“Just Vibrations” and Academia: A Few Thoughts

By Michael W. Harris

just-vibrationsFor my friends in the world of musicology, William Cheng’s latest book, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good, caused quite the furor for a month of two this summer (sample some commentary on it here and here). While I had/have no intention of wading into the mess of internet comment threads or the American Musicological Society mailing list (especially since the brouhaha has seemed to have quieted down), the strong reactions against Cheng’s book made me curious enough to read it.

I initially planned to write a review of Cheng’s volume, but the deeper I got into it, the more apparent it was that a review would not really do it justice—especially since I am not sure if I grasp the full scope of Cheng’s manifesto. Its four chapters, along with introduction and coda, make for a slim volume with some big ideas. And on their face, the four chapters tackle the central idea of reparative musicology and “sounding good” from disparate points of view: personal account, musical torture, paranoid academic writing, and identity. There is a lot to unpack in Cheng’s book, and I think it might take a few more trips through the text before I can fully understand what it is he is purposing. Continue reading ““Just Vibrations” and Academia: A Few Thoughts”

The Film Musicologist’s Bookshelf

About a month ago, friend of the Temp Track and fellow blogger Herr Vogler posted this over at his cyberdomain in which he details what books he feels a film composer should have on his/her shelf.  In this post I intend to do the same but for the aspiring film music scholar.

The term “film musicology” or “film musicologist” has been tossed around for about ten years to describe what it is I and others like me do, and while “film” might seem to limit the scope to just that, it is a useful catch-all term (I prefer the term “media scoring” to describe the object of my study, personally, but to each their own).  I have just recently encountered an article by William H. Rosar in the Journal of Film Music (which has an annoyingly irregular publishing history) entitled “Film Studies in Musicology: Disciplinarity vs. Interdisciplinarity” which traces some of the history and trends of the field.  I have yet to finish the article, but in what I have read he really strives to get to a core problem of the field and how it relats to this term, “film musicology:” many of the people working within the field are not trained “musicologists.”

Now, I feel that this should in no way hinder people working in the field, Herr Vogler is a trained composer and theorist but is a very intelligent and insightful scholar who has helped me greatly as I’ve delved into the field.  What Rosar is talking about is how the field developed and the “interdisciplinary” nature that the field has.  At any given Music and the Moving Image conference you’ll have scholars from musicology, music theory, film studies, literary studies, and any other field that might have a tangential connection to film or music.  What this has done, though, has made it hard to find a consistent way in which scholars approach the subject.  Since the field developed in an era already familiar with post-modern critical theory and interdisciplinary approaches, it was a sort of academic Wild West.  To that end, I would recommend looking at the Rosar’s article (found in JFM Vol. 2, No. 2-4, 2009, p. 99-125) for a sort of overview of how the current field developed in the 1980s up to the present, and hopefully some ideas for new directions (I’ll let you know how it all turns out once I finish reading the article).

But for the new scholar trying to get a feel for the field, or good reference materials to have handy, I would recommend some of the following titles.

“The Core” – Books that I would recommend for everybody:

Mervyn Cooke – A History of Film Music and James Wierzbicki – Film Music: A History: These two books were released around the same time and I really do view them as complementary titles that one should at least flip through and know the basics of.  The Cooke is a “great composers, great scores” chronological approach that is a very traditional way of doing history while Weirzbicki takes a cultural/technological viewpoint to telling the history.  Both volumes are easily available in paperback from Amazon and are a great starting point for the bookshelf.

Rick Altman – Silent Film Sound: Silent film music was always a problem in earlier studies (see Predergast – Film Music: A Neglected Art and other earlier works), but what Altman achieved in his study is a more complete understanding of how music interacted with early films and developed into the form that would give way to sound films.  It is an exhaustive study that I still haven’t read every word of, but while Cooke and Wierzbicki treat the subject at some length, Altman focuses exclusively on it.  To really understand the complete history of film music and sound, Altman has to be included in the discussion.

Michel Chion – Audio Vision: Translated from the French by Claudia Gorbman, Chion lays out a model for talking about sound in relation to film and really helps to add to the overall terminology  and approach to audio-visual studies.  As a bonus, it is relatively short, though it can be a be a bit obtuse at time.  That could be a by-product of translation, though.

A Book on Semiotics and Music – I can’t really recommend one book here because there are many different approaches to musical semiotics.  You might want to begin by obtaining a basic book that covers many different approaches to semiotics in general and from there find the method that makes the most sense to you.  I personally go by Nattiez’s Music and Discourse but I know that it does not work for everyone.  But is a basic understanding of semiotics strictly necessary?  Maybe not, but it does help to have a basic model under which to analyze the relationship between music and image.

Other Books that provide models and ideas:

Royal S. Brown – Overtones and Undertones: Brown covers a lot of film theoretical ground here, but his prose can be a bit dense.  What is really great about this book are the interviews with composers at the end.

Claudia Gorbman – Unheard Melodies: Most scholars point to Gorbman as the starting point of the field in the 1980s, and reading Rosar it is easy to understand why.  The book is out of print and expensive to get a hold of, but it is worth tracking down through your local library via Interlibrary Loan.  She lays out a good theoretical model for talking about narrative film music that still largely holds today, though some have challenged it.

Scholars whose work you should search out:

Not everybody has published a book or even a book that is easy to get a hold of, but if you have access to a good library with ILL services and subscriptions to databases such as JSTOR or RILM, then you can find a wealth of articles to read.  Names to look for, besides those already mentioned, include: Kevin J. Donnelly (or K.J.), Robynn Stilwell, Caryl Flinn, David Neumeyer, James Buhler, Kathryn Kalinak, Gillian B. Anderson…and that’s just what some call the “first generation” of film music scholars.  Another good resource is the on-line journal Music and the Moving Image which is edited by the same people who run the yearly conference of the same name at New York University (Anderson and Ron Sadoff) along with the above mentioned Journal of Film Music.

There are some other books that are about specific composers and scores (such as those listed on Herr Vogler’s list), and I would at least checkout the Scarecrow Film Score Guides series.  I’ve only looked through the ones for Batman and Forbidden Planet, but they both seemed like good ways to approach film music from a musicological perspective.  One that is as concerned with the music itself as it is the history of the composer, film, and the  circumstances surrounding the project.

As with any academic discipline, there is a balance to be struck between global knowledge about a field and more specific knowledge related to your defined niche.  That is why I have the “core” books which provide a global view (and do it very well), and have left out more specific books related to composers, periods, etc.  And since “film musicology” is still a new field that is interdisciplinary by its very nature one will also need books on film theory, music theory, and many other possible fields depending on the film subject.

I hope this has been of help to you, my readers.  Your humble blogger has yet to publish anything outside of this web space, but stay tuned as my dissertation begins to take shape – over the coming years…

Film Scores-giving: Or what I’m thankful for this year (in Film Music)

So I am the kind of person who after going into school during break for the sole purpose of getting work done, comes home only to write more on his blog.  It all for you, loyal readers, because I realized that it’s been over three weeks since my last post of any kind.  So in the spirit of giving that is this season, I give this list of things I’m thankful for (film music related) to you.

iTunes: Yes, iTunes.  Though I lament the death of liner notes that will comes with the digital download revolution, the fact that so many scores are so easily available is just remarkable and makes doing research in film music so much easier than it was even 10 years ago.  And now, the score released of Battlestar Galactica by Bear McCreary are even available.

New Books: In the past year, there have seemingly been more new film score books released than one can keep up with.  From Cooke’s lengthy A History of Film Music to Wierzbicki’s more focused, but detailed, Film Music: A History, to Larsen’s simply titled Film Music, the new contributions to the field are staggering.  It gives this future PhD candidate hope for a job upon graduation.

Screen Archives Entertainment and Film Score Monthly:  Together they make available so much music that otherwise might not be released.  Combing back catalogues of various studios, remastering, and then releasing what could be lost gems of previous years, they have done so much to keep alive the film music of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Music and the Moving Image IV: Being able to go to New York in May and attend this conference was a great experience.  Not only was it my first major conference experience, hearing the papers given and taking stock of research in the field (what is being researched and how it’s being done) helped affirm what I had already been doing, plus helped me to better hone my ideas and techniques.  I’ve just submitted an abstract for next year, and hope to go again regardless of being accepted or not.

The faculty and colleagues at school:  One always worries about being supported by their professors and academic peers, but I’ve had nothing but support and encouragement as I explore film music as the focus of my  study.  Granted, the field is, by now, well established in musicology, but it’s still new enough that I worried when I decided to take up the banner.

Herr Vogler: Fellow film music enthusiast and blogger, he’s helped me through numerous chats with his depth of knowledge about film music, not to mention loaning me scores.  Lately, he’s been of immense help with transcribing a score for the “Main Title” to Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes, my final project for Post-Tonal Analysis.  Look for a blog post on my findings in the coming month.

The return of the great sci-fi film (and score?): As any perpetual reader of this blog will know, my love for science-fiction knows almost no bounds, and part of that love is the fact that I think they consistently have some of the best, or at least most interesting, scores.  This summer had 3 great sci-fi films (1 merely okay) and 2 great (1 pretty good and 1 okay, but shows promise) sci-fi scores.  See my summer score wrap-up post for more.  I just hope this is the beginning of a trend.

Well that’s my list for now…hey, I want to at least pretend to be on Thanksgiving break.  I wish all you readers a happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are.

Book Review: “Listening to Fellini – Music and Meaning in Black and White” by M. Thomas Van Order

I’ve done Score/CD reviews before, but now for something a little different: a book review.  I hope this to be the first of many as I make my way through books on the topic of film and film music.  I’ve read books dealing with film music theory (Unheard Melodies, Overtones and Undertones, and others), but this is really this first book that I’ve read that puts theory into practice.

Books dealing solely with theory are difficult to read, in my opinion, because there isn’t as much of a “narrative,” if you will, current to them.  In essence, they read like texts books, and we all know what that is like.  Don’t get me wrong, they are very useful to read, and great resources, but as books that you sit down and read from cover to cover…not so much.  But what Van Order, a professor of Italian at Middlebury College in Vermont, has done in Listening to Fellini is create a book that is not only readable but also highly insightful, along with being a very good academic study of how Fellini uses music in his films.

The scope of this book is limited to the Italian director’s Black and White films with scores by Nina Rota, and this limiting in scope helps focus his project and allow him to dedicate at least 10-15 pages on each of the seven films considered (Lo sceicco bianco, I vitelloni, La strada, Il bidone, Le notti di Cabiria, La dolce vita, and 8 1/2).  I myself have only seen two of the films (La strada and 8 1/2), and both were seen by me over five years and my only strong memory is of the closing scene of 8 1/2 (which features one of, what I now know are,  Rota’s signature circus marches that he wrote for Fellini’s films).  One of the highest compliments that I feel I can pay to this book is that Van Order does a wonderful job describing the film and plot alongside his musical analysis such that I don’t feel that an intimate knowledge of the film is necessary to my understanding of his points (something that I feel when I read much academic film writing).

The text of the book itself is relatively short, only 145 pages, but after that follows nearly 100 pages of appendices in which he breaks down each of the films into a series of sequences and details their aural content and describes the action.  He references these sequences in text, though it is not necessary to look them up, but they do help deepen a reader’s understanding. 

There are two chapters that I would like to highlight, though, as especially insightful:

-Van Order dedicates two chapters to La strada.  The first is his analysis of the music and its editing (the sort of content that make up the book’s focus), the second La strada chapter, though, discusses the English language version of the film, and how the American sound editors not only replaced dialogue, but also changed the music.  Putting cues where they hadn’t been before, using some different music, and remixing the levels.  The main thread of the book is describing how carefully Fellini would edit the sound in his films, the mixing levels, where music goes, and the American editors destroyed that.  Essentially editing the sound as they would a typical Hollywood film.  But Fellini, as Van Order shows, is very careful.  He plays on an audience’s expectations, violates the diegetic/non-diegetic spaces, sometimes creating a meta-diegetic space that exists solely within the filmic environment.  And his use of music goes beyond simple character or idea themes, but rather helps to illustrate on a very subtle level certain aspects of the characters, aspects that the characters themselves (along with audience) only become aware of as the film unfolds and the theme accumulates the meaning.  And by contrasting the two versions of La strada (both available on the Criterion release of the film I believe), he brings his main point into stark relief.

-The second chapter I would like to bring forward is his discussion of La dolce vita.  By far the longest chapter in his book, Van Order discusses in depth the music of the film, its sources (here Fellini/Rota reference Pines of Rome and Threepenny Opera) and how these references and their music as interpreted within Rota’s score operates within the film’s story.  Van Order disscues in exhaustive detail the original sources and how Fellini brings in the ideas and feelings of them and incorprates them into the film.

Van Order’s conclusions also lay out other aspects for future studies, including what he calls “horizontal” study, which would entail seeing how certain repeated musical elements (like Circus Marches) function across his film output.  He also suggests looking at sound itself (effects like trains, etc), and their functions within Fellini’s film world.  In all, it is a very well written and researched look at music in the films of Fellini.  One that avoids becoming burdened by overly technical musical language (the musical examples were transcribed for him by an undergrad assistant whom he credits), and focuses on how music brings out what Fellini was saying in his films.

Orson Scott Card, The Ender Novels, and the author’s voice?

Among my many projects over the past year has been reading through a few book series.  Last semester—yes, semester, I am still a graduate student so I think in semesters—it was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, all seven books.  This semester is reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game novels.  First, if you don’t know the books, there around, as of right now, nine books and a short novella plus assorted short stories (some of which have been worked into the latest novel and novella).  The original four books (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind) make up so-called ‘Ender Quartet’ because they focus on the main character of Ender Wiggin.  In the late 1990s Card wrote Ender’s Shadow as a parallel novel to Ender’s Game, and basically tells the story of the original book from the perspective of the character of Bean.  From there he wrote Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant.  These four books are called the ‘Bean/Shadow Quartet’ and actually take place in between the first two books of the Ender Quartet.  Card’s latest novel of the series, Ender in Exile, takes place during the last three books of the Shadow Quartet, and even largely between the last two chapters of Ender’s Game, and the novella, A War of Gifts, also takes place during Game.


Yes, it’s all very confusing if you don’t know the books and how relativistic space travel accounts for so much of the lost time.  I won’t go into too much of the details because you can read all about them on Wikipedia and what not.  There is even a handy flow chart of how all the books and stories relate.


For my reading, I decided to ready the books in the chronological order of events as best I can.  So that order was:


Ender’s Game

Ender’s Shadow

A War of Gifts

Shadow of the Hegemon

Shadow Puppets

Shadow of the Giant

Ender in Exile

Speaker for the Dead


Children of the Mind


Part of the reason I did that is that I have, in large part, already read the Ender Quartet, though it was long ago and I never finished Children of the Mind.  As of right now, I have finished Ender in Exile.  What I want to talk about now, though, it how I almost stopped reading the books about half-way through Shadow Puppets and how it relates to some modern fiction.


In Shadow Puppets two of our main characters are Julian ‘Bean’ Delphiki and Petra Arkanian, both friends of Ender’s from his days in Battle School.  Bean suffers from a condition that allows his brain to continue growing, hence his amazing intellect, but has the side effect of his continuing growth past puberty and his early death due to his body not being able to sustain his increasing growth.  Petra was always a possible love interest for many characters, being one of the few female characters, but her tough, no-nonsense, acerbic wit and attitude always made her somewhat of a tough nut to crack emotionally.  She obviously had feelings for Ender, but most of it was more paternal and looking after the youngest kid there.


What almost stopped my reading dead in its tracks, though, was a drastic shift in Petra’s character.  She went from the tough girl who takes shit from no one to a whiny teenager who wants nothing more than to marry Bean and have his babies.  For the first half of the book, any scene between the two of them were either long internal narratives of how she wanted to have his babies (and yes, Card almost always used the word ‘babies’) despite the risk that they would inherit Bean’s condition, or dialogue of her pestering him to marry her so that his legacy can live on.  It got to be maddening, but I suffered through it and luckily the book got back on track to the larger geo-political story that had made the pervious book so compelling.  There were also long dialogues between Petra/Bean and other characters on how a life is not fulfilled until one is married and has children, how it gives one life meaning.  Those obvious moments where an author’s personal views are very thinly veiled.


When I was reading this, though, I was struck by how this reminded me of what a friend had described to me about the first Twilight novel (she stopped after the first one because of how annoying she found the characters in the first). She described how Bella had also essentially badgered the male lead (whose name escapes me) in his relationship with her, how he didn’t want to pursue one due to the complications that may arise.  But both female leads wanted their relationships with their respective male counterpoints (reluctant due to their respective conditions) and hounded them until they gave in.


In the back of my mind, the thought arose of the authors religious affiliations and how they have seemingly impacted their writing.  Both Card and Stephanie Meyer are members of the Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons), and while I have no problems with religion or Mormons in the particular, I wonder if the views of the church has influenced their view.  A hallmark of the Mormon family is it to be large (much like the Catholics), and that meaning can be found in future generations.  Not to mention the fact that Meyer cites Card as a writer who has influenced her.


But despite what I realized was Card’s own religion seeping into his writing, I wouldn’t not have been so clearly annoyed, I think , if it hadn’t been for the complete reversal in what I had found to be the very compelling character of Petra.  Apologists could say that she was being just as head strong as she previously had been, that her pursuit of Bean was driven by the same impulses that had led her to be so determined and her wit so biting previously.  But I text, as I read it, does not bear this apology out.


Petra became whiney, her constant pleading with Bean to marry her, not to mention her constant doubting about how she had been the first of Ender’s commanders to break under stress during the final battle with the Formics (the alien enemy that they had been fighting).  She had gone from a strong female lead to one that seemed to depend on Bean’s approval and acceptance of her as his wife.  Not to mention the other characters whose views pushed Bean into the marriage and subsequent children.


I’m not sure if this same theme will be present in the rest of the Ender Quartet (I don’t seem to remember it being), but its presence in the Shadow Quartet does echo what I’ve read about his writing having taken a turn that is more in line with his religious views in the latter part of the 90s.  Like I’ve said, I’m not trying to say anything about his religion per se, just how his views came to dominant so completely the first half Shadow Puppets.  I did finish the book, and have continued reading the series and enjoyed them immensely, and I’m looking forward to finishing the series. Not to mention looking forward to his final novel of the entire Ender series that is supposedly in the planning stages.  I’m just reporting my reactions to this and how they seem to line up with similar criticism reported to me by others.