For many graphic designers, Bauhaus teacher and multidisciplinary pioneer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s most direct legacy is his approach to type—namely, his wildly experimental typography and stark magazine spreads, and his 1923 essay, “The New Typography,” in which he insisted that type “must be communication in its most intense form.”
And while the essay also stated that “emphasis must be on absolute clarity,” he also saw typography’s development in direct correlation with the emergence of new technologies, especially in regards to photography and its kinetic cousin, film. He presciently predicted a trend we’re only now seeing realized: moving posters. “Through an expert use of the camera, and of all photographic techniques, such as retouching, blocking, superimposition, distortion, enlargement, etc., in combination with the liberated typographical line, the effectiveness of posters can be immensely enlarged… The new typography is a simultaneous experience of vision and communication,” he wrote.
His sentiments around type and print echo across his vast output—painting, drawing, photography, collage, sculpture, film, theater, and writing—but one of its most fascinating distillations is in a recently rediscovered film, Tönendes ABC (ABC in Sound), from 1933. The very short, very experimental film also conveys a cheekier side to Moholy-Nagy’s practice, and a brazen approach to “appropriating” other people’s work.
ABC in Sound went missing for more than 80 years before it was found at the BFI National Archive in London and credited to Moholy-Nagy by BFI curators. Its release coincides with a wider László Moholy-Nagy London exhibition at Hauser & Wirth gallery, which is showing his 1930 film Ein Lichtspiel: Schwarz Weiss Grau (A Lightplay: Black White Grey), alongside works on paper, photographic pieces, and the mesmeric kinetic sculpture, Light Prop for an Electric Stage (also 1930), which the aforementioned Lightplay documents in deliciously abstract modes.
The reason ABC in Sound remained undiscovered for so long is partially because, as it turns out, it’s not as original as Moholy-Nagy’s other works. In 1936, the original nitrate for ABC in Sound was accidentally spliced to a copy of Oskar Fischinger’s Early Experiments in Hand Drawn Sound from 1931 by an archivist for a screening program at the London Film Society.
The piece conveys a cheekier side to Moholy-Nagy’s practice, and a brazen approach to “appropriating” other people’s work.
Moholy-Nagy would have undoubtedly seen Fischinger’s film before he made his own; Fischinger’s many experiments with “ornamental animation in sound,” predated ABC in Sound. The films made by the two are remarkably similar conceptually and formally (see screenshots from some of Fischinger’s experiments below): in each we hear synthetic sound created by white patterns that appear visually along one side of the screen. The variations in the shapes of the lines generate the changes in the sounds—some of which are quite beautiful, in a strange, non-human way; others are more like bone-shaking blasts of a pneumatic drill; and all—as was imperative for their creators—were impossible to create using the conventional instruments of the time or the human voice.
While the timelines of the pair’s films suggest that Moholy-Nagy effectively ripped off his peer, it’s not quite that simple. As Emily D. Robertson’s Master’s thesis explains, Fischinger produced all of his experiments in “ornamental sound” by drawing sawtooth waves or designing die-cut patterns such as arches, dots, and fans and photographing them one frame at a time to create long strips of film with repeating arrangements of shapes. When played back through a sound film projector at 24 frames-per-second, these images form a variety of sonic tones and beats. Crucially, Fischinger wanted to explain his processes and encourage other artists to experiment with sound in similar ways, as laid out in his 1932 article “Sounding Ornaments.”
A decade before that piece was published, Moholy-Nagy had written an article for the art journal De Stijl, entitled “Production-Reproduction,” discussing theories for producing “graphic sound”—namely, that gramophones could be used to create their own sounds through the materiality of the grooves. He saw this method not only as a system on which to play music, but as an instrument in itself, and set out on a career-long dabbling in “sound writing” (hence, of course, the scholastically titled ABC in Sound).
When played back through a sound film projector at 24 frames-per-second, the die-cut patterns form a variety of sonic tones and beats.
Both Fischinger and Moholy-Nagy were fascinated with the idea that sound could be created through mechanics alone. In other words, away from the hand of the artist, composer, or technician. They united image-making and sound-creation through combining the two through the strikingly simple principle of making sound waves visible, and making the visible into sound.
Part of Moholy-Nagy’s interest was in reverse engineering the idea of a film soundtrack—a recent development at the time as “talkies” began emerging where cinema-goers previously could only see silent films, often accompanied with a live piano soundtrack. He was interested in the idea of the mutability of form—sound waves as their own kind of graphic notation. One of his most pressing creative lines of inquiry, according to William Fowler, BFI curator of artist moving image, was “Could you synthesize sound?” This would mean, for example, using the grooves of a gramophone or pieces of a soundtrack to make a movie, rather than the other way around.
Where Moholy-Nagy’s film differs from Fischinger’s is in its playfulness. Many of the waveform images become faces of varying proportions and expressions. For him, sound, and its graphic expressions, had to have meaning as well as form. Daniel Hug, director of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation and grandson of the artist, describes ABC in Sound as “one of Moholy-Nagy’s most radical film works,” which “reinforces his important contribution to film and sound art.” In his talk at the BFI’s premiere of the film, he succinctly summed it up as “listening to a machine… listening to artificially generated sound.”
BFI curator Bryony Dixon, also at the film premiere, remarked that Moholy-Nagy was “quite naughty… he’s taking Oskar’s work, which he knows, and improving on it.”
Moholy-Nagy’s interest in experimental and atonal sound was career-long, and when he’d moved to Chicago in 1937 to become the director of the New Bauhaus, he hired none other than John Cage to teach a course in experimental sound.
ABC in Sound showcases Moholy-Nagy’s wider approach to film, which explored the medium as a way of manipulating and morphing perspectives around industrial tools. The idea—a direct antecedent to the Conceptual Art movement of the ’60s—was to remove the artist’s hand from the work through mechanical processes. “Its non-realist, formal play, mixing and blurring the distinctions between sound and image, reflects Moholy-Nagy’s powerful, multi-disciplinary approach to creativity,” says Fowler.
The Constructivist and Dadaist movements that were blossoming around this began to seep into Moholy-Nagy’s approach. He was interested in this idea that art isn’t something that should only look to tradition, but also look towards the future—that it should be democratic, reach audiences outside of hierarchical art-world structures; embrace new technologies and push the boundaries of what “art” actually is (as, indeed, did the wider teachings of the Bauhaus).
As such, his films weren’t simply moving documentation of the world, but—as with the rest of his practice—active pursuits of a new form of visual language. His more widely seen films, such as A Lightplay: Black White Grey, is beguiling and disorientating; offering up an entirely new, abstracted way of presenting the interplay of light through space and moving objects. It shows us that art, and the world itself, are radically different depending on from where we view them.
Four years after he joined the faculty of the Bauhaus school in Weimar Germany in 1927, Moholy-Nagy published the book Malerei, Fotografie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film) as part of a series co-edited Walter Gropius, director of the Bauhaus. It was here that, despite the fact that much of his work still utilized painting, he stated that photography and cinema had heralded a “culture of light” that superseded even the most radical of painting processes. Photography and film were, he suggested, the future.
Moholy-Nagy’s films weren’t simply moving documentation of the world, but active pursuits of a new form of visual language.
Looking at our excessively image-based way of communicating today—both on and offline–he was absolutely right. We see the influence of ABC everywhere: in David Lynch’s 1968 short The Alphabet; in the design world’s embrace of sound and motion in poster design, graphics, and even editorial; in the work of musicians like Mark Fell and Ryoji Ikeda. And also, thinking of the Fischinger/Moholy-Nagy incident, the age-old conundrum of creative authorship.