Reconciling Art, Music, and Machinery: An Interiew with John Whitney

By Maureen Furniss
January 1, 1994

Article from Scratching the Belly of the Beast catalogue, 1994

Maureen Furniss: When people talk about you, they usually mention that you are interested in technology and that you worked for IBM. Could you comment on any technology or inventions that made your work possible?

John Whitney: I was sort of skillful at using equipment and tools, and I built a device for generating motion picture soundtracks. It was a very odd thing and nothing significant has come from that invention. But for my brother [filmmaker James Whitney] and me, it was very meaningful because we made a set of five abstract film exercises, the soundtracks for which were made on this pendulum soundtrack recording device. So that was a very significant boost to our self-confidence because we had first prizes at the international experimental film competition in Belgium, the first major competition.Oskar Fischinger got a prize that year, too. But our prize was for the unusual soundtrack, because it was subsonic that is, it recorded mechanically a pattern which when played back would create sounds in the standard optical soundtrack amplifying devices of a motion picture process. We were able to compose both sound patterns and graphic, abstract design patterns in total coordination, or literally note for note. We called them Five Abstract Film Exercises, and they fell into the category of experimental films (that's what they were calling them at that time). The awards encouraged us to go on and subsequently we got a Guggenheim Fellowship. I have really devoted the rest of my life to these concepts of abstract design and music.

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