For John and James Whitney, early twentieth-century music provided the direct inspiration for their search for a new mode of musical expression, leading them to design and construct a sound-making apparatus to accompany their films of abstract and geometric forms. The Whitneys believed that music created by conventional instruments carried "past associations and preconceptions" that would compromise the innovative imagery they had developed for their 16mm color Five Film Exercises (1943-45).
They sought, as John would later write, "a restoration of kinship between science and art." Influenced by both the Bauhaus conflation of design with technology as well as the serial music theories of Rene Leibowitz and Ernst Krenek that John had been exposed to while studying music in Paris, the Whitneys looked to develop their own sui generis system of musical notation and production. The brothers consequently built a series of pendulums whose oscillations created light patterns that were then photochemically recorded onto the optical soundtrack. The pendulums' arcs were fixed by size and weight and connected with wire to their camera's aperture. Each pendulum was individually tunable, and the entire instrument was toned to a serial row--a different one for each of the project's five segments. Slowing the drive speed on the film frame recorder down to sixty seconds per frame allowed the Whitneys to use up to twenty pendulums on a single frame, thus producing dense tone clusters. What is remarkable is that the device itself did not produce any sound. Instead it created a soundtrack from a completely visual source--the graphic trace of the pendulums' oscillations.
The Whitneys then synched the sounds to images fashioned by a stencil system devised by James. Using this stencil system, the brothers produced somewhere between 150 and 200 individually airbrushed cards. In addition to the stencils, they employed a variety of technological filmmaking practices to achieve the films' visual effects, including an optical printer built by John, a pantograph, color filters, multiple exposures, and magnification.
James would go on to make several stunning pieces of visual music, including Yantra (1950-1957) and Lapis (1963-66).