Monday, October 31, 2016

Audiovisual Returns

Excerpt adapted from Deirdre Loughridge, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

by Deirdre Loughridge

It is often claimed that our world has become so dominated by visual media that the ability to attend to music alone has been greatly diminished. In 1994, for instance, Leon Botstein observed a consensus within the music industry that “without a visual element or some ‘interactive’ component, classical music will continue to lose ‘market share’”; under these conditions, “pure listening itself - without visual or linguistic elements - is at risk” (Botstein 181). In 2010, Arved Ashby questioned whether one can “speak any longer of listening to music in any practical sense rather than watching-observing-listening to music,” since the Internet and media convergence have produced a world in which one “rarely experiences any kind of sound without a visual key or complement.” According to Ashby, the current “subservience of the musical to the visual” continues a “150-year trajectory of the ‘purely musical’ losing out to extramusical imagery” that began with the rise of program music in the 1830s (Ashby 246-248).

Projection screens at the New World Symphony in Miami.
As of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the dependence of music on visual media seems even more decided. In 2012, a Nielsen study found that more teens listen to music on the video-streaming service YouTube than on radio, iTunes or CD, and in 2013 the Billboard Hot 100 adjusted its formula to count YouTube plays in its weekly ranking of hit singles. Numerous symphony halls have installed screens above the orchestra, onto which are projected the visual component of expanded programming selections (silent film scores or video-game music, for example), or during more canonic fare, close-up views of the musicians. Going one better, the concert hall for the New World Symphony, opened in Miami in 2011, features fourteen large sail-shaped panels that surround the stage and function as both acoustic treatment and projection screens. As Alex Ross noted in The New Yorker, “the hall is explicitly designed as much for the projection of images as for the projection of sound,” the result an unprecedentedly seamless “fusion of film and live music.” Meanwhile, scholars have begun to speak enthusiastically of an “audiovisual turn” brought about by the new means of producing and coordinating music and images using digital media (Vernallis; Richardson et al).

As I show in my book, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow, however, not only the proliferation of lens and image-projection technologies, but also their encounters with music began far earlier than many narratives of audiovisualization and histories of multimedia have allowed. From the material culture and performance practices of the eighteenth century, optical technologies moved into musical discourse and habits of body and thought, helping shape the otherworldly orientation and silent, attentive listening of musical romanticism. By examining innovative mixtures of music and moving images in eighteenth-century popular science, street entertainments, opera and music criticism, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow recovers a vibrant audiovisual culture essential to understanding early romantic discourses about music and modes of listening.

Early examples of audiovisual culture.
Today’s “audiovisual turn,” then, is also an audiovisual return – of the medial hybridities and sensory mixtures that have always characterized musical practice and experience, but have been repressed by modern aesthetics and modernist historiographies. What is new is not audiovisuality per se, nor even the audiovisual condition of music, but rather our capacity to engage with these critically and historically. Thomas Elsaesser has identified such a renovation of disciplinary acumen in cinema studies. In the twentieth century, the idea of cinema as projected, moving photography dominated histories of film, rendering marginal or ancillary to cinema history such phenomena as peep exhibition, sound recording and music. As filmmaking, distribution and consumption have gone digital, however, photography-projection has come to appear as one stage in a longer history of moving-image media, the inadequacy of narratives that treat it as the ultimate form forced into the open. The result is an important shift in perspective: scholars are now more ready to grant a wider range of audiovisual practices “the status of parallel or parallax cinema histories” (Elsaesser 20).

Music historians find ourselves at a similar juncture, as an emblematic institution of our subject – the concert hall – has become a space of screens as well as musical works, the address to eyes as well as ears made plain. From the perspective of twentieth-century narratives of “the rise of instrumental music” or “the emancipation of music from language,” this development appears to threaten the art, to turn musical works into musical wallpaper and absolute music into obsolete music. But it’s the historiography, not the music, that is past its expiration date. Like projected photography, “pure” music now stands more clearly not as an ultimate form but as one possible, partial enframing among a wider range of mixed musical practices – practices that belong accordingly in our music histories.


Deirdre Loughridge is assistant professor of music at Northeastern University. Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is her first book, and was supported by Mellon and ACLS fellowships at the University of California, Berkeley. Loughridge’s research continues to bring cultural and historical perspectives to issues of musical and technological change. On the web, her projects include The Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments and the blog, Spooky & the Metronome.

- Ashby, Arved. Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
- Botstein, Leon. “Music, Technology, and the Public.” The Musical Quarterly 78/2 (1994): 177-188.
- Elsaesser, Thomas. “Early Film History and Multi-Media: An Archaeology of Possible Futures?” In New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chung and Thomas Keenan, 13-25. New York: Routledge Press, 2006.
- Richardson John, Claudia Gorbman, Carol Vernallis, eds. Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Vernallis, Carol. Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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