Soon after the Cinematograph Act came into force in 1909, small orchestras became more common in London cinemas than the lone pianist that some previous histories have identified.
Rather than responding moment-to-moment to the images on screen in the manner that an improvising pianist might, these orchestras played through a number of well-regarded musical pieces in their entirety, which might or might not have had a direct correspondence to some aspect of the film or its theme.
Despite exhortations in the trade press for a more logical relationship between music and film, this does not seem to have happened in practice regularly until at least the mid-1910s.
This according to “The art of not playing to pictures in British cinemas, 1906–1914” by Jon Burrows, an essay included in The sounds of the silents in Britain (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 111–125; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-482).
Below, we invite you to experiment with random film accompaniment using your own favorite recordings.
Martin Scorsese’s Casino is structured around a compiled score of nearly 60 popular music recordings. Scorsese himself, working with the editor Thelma Schoonmaker and using digital editing tools for the first time, assembled and arranged a diverse body of preexisting music into a unified score that plays for more than two of the film’s three hours.
A close analysis of Scorsese crafting Casino’s compiled score in the manner of a DJ—and, in reciprocal fashion, editing film images and narrative to recorded music—demonstrates highly varied, multivalent relationships between musical form and film form. Indeed, musical form proves a constituent element of Casino’s construction at multiple levels of magnification.
The large-scale form of the score as a whole articulates the larger arc of Casino’s dual narrative. The strategic deployment of musical styles (from jazz to rock to pop) and the targeted use of lyrics as voiceover (often subtly deploying aspects of racial performance in popular styles) serve to differentiate narrative strands and fill out otherwise unspoken characterization.
Scorsese builds several sequences in Casino on a direct, often audible relationship between song forms and narrative unfolding, creating song scenes in which compiled tracks heard as musical wholes grant a musical shape to discrete narrative units. Casino’s complex use of music does not, however, penetrate the inner lives of the film’s three primary characters, who seem unaware of the musical flow Scorsese employs to set their story dancing.
This according to “The filmmaker as DJ: Martin Scorsese’s compiled score for Casino (1995)” by Todd Decker (The journal of musicology XXXIV/2 [spring 2017] 281–317; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2017-866).
A five-note motive in Rahmaninov’s Ostrov mërtvyh (The isle of the dead, op. 29), which evokes the opening of the Dies irae melody used by Berlioz and Liszt, is strikingly similar to what Bernard Herrmann referred to as the motive of power or fate in his score for Citizen Kane.
Rahmaninov’s work was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel (above; click to enlarge), and Herrmann’s statements about his creative process suggest that the opening images of the film might have unconsciously reminded him of the painting, which in turn could have aroused an association with Rahmaninov’s work.
This according to “The Dies irae in Citizen Kane: Musical hermeneutics applied to film music” by William H. Rosar, an essay included in Film music: Critical approaches (New York: Continuum, 2001, pp. 103–116). Below, the first minutes of Citizen Kane, followed by Rahmaninov’s symphonic poem.
Voices can make our hair stand on end or send shudders down our spine more easily and more powerfully than anything else.
The classic evolutionary and philosophical writings tended to downplay the role of music in human partner selection; but popular culture indicates otherwise, particularly where the voice is involved.
Still, the enchantment that audiences experience when they listen to their favorite singers is highly subjective. For example, while critics of Lata Mangeshkar’s little-girl sound view her popularity in terms of a desire to keep women immature and vulnerable, her millions of admirers hear in her voice a timeless and idealized lover.
This according to “Enchanting voices” by Wim van der Meer, an article included in Music, dance, and the art of seduction (Delft: Eburon, 2013, 49-70; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-28812).
Above and below, Mangeshkar enacts her enchantment.
Spontaneously recorded music and natural noise, once they are chosen and ordered in a film’s soundtrack, acquire a dignity that was at first unexpected, entering into harmony, rivalry, and sometimes even conflict with the score composed for the film.
Between fake bad music created by a competent composer and real bad music appropriated in its raw state from the popular muse, between an impressionist nocturne for large orchestra and the authentic concerto of crickets and frogs, artificial music does not necessarily win out over the natural kind.
This according to “La musique prise dans le sujet, élement materiel du film et la musique composée pour le film, élément formel de l’œuvre d’art” by Roland Alexis Manuel Lévy, an essay included in Atti del secondo Congresso internazionale di musica (Firenze: Le Monniere, 1940, pp. 253–256; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1940-1).
Below, two short films present an opportunity to test Lévy’s hypothesis.
For his main title music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann used alternately ascending and descending arpeggiated chords in contrary motion in the treble and bass voices; no clear direction, up or down, is established, nor is a harmonic center confirmed.
With its almost uninterrupted, destabilizing undulation, the music provides a musical evocation of vertigo that is reinforced by Hitchcock’s spiraling geometric images.
This according to “The language of music: A brief analysis of Vertigo” by Kathryn Kalinak, an essay included in her Settling the score: Music and the classical Hollywood film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992) and reprinted in Movie music: The film reader (London: Routledge, 2003).
Today is Bernard Herrmann’s 110th birthday! Below, the virtiginous title sequence in question.
The 2005 film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a South African adaptation and reconceptualization of Bizet’s Carmen. The change in culture and context affects the interpretation of the character of Carmen, who emerges as a strong black woman striving for autonomy within a patriarchal and sexist postcolonial South African society.
The film involves an interpretation of identity as a social construct dependent on the interaction between character and place within a specific period of time–in this case, Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, at the beginning of the 21st century. Its portrayal of the modern Carmen as an emancipated woman within a postcolonial and postmodernist context can be traced by interpreting semiotic signs and specific narrative strategies.
The re-encoding of Carmen’s identity questions intransigent or stereotypical perceptions of Carmen as the iconic femme fatale to which audiences have become accustomed; the indigenized production offers recourse to alternative perceptions of Carmen’s identity. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha does not deny the sensuality and femininity attributed to Carmen in the precursory texts, but it depicts her as an even more complex character than the one in Bizet’s opera.
This according to “The same, yet different: Re-encoding identity in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” by Santisa Viljoen and Marita Wenzel (Journal of the musical arts in Africa XIII/1–2  53–70; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2016-49747).
The feature film Kalpana (Imagination) is the only kinetic record of Uday Shankar’s choreographic work. Directed by and starring Shankar himself, it is semi-autobiographical and also stars his wife, Amala Shankar.
The film involved a fair amount of social commentary, and Shankar’s opening statement in it still feels strikingly appropriate:
“I request you all to be very alert while you watch this unusual picture—a Fantasy. Some of the events depicted here will reel off at great speed and if you miss any piece you will really be missing a vital aspect of our country’s life in its Religion, Politics, Education, Society, Art and Culture, Agriculture and Industry.”
“I do not deliberately aim my criticism at any particular group of people or institutions, but if it appears so, it just happens to be so, that is all. It is my duty as an Artist to be fully alive to all conditions of life and thought relating to our country and present it truthfully with all the faults and merits, through the medium of my Art.”
“And I hope that you will be with me in our final purpose to rectify our own shortcomings and become worthy of our cultural heritage and make our motherland once again the greatest in the world.”
This according to “Uday Shankar’s Kalpana” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 195 [December 2000] 53–57).
Today is Uday Shankar’s 120th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from the film.
Among the topics of interest to the journal, issues related to performance and its models stand out: relationships with the body and its different layers of mediation throughout history; the role of technology and media platforms in the processes of poetic communication; the conception of a musical instrument and its interpolation with various devices, existing or obsolete (microphones, amplification, high-fidelity), and media platforms; variations in listening patterns, taste, and aesthetic sensitivity, through the introduction of different sound media; soundscapes and changes in sensitivity; the interfaces of the musical language with other artistic languages; issues related to contemporaneity, globalization, identity, belonging, and affective bond, through music; cultural, musical and media memory; and the constitution of stable values in the ephemeral era.
Below, a music-forward excerpt from Back to the future, the subject of an article in the inaugural issue.
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The 2009 James Bond film Quantum of solace marks a change in the conception of the opera visit in film, which typically shows opera in an idealizing light. Quantum’s opera visit, which may be a first in an action film, signifies detachment and encapsulates the subjective isolation of the protagonist.
The scene’s distance comes from the floating operatic venue (the Bregenz Festival), the voyeuristic production (techno-opera), the frenetic montage in much of the sequence, and the work itself, Tosca, which has parallels with the filmic story. Detachment is further promoted by a dry sound environment, a rearranged temporal scheme, and opera music that approaches underscore in its distance from operatic idioms.
Comprised of slow harmonic rhythm and considerable repetition, the two musical excerpts—the Te Deum that ends act 1 and the instrumental music after Scarpia’s murder in act 2—are noticeably static and impose a groundedness that separates the scene from the film’s other set pieces, which are extremely fast in music, sound, and image. The disposition of the operatic music points up the cinematic bent of Puccini’s score and its remarkable ability to accommodate the needs of the film.
Although Quantum’s opera visit is cynical toward opera culture, it captures the post-millennial malaise of the long-running Bond franchise and forms the high point of a film that disappointed critics and fans alike. But while opera may redeem the film’s larger narrative, the protagonist remains aloof from opera’s transforming qualities as he shuns engagement with the spectacle and the resonant music on the soundtrack.
Bond’s detachment is embodied in the symbol of the set’s iconic big eye, which not only reverses opera’s scopic dynamic by gazing at the audience more than the audience gazes at the stage, but also represents mediated looking at opera in general, as in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD cinecasts. While an operatics of detachment may seem like a contradiction, Quantum of solace persuades the viewer that it can be a vibrant reimagining of the special filmic ritual that is the opera visit.
This according to “The operatics of detachment: Tosca in the James Bond film Quantum of solace” by Marcia J. Citron (19th-century music XXXIV/3 [spring 2011] pp. 316–40).
Today is the 120th anniversary of Tosca’s premiere!
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