known for his work with music. Most of his films were designed to accompany specific pieces of music, and have no narrative or figurative content beyond an attempt to express the essence of the music visually. This idea, or area of endeavour, is most commonly known as Visual Music (further discussion of the field and its history can be found in the Case for Support).

There has, in the last five years or so, been a surge of interest in this area - this is evidenced by the establishment of the Center for Visual Music (CVM), several large-scale exhibitions on Visual Music, and various festivals and regular events focused on the field (again, further details are in the Case for Support).

Despite this widespread interest, there has been relatively little written about Visual Music, and what writing does exist focuses primarily on historical and technical development. There has been little written about the creative process behind this work (particularly from a musical perspective), perhaps because there is scant material on which to base such an enquiry. In the area which constitutes the initial focus of this project - 20s and 30s abstract cinema - there is very little extant process material, and many of the films themselves are lost or incomplete.

However, in December 2009, a large quantity of process material relating to Oskar Fischinger's work was bequeathed by the Fischinger Trust to CVM. This material is still largely uncatalogued, and has so far only been seen by two researchers, Richard Brown, of the University of Southern California (a John Cage scholar who's interest relates specifically to Fischinger's film Optical Poem, to which Cage contributed), and the proposer of this project.

To initiate this project, a three-day visit was made to CVM in Los Angeles in February 2010 to examine this material. A visit was also made to the Fischinger house in Long Beach to interview his daughter. These initial forays established that Fischinger had a rigorous approach in making his Visual Music films, and that there is enough surviving material to trace his creative process - from his own method of musical analysis (densely annotated scores), through a distinctive graphic score notation - part musical, part visual - to process sketches and final animation drawings.

The most promising materials relate to two of his seminal Studies, Nos. 3 and 13. These are prime candidates for further study for various reasons: partly because of the quantity of material available relating to them, partly because one is an early work and one late (within the Studie series, at least). What would perhaps make this research particularly worthwhile is that neither of these films is currently complete, or available in distributable form. Studie 3 currently has no soundtrack (although the proposer believes he has already located the recording used), and Studie 13 exists only as a series of fragments. However, both films are part of CVM's Unseen Fischinger project, and whilst CVM's restoration work can aid this research, this project can in turn help the restoration process, and help make these almost 'lost' films available to a wide audience.

The outcomes of this proposed research will be a study of Fischinger's creative process in his Visual Music works (focused on Studies 3 and 13) , to take the form of a journal article. In addition, an exhibition of Fischinger's process materials will be mounted, accompanied by the films concerned. Finally, the proposer will produce an original Visual Music 'Studie', attempting to parallel Fischinger's creative process whilst using contemporary techniques and creative language. This piece will be accompanied by a conference paper outlining the creative process behind it, and how it was informed by a study of Fischinger's own process.

Planned Impact

I believe the outcomes of my research that will be of most benefit to the wider community will be the exhibition, the Visual Music composition, and the conference paper accompanying it.

Who will benefit from the research?

In addition to the constituencies identified in the Academic Beneficiaries section, this research will benefit the broader Visual Music community. In my Impact Plan I attempt to define this community, which I see as extremely diverse. It should be noted here (though this is detailed further in the Impact Plan), that I am looking beyond what is generally termed Visual Music and expanding the definition of this field to include any multimedia work that has a significant basis on music or sound. This expanded definition would include video makers, VJs and live audiovisual artist/performers*, and of course the audience who engage with their work.

How will they benefit?

Practitioners in particular will benefit from the conference paper. This will be submitted to a range of symposia, conferences and related events as detailed in the Case for Support. Most of the events mentioned are practice-led, and delegates tend to include a wide variety of practitioners, including many with no university affiliation. The paper will outline the process I brought to bear in making a 21st.-Century 'Studie', and how this process was directly informed by what I have discovered of Fischinger's own creative process. It will attempt to distill universal principles concerning the making of music/sound-led multimedia, that will be of direct use to the range of practitioners outlined above, as well as those mentioned in the Academic Beneficiaries Section.

These practitioners, and the broader Visual Music audience associated with them, will benefit from the exhibition. This will feature Fischinger's scores, sketches, drawings and process materials, none of which have been publicly displayed before. It will also feature two of his Studie films which have not been publicly screened for at least fifty years. Fischinger's work is approachable and has a broad appeal. His process materials are quite beautiful and could be considered as artworks in their own right. I therefore consider that the exhibition could benefit a very broad audience.

The constituency outlined above (practitioners and audience) will benefit from my own Visual Music Studie. This will not be conceived as a didactic excercise or a pastiche, but as an artwork in its own right. I have ten years' experience of producing Visual Music and interdisciplinary works - as can be seen from my List of Publications, I have been successful in having this work shown in a wide variety of contexts around the world, and therefore have a good idea of the audience I can target this work towards - again, this is expanded in the Impact Plan.

What will be done to ensure that they benefit?

In the case of the conference paper and the new Visual Music work, this will depend on where these outcomes are targeted. I believe that if I choose the right events, the practitioners and audiences outlined above will be reached. Specific examples of events are given in the Impact Plan, and my List of Publications gives many examples of events with which I have prior history.

In the case of the exhibition, I will ensure that it is widely publicised. The Michael Tippett Centre gallery is a professional institution, with its own publicity and mailing list. I will also target local press, and a wide variety of internet forums and discussion groups around my expanded definition of Visual Music.

* Although many of these practitioners may not use the term Visual Music in connection with their work, it has become increasingly fashionable to do so, and those working in these areas are becoming more and more aware of the history of sound-led multimedia, and acknowledging their
Description Exhibition of Oskar Fischinger scores 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The scores (selected and reproduced as part of my broader research project, with annotations and descriptions provided by myself) were exhibited as part of the world's first major Oskar Fischinger retrospective, at the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam

An increased interest in the musical aspects of Fischinger's work
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012