The Music of NT: The Man Who Invented The 20th Century
Mary Ellen Bute was drawn into filmmaking by a collaboration with the musician Joseph Schillinger, who had developed an elaborate theory about musical structure, which reduced all music to a series of mathematical formulae. Schillinger wanted to make a film to prove that his synchronization system worked in illustrating music with visual images, and Mary Ellen undertook the project of animating the visuals. The film was never completed, and a still published with an article by Schillinger in the magazineExperimental Cinema No. 5 (1934) makes it clear why: the intricate image, reminiscent of Kandinsky’s complex paintings, would have taken a single animator years to redraw thousands of times.
His system of composition found its way into movie soundtracks, synthesizer music and many other musical forms. Schillinger’s most famous student was George Gershwin and even the physicist Albert Einstein thought highly of Schillinger’s system.
The most rigorous mathematical study of music in more recent years would be the system formulated by Joseph Schillinger in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Schillinger, a Russian-American music theorist, was obsessed with developing a “scientification” of music through mathematics. In 1941 he published The Schillinger System of Musical Composition, a massive twelve-book work that was years ahead of its time. This system has been described as “a sort of computer music before the computer,” since his work presaged many developments of algorithmic composition which would not be expanded upon until decades later (Degazio).
One interesting sidenote is the way Schillinger made a point about the multi-levelled character of music:
“There are two sides to the problem of melody: one deals with the sound wave itself and its physical components and with physiological reactions to it. The other deals with the structure of melody as a whole, and esthetic reactions to it.
Further analysis will show that this dualism is an illusion and is due to considerable quantitative differences. The shore-line of North America, for example, may be measured in astronomical, or in topographical, or in microscopic values.” (Schillinger 229).
This same argument was made more than thirty years later by Benoit Mandelbrot, the founder of fractal geometry, when describing the fractal nature of a coastline and how the length seems to change depending on how finely it is measured. (Degazio)