“A Tribute to John Whitney Sr.” presented by Whitney


Presentation Title:

  • A Tribute to John Whitney Sr.



  • Public Lecture Statement

    The John Whitney retrospective will present the work of the late filmmaker in the context of his fifty years of developing core ideas concerning visual and auditory dynamics. In the 1930’s, Whitney was deeply influenced by life in Paris where he immersed himself in the music of Beethoven and Schönberg and the Bauhaus. Whitney was involved from the start of his career in the process of making tools to achieve his vision. A member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Whitney was awarded its Medal of Commendation for Cinematic Pioneering in 1986. In 1964 he wrote of a time when the camera itself would be abandoned as an imaging making tool. He understood that mathematical principles of harmony apply to visual images moving in time just as mathematical principles underlie harmonic relationships in music. The retrospective evenings will illustrate the principles of “Digital Harmony” Whitney envisioned. A guided review of Whitney’s work will illustrate his hypothesis, discipline and the method he devised in service of “Digital Harmony”. Whitney’s last computer compositions, a series he called “Moondrum”, transcend pure technique. An interplay of an inner creative source with a mastered technique is evident in “Moondrum”. This final work is largely unknown outside of Whitney’s own composing studio. The “Moondrum” series will be played from Whitney’s computer instrument during the retrospective.

    John Whitney Sr. was keynote speaker at the second ISEA symposium (SISEA, 1990)


    by John Whitney, september 16, 1995

    Sixty years ago, in darkness and suffocating dust I drove to somewhere in the New Mexican or Arizona desert to observe U. S. Government proscribed Indian Ceremonial Dances. It was the impact of drums so loud they pound in the heart, as well as brief visions in random firelight – rattle snakes, rascal dogs, effortless, entranced dancing, all in patterns and momentary symmetries, it was the inhaled and quaffed hallucinogens of such a night. It is as if all this were exposed on a single photo-plate at the very core of my being. These impressions forever color my dreams and reflections. They’re the content of my American essays – a series called MOONDRUM. I have composed over a dozen pieces attempting to evoke the mood, the colors, sounds as well as an appreciation of the artifacts that were native to the peoples of the western world who flourished centuries before any modern nation existed. This is my best effort to find some reverent evocations of the feel and quality of objects of utility, decoration and religious mystery present in most of the possessions of our native predecessors. These compositions also explore newly emerging cross-cultural developments. They are the fruition of my fifty-year effort to dignify the role of technology in art. Only in the last decade of this century a new music, a new symbolism — a new kind of abstract expressionist action painting with light and sound is becoming accessible to a solitary individual artist/composer in his own studio. With a special composing program on my computer, I create musical design intertwined with color design tone-for-tone played against action-for-action. Between the two — tone or color — I can’t say which comes first. I don’t copy “real” Native-American artifacts literally. Neither is there a real image of an engulfed cathedral or postcard of Iberia in the descriptive, impressionist musical works of Claude Debussy. The many examples of musical “image making” by composers a century ago have been an inspiration for these early essays in this new medium of audiovisual complementarity. For my part, I expect to continue to reconstruct, revise and rediscover these twelve works that I have named MOONDRUM as if they were unfinished chapters of the single volume of one’s lifetime work. They must become my magnum opus the preoccupation of the remainder of a life. I see much still to be done whit them finally to round out this life work.