Whitney, John, American experimental filmmaker, computer- graphics artist, and Pythagorean-inspired speculative theorist of the analogies between music and the visual arts; b. Pasadena, Calif., April 8,1917; d. Santa Monica, Calif., Sept. 22, 1995. He was a pioneer in 20th -century motion graphics, having invented cinema techniques in the 1940s that became an established part of the repertoire of special effects later used in film titles and television. His interest in the complementarity of visual and aural arts began with a series of experimental films made with his brother James, including the silent 24 Variations (1939-40) and the series of 5 Film Exercises (1943-44), which made use of synthesized pendulum music. With the development of computer graphics, he produced a number of what are now classic pieces, utilizing the music of a variety of composers; these include Permutations (1968; re-ed., 1979; with Indian tabla music by Balachandra), Matrix I (1971; with music adapted from sonatas by Antonio Soler) and III (1972; with music from Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air), and Arabesque (1975; with improvised music by Ma-noocheher Sadeghi). His Moondrum: Twelve Works for Videodisc (1989-95) is a poetic response to the arts of Native Americans and was produced using a real- time composing program developed by Whitney and Jerry Reed; the series comprises Moondrum: Dream Songs (Memories of prehistory), Navajo: Weaver’s Art, Hopi: Dance Ceremonies, Kwakiutl (The Northern Pacific tootem sculptors and Dance of the Dream Catcher), Qxaquitl (Quetzalcoatl): About Time and Deity (Introduction, Blood Sacrifice at Pyramids of Copan, Stone Bells: Quetzacotl, Stone Bells: A Marching Procession, and A Noisy Festival at the Great Calendar Stone), Black Elk Requiem (a memorial to the exiled Oglala Sioux people), Chaco (Fajada Buttle spiral petroglyph wedge of solstice sunlight), Mimbres Star (a pottery design marks the supernova event of 1054 A.D.), Chumash (rock paintings of the Southern Calif, coastline), Kachina: A Memory of Bird and Snake Deities-Sand Paintings (Introduction to all symbols, Sand paintings, and Beatification of the Kachina Deity), Chápala (Snapshots: dream symbols on warrior shields), and Acoma: For The Infanta. The God King.(3 cradle songs in 3 colors, With earthquake and Official Royal Seal, and “When the wind blow the cradle will rock”). These and many other computer-generated aural/visual compositions exemplify his ideas about the inherent complementarity of music and visual art, with the harmonic motion evident in tonal music made visible in the charge and release of tensional visual forces. His work has been supported by IBM; he also received NEA grants, a Guggenheim fellowship (1947-48), and a bronze medal from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science for pioneering achievements in film. After retiring from his teaching position in the art dept. of the Univ. of Calif. at Los Angeles in 1986, he devoted himself to composition in his studio in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He publ. Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art (Peterborough, N.H., 1980); also the articles “Writing on Water—Action Painting with Music,” Media Arts Journal (Spring-Summer 1990) and “To Paint on Water: The Audiovisual Duet of Complementality, ” Computer Music Journal (Fall 1994), and the video documentary, A Personal Search: For the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art (Santa Monica, Calif., 1992).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire