Thursday, December 14, 2017

“Just You and I”: Performance, Nostalgia, and Narrative Space in The Return

By Katherine M. Reed

Part 13 of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return approached its close, as had become expected, with a performance at the Roadhouse. As the opening guitar riff began, though, a collective groan rose among Twin Peaks fans. Creator David Lynch, in his perversity, had brought back one of the most mocked musical moments of the original series: James Hurley’s heartfelt throwback, “Just You.”

This musical performance was just one of many gigs at the Twin Peaks hotspot in The Return. Most episodes were marked by a final performance on the stage of the Roadhouse; most of these came from bands who exist in our own world, not just the fictitious narrative of the show. These Roadhouse scenes received a fair amount of fan attention<1>: did these vignettes have secret meanings? Just what was going on at the Twin Peaks Roadhouse?

Though this string of musical performances is diverse and resists easy interpretation, we can see each of them as serving an important narrative purpose. Here, with “Just You,” Lynch and Frost open up the world of Twin Peaks, questioning our nostalgic view of the town and the show, and bringing it much closer to our own world. Lynch is tapping into a favorite trope throughout his oeuvre: the performance of a familiar song by characters within the diegesis.<2> Typically providing us with an onscreen surrogate through whom to understand the performance, Lynch plays with our connections to the selected pre-existing music while giving us a lens through which to make sense of the scene and to enter more deeply into the narrative world of the work.<3> As Kathryn Kalinak has noted of the original Twin Peaks, the series’ music “gains its power by activating powerful conventions embodied in these models [film and television] and then both transgressing and reconstructing them.”<4> The Return plays with the expectations set by the original series, drawing on twofold nostalgia (for the song and the era it represents, and for the show itself) to complicate our experience.

Of course, The Return can be watched and enjoyed without previous knowledge of the show’s original run. I would argue, though, that Lynch and Frost seem to have conceived of this revival as existing in dialogue with their earlier work. In visual allusions, character interactions, and reused footage, The Return makes itself very difficult to watch without reference to the 1990-91 episodes. Twin Peaks has long been concerned with the passage of time (“I’ll see you again in 25 years”<5>), and this focus continues through Mark Frost’s summation of the show’s history to this point in The Final Dossier.<6> Given this, I approach this scene from the position of a repeat viewer of the show, drawing connections among episodes, though I acknowledge that this is not the sole possible spectator position.

The original “Just You” is sung in the second season of Twin Peaks by James, Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Maddie Ferguson (Sheryl Lee). Singing in the Hayward living room, the three perform for no audience but each other. The song is presented as a simple (if melodramatic) expression of teenage love, and its musical expression is built to match. “Just You” begins with a simple guitar riff that will serve as the counter-melody for James’ repetitive vocal line in the first verse. At the end of the verse, a bass line and spare drum set accompaniment enter, though neither instrument is present in the scene. The girls also join with echoing vocal interjections that flesh out a bit of sparse harmony. The sound of the song is unnatural, with vocal echoes on James’ line and phantom instruments. It intentionally sounds like a transmission from the past in its doo-wop style.<7> In line with the song’s lyrical content, the scene shows the growing feelings Donna has for James, brought to the fore by James’ love song. As Michel Chion notes, James and Donna are both characters whose legibility as types allows them to “enable identification” for the audience and draw us deeper into their drama.<8> Lynch’s careful use of reaction shots<9> (see chart below) accomplishes much the same.

In The Return, the song operates differently, both evoking and challenging its original presentation, though the sound itself remains exactly the same. We witness “Just You” through the eyes of an underdeveloped character, Renee (Jessica Szohr), whose backstory is unknown. Given the lack of information about the character, we are unable to identify with her engagement in the performance. Rather, we can see her reaction as a reflection of Donna’s, and the performance as an echo of the original. The end result is that, rather than being drawn deeper into the insular diegesis of the show, we are forced to confront these performances as existing in our own world. At the Roadhouse, we as audience members are witnessing performances of songs we may know, by their original performers, in a space which seems to transgress the boundaries of Twin Peaks’ narrative as we have come to know it. Lynch embraces the idea of the Roadhouse as a liminal space, but here it is a space between the reality of The Return and our own reality.

“Just You” illustrates this liminality perfectly. First, the sound of the song: The Return uses the same recording from Season Two, as many online commenters immediately noticed. Indeed, James Marshall himself was surprised at Lynch’s reuse of the recording without any editing. Just as Mark Mazullo has described in the original iteration, this recording again makes its remove from live performance felt very clearly. In this new performance, there’s yet another remove: the presence of our memory of the original, and this performance’s very direct doubling of it.

That doubling is not only musical, but also visual. Accompanying James on stage are two young brunette singers, dressed in cardigans and strikingly reminiscent of Donna and Maddie. More than that, though, Lynch frames this sequence to subvert our expectations, built from our repeated experience of the original.

As the chart below shows, Lynch shoots the opening of the performance similarly: showing James performing, and his love interest responding. It’s in the second verse, though, that The Return forces us to confront the falseness of our nostalgic reading. Lynch gives a wide shot of the entire stage, revealing the Maddie and Donna dopplegängers. We’re confronted with an image of James, aged more than 25 years since the original, as we hear his voice from the 1990 recording and see the reflection of his former youthfulness in the female singers. It’s here that Lynch inserts wide shots of the audience, dark and anonymous, further shattering the illusion that we could somehow witness the return of the childlike, intimate original performance. In conjunction with Renee’s incongruously intense crying, we are unable to enter the scene by identifying with her and are instead left to grapple with the distance from which we, and The Return, regard the memory of Twin Peaks.

It’s fitting that this performance comes in this particular episode. Though The Return was deeply concerned with nostalgia and the passage of time, Episode 13 in particular reminds us, in each storyline, of the disruption caused to our memory of Twin Peaks by the passage of time. A stultified Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) shows a glimmer of recognition at the smell of coffee and the sight of cherry pie – but that glimmer is soon snuffed. Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma (Peggy Lipton) appear to have finally found a way to be together when we see them at the Double R Diner—but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re still just friends. Even the Double R’s legendary cherry pie isn’t safe from the ravages of time, as Norma’s new business partner tells her it’s simply not profitable anymore. Throughout The Return, Lynch and Frost shatter our nostalgic view of the original Twin Peaks, but it is in this Roadhouse performance that the passage of time, in Twin Peaks as in the real world, is most clearly communicated, and our nostalgia for the Twin Peaks of our memory is questioned.
<1>For more on the Twin Peaks online fan community, see Henry Jenkins, “’Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’:, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery,” in Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 115-133.
<2>Gene Willet has discussed Lynch’s use of popular music as a catalyst for the shift into Lacanian fantasy. See, for example, Gene Willet, “Popular Music as Fantasy in David Lynch,” in Popular Music and the New Auteur: Visionary Filmmakers After MTV, ed. Arved Ashby (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 87-108.
<3>For more on this practice in Lynch’s films, see Katherine Reed, “’We Cannot Content Ourselves with Remaining Spectators’: Musical Performance, Audience Interaction, and Nostalgia in the Films of David Lynch,” Music and the Moving Image 9, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 3-22.
<4>Kathryn Kalinak, “’Disturbing the Guests With This Racket’: Music and Twin Peaks,” in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 83.
<5>Link to clip from season 2 finale:
<6>See, for example, Mark Frost, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017), “Interoffice Memorandum, September 7, 2017.”
<7>James Marshall notes that the song was essentially composed on set as a collaboration between Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch, and himself. See Pieter Dom, “How David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti, and James Marshall Wrote James Hurley’s ‘Just You,’” Welcome to Twin Peaks, August 13, 2017. Accessed October 21, 2017.
<8>Michel Chion, David Lynch, translated by Robert Julian (London: BFI Publishing, 2006), 101.
<9>For more on Lynch’s manipulation of reaction shots, see Chion, David Lynch, 177-179.
Katherine Reed is an assistant professor of musicology at California State University, Fullerton. Her research interests include musical semiotics, the use of pre-existing music in film, and British popular music, particularly David Bowie’s works of the 1970s. Reed’s work has appeared in Music and the Moving Image, The Avid Listener, and the Society for American Music’s Digital Lectures series. Her current book project, Hooked to the Silver Screen: David Bowie and the Moving Image, is supported by a research fellowship at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame library and archive.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

There’s Always Music in the Air: Sound Design in Twin Peaks: The Return

By Brooke McCorkle

David Lynch has always walked the fine line between painter and cinema director, and I believe we can attribute another title to his name: sound artist. Lynch, who has recorded two studio albums of his own, regularly participates in development and placement of sound in his films. For example, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (FWWM) he personally calibrated sound levels when mixing the music. As explained in a New York Times interview, Lynch’s involvement with sound design continued with the unexpected and welcome extension of the Twin Peaks story in 2017’s The Return. Throughout the season’s eighteen episodes, ostensibly diegetic sounds are hyper-rendered; that is, they are not faithful reproductions of realistic sound.  Instead, sounds are manipulated (rendered) to evoke the desired feelings, emotions, and affects of the given situation. Hyper-rendering itself is not an uncommon technique; it is a staple of horror films and avant-garde cinema. Twin Peaks: The Return fuses these genres in terms of sound as much as narrative, a combination Lynch rehearsed in previous works ranging from Eraserhead (1977) to Mulholland Drive (2001).

Yet the sound design in The Return stands apart from the previous two seasons of Twin Peaks. Most notably, the specificity of the sound rendering marks effects as playing a significant aural role relevant to the narrative. That is, these sounds are hyper-rendered not just for an ephemeral “jump scare” moment, but rather are in service of the story and/or the overarching aesthetic of the Twin Peaks world. Lynch paints his apocalyptic portrait as much in sound (and in music, as Reba will discuss) as he does in visuals and in dialogue (a kind of sound object as well, especially when treated by Lynch). The hyper-rendering endows sound with an element of viscerality; it feels real, tangible, plastic. Sounds such as the buzz of electricity, the repetition of a bit of dialogue on television, the rumble of an atomic bomb all, despite being just vibrations in the air, certainly have tangible effects on the human bodies of auditor-spectators. The viscerality of these hyper-rendered sounds thus reinforce the corporeality of the audience as well as the characters. The people of Twin Peaks feel more real to us because the sounds feel more real. And perhaps none are more real than Laura, the tortured sweetheart, the dark woman, the damned daughter. The unnatural sounds of a distorted diegesis as exemplified in the many Black Lodge scenes are the very incarnation of the wrongness of Laura’s life and death. Hints of this slip into the real world of Twin Peaks in the form of everyday sounds like near-omnipresent electric humming. If we don’t listen, these seem fine, common, normal. But attending to them reveals a twisting of the real world into something surreal.

Lynch and his team’s creative use of mixing works to musicalize sound effects, allowing them to enter the “fantastical gap” as outlined by Robynn Stilwell.<1>  The blurring between the real and the fantastic is a Lynchian aesthetic prominent in many of his works, including The Return. In other words, sound punctures the boundary between the “real” sound of the diegetic world and the “fantastic” sound of the non-diegetic realm. For the remainder of this essay, I want to focus on one specific sound effect that illustrates this porosity: Electricity.

Why electricity? It is an effect that fascinates Lynch, as evidenced by his response to a fan at a Cambridge, MA screening of Inland Empire. Electricity is a striking effect in FWWM, and works in a sense to bring the film’s aesthetic into the televisual episodes of The Return. It is an effect that permeates the overall soundscape regardless of the location—the Great Northern Hotel, small-town trailer parks, Las Vegas, suburban homes, diners, bars, morgues, and middle-of-nowhere roads. The aural effect is ever-present, yet rarely is the source of it completely revealed. Almost anything can produce the sound of electric buzzes, whether it is a low humming or whiny whirr; thus, the sound is suggested but  unlocatable. That is, there are many possible sources, but in the many instances where the effect is present not one definitive source can be singled out. By hyper-rendering the sound of electricity, Lynch compels auditor-spectators to question the electrical sources. We may search for the sound source, but our hunt is as hopeless as Ben and Beverly’s similar pursuit for the source of a mysterious sound in the Great Northern hotel.

Occasionally, however, electricity does seem to be emitted by specific sources. Pole number 6 is an example of this. It appears in FWWM as well as in Episode 6, after a little boy’s death in a hit and run. The pole also appears in the final episode, in front of the house of Carrie (Laura Palmer’s alternate-reality twin) in Odessa, Texas. And while there are numerous theories about the relationship between these appearances of pole number 6, there are no definitive answers to its location nor to why its sound is so prominent, so loud in the mix. Electricity in a sense is transitory, as it is rooted in energy. It can travel distances, even planes of existence in Lynch’s world. This quality links it to the evil of the dark lodge, Bob, and Judy. Like electricity, the evil is transitory, or to put it better, transmigratory. Bob is a metempsychotic spirit, as is (I suspect) Judy.

But good can also be linked to electricity and mobility as much as evil. In Episodes 15-16, Agent Cooper finally returns thanks to a jolt of electricity brought on by his (alter-ego/former-future tulpa) Dougie Jones sticking a fork into an electrical socket. In this scene, maybe we can better understand the sound of electricity as a characteristic of this invisible ether, an amoral tool for spirits beyond the tangible world. Indeed, electricity is something a bit magical. We observe its effects in lights, appliances, and such, but we never see the thing itself. To touch it is to invite pain and even death. Perhaps by emphasizing the hyper-rendered sound effect of electricity, Lynch is asking us listeners to consider how invisible forces act upon us humans in the reality of our existence.

In Episode 14, Lynch’s character Gordon Cole recalls his dream with Monica Belluci, “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream...But who is the dreamer?” The sound design is what puts us as auditor-spectators inside the dream of the Twin Peaks world; if we listen, we can hear sound as both real and fantastic, and we become both the dreamer and the resident of dreams. Sound is the vehicle for slippage between reality and dreams in Twin Peaks. And the hyper-rendering of effects like electricity, with the affect of anxiety, lingers long after we leave our screens for the mundane. As Lynch proves, an uneasy dream slipping into reality is still better than no dream at all.

<1>Robynn Stilwell, “The Fantastical Gap Between Diegetic and Nondiegetic,” in Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, edited by Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 184–202.

Brooke McCorkle is an opera and film music scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at SUNY-Geneseo. Her published and forthcoming works address topics as varied as Star Trek Concerts, Wagner reception in Japan, and ecological critiques in monster cinema. Please see here for more information.

Quick Takes on Twin Peaks

Musicology Now is delighted to offer a series of Quick Takes on  music and sound in the reboot of David Lynch's Twin Peaks.  Featuring posts by Brooke McCorkle, Katherine Reed, Frank Lehman, and Reba Wissner, the series takes us into the holiday season with an ear to the often uncanny music and sound design of Dean Hurley and David Lynch.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Holding Don Giovanni Accountable

By Kristi Brown-Montesano
Now am I allowed to say rapist.” — Rose McGowan tweet, 10 Oct. 2017

No one took Rose McGowan’s claims seriously. Now everyone is listening. ”— Headline in the Los Angeles Times, 13 Oct. 2017

At the end of summer 2016, just before the fall semester started, I received a commission from the Bilbao Opera to write a program note on the women of Don Giovanni. The requested subject was not a surprise. I finished my dissertation on the female characters of Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte in 1997; ten years later, in 2007, my book came out, expanding the coverage to Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte. While I subsequently stepped away from Mozart studies, I have never tired of coming back to these characters who still have a lot to say to us.

My editor at Bilbao, Willem de Waal, took a rather gutsy stance: he encouraged me to illuminate readers about ethical criticism and to address seriously the elements of sexual assault and coercion that are central to the Don Juan stories and Don Giovanni in particular. Contemporary relevance was obvious. Willem mentioned the recent arrest of Spanish porn-film producer “Torbe” who was charged with selling child pornography, abusing female minors, and sex trafficking; there were separate accusations of forcing girls to have sex with famous footballers. Here in the US, Bill Cosby has been ordered to stand trial, charged with three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault against women. A mistrial followed when the jury deadlocked. A few weeks after I submitted my piece to Bilbao, the Access Hollywood tapes of Donald Trump surfaced: “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. This girl—beautiful, young, flirty—I met her on the street; I came up to her, took her hand; she tried to escape…

(A parte: Oh, wait: that last bit was the Don, not The Donald.)<1>

Let me backtrack. About 25 years ago, I read The Operas of Mozart (Oxford, 1977) by William Mann, one-time principal music critic of The Times of London. The book had been listed on the Metropolitan Opera’s recommended reading for Don Giovanni in 1991, the bicentennial of Mozart’s death and the same year I decided to do a dissertation on Mozart opera. Covering the complete stage works, Mann offers historical background and lightly analytical descriptions of the musical numbers, all seemingly aimed—much like Mozart’s music—to engage both the opera connoisseur and newbie amateur. His prose is eloquent, his humor mostly English, clever and dry. But in the middle of his discussion of Don Giovanni, Mann suddenly goes into the red zone, excoriating Donna Anna, the first woman character we meet in the opera and the only one who consistently denounces Don Giovanni:

Anna is an upper-class Spanish lady who has etiquette where her feelings and brains should reside. Duty and honour are her watchword. Towards all her fellow-creatures she presents a coldly correct personality. If she loves her father it is because the Bible told her so. Her censorious anger against others is a juvenile trait. All men, to her, are beasts, and it would be beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.
Pleasantly raped by Don Juan. I have never forgotten these words or stopped objecting to what they represent: deceptive and toxic misogyny masked as authoritative criticism. Mann’s oxymoronic formula relies on one of the oldest and most pernicious excuses for rape: she really wanted/needed it. And while his wording might be the most egregious, Mann’s basic position is widely echoed in the critical reception of Don Giovanni, which skews heavily in favor of the libertine aristocrat, recalling what Sunday Times book critic Raymond Mortimer wrote about James Bond in 1963: What every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets<2> . Commentators and directors have idealized Mozart’s willful, seductive, and violent protagonist, crediting him with virtues (unflagging bravery, triumphant self-determination, revolutionary resistance to oppressive societal power, and sensual idealism) that are, at best, only equivocally suggested in the original libretto.

The female characters, in turn, are judged largely in terms of charm and receptiveness to the Don’s don’t-say-no sexual advances. Resistance to him is understood as a flaw—or a lie. In the words of Kierkegaard’s fictional Mr. A, “a foolish girl it would be who would not choose to be unhappy for the sake of having once been happy with Don Juan.” Fast forward 170 years later and you find conductor James Conlon rhapsodizing that all three female characters have experienced a sexual metamorphosis, compliments of Don Giovanni: “their erotic impulses awakened, magnified and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer.”<3>

Yes, Don Giovanni comes from a different time. But this is a poor  excuse for partitioning opera/art from contemporary ethical values,  forever justifying behavior that—in any age—is predatory and exploitive. Does the work benefit from this protection? Do we?
The original libretto repeatedly points to abuse of power and sexual trespass, beginning with this exchange between master and servant:

Bravo! Two pretty deeds!
Force the daughter, then murdered the father!

He asked for it: his own fault.

And Donna Anna, what did she ask for?

Shut up, and stop annoying me. Come with me,
unless you’re asking for something, too.

Leporello tellingly uses the word sforzare to characterize Don Giovanni’s treatment of Donna Anna, corroborating the young woman’s own statement: “He came up on me silently and tried to embrace me; I tried to break free, he held on even more tightly; I screamed; no one came. He held a hand over my mouth to silence me, and gripped me so tightly with the other hand, I thought I was beaten.” Two other incidences of what we would categorize as sexual assault make Donna Anna’s testimony more compelling: Zerlina shrieking for help at Don Giovanni’s ball after he drags her to an antechamber, and the libertine’s own account of physical intimacy with a woman using false pretenses (she mistakes him for her boyfriend, Leporello). The woman starts yelling when she recognizes her mistake, and the nobleman has to escape over a wall. 

Erotic impulses awakened, my ass.

This season, like all seasons, Don Giovanni is being staged in cities all over the world—cities in which dead-serious conversations about sexual assault are also taking place. Here in the US, the bravura rage arias sung by Rose McGowan and other victims who would not be silenced finally unmasked the scellerato Harvey Weinstein. Like Donna Anna, the original “assalitrice d’assalita,” McGowan is outspoken and resolute. If she doesn’t conform to public expectations of a victim, this should not make her accusation less forceful, her willingness to go public less courageous, her pain less profound. We should know better.<4>

So what do we do with Don Giovanni now that the work’s headliner brand of masculinity is finally facing the heat of full-coverage public denunciation in the real world? We could chuck the whole thing, of course, but I’d like to think there are more creative ways to deal with the challenge of canonic opera’s pervasive misogyny. As a staged art form, opera offers a unique opportunity to engage thoughtfully with the racial, class, and sexual politics that old operas dramatize for new audiences. Along these lines, Adrienne Rich offers a pointedly feminist perspective, addressed to women for the deliverance of women:

“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for [women] more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”

“Let us rescue the innocent!” exclaim Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio at the end of Act 1, rushing to defend the honor of a common girl, a country bumpkin, a “no one” in their class-conscious world. Soon the whole crowd will confront il dissoluto revealed. No one buys his cover story, the attempt to shift the blame to Leporello. Aristocrats and peasants alike join in condemnation: “Tremble, scoundrel, the whole world will know of your black, horrendous misdeeds, of your cruel arrogance.”

This is the moment that the women of Don Giovanni have been waiting for: the seducer-predator unmasked, judged, and found guilty. Too bad the work couldn’t just end with this scene, the three sopranos united in musical line and dramatic purpose. (How often does that happen in canonic opera?) Instead, tradition dictates that Don Giovanni meet his match in the form of a supernatural patriarch, complete with hellfire and terrific scoring.

In real-life sexual assault cases, of course, there are no vindicating Stone Guests—just a rocky judicial process that stirs to life only when victims are brave enough to tell their story and take the stand. Likewise there are no “mythical seducers” who “pleasantly rape,” only men who won’t take no for an answer<5> . Powerful, educated, creative men like Matt Lauer, John Lasseter, Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose. Like Don Giovanni.

Many of the acclaimed men who are now facing serious consequences for sexual harassment and assault have long operated in a culture that preferred to look the other way, not least because corporate employers and board members saw these men as too big to fail. Their brand was more important than the rights of alleged victims. The classical music world is no less implicated in this gentleman’s agreement. There have long been rumors and “open secrets” around conductors and applied teachers, who are often gatekeepers to major career opportunities. And few such secrets have been more open than those around James Levine, operating at the very heart of opera culture in this country. The self-interested and institutional protections around these men are finally--finally--toppling under the broad societal pressure for serious investigation.

Don Giovanni falls into a parallel category: an art product whose aesthetic value and guaranteed box-office receipts have deflected critical charges against the main character. My program note for Bilbao drew a hard line: the only way to make Don Giovanni worthy of our time, if indeed that is possible at all, is to listen more closely to the women. And if we really care about opera’s continued relevance, then everyone who loves the art form—directors, conductors, singers, critics, educators, audiences—must acknowledge the connection between what we applaud on stage and what we permit in the workplace, school, home. Because Donna Elvira could tell you, the “Catalogue Aria” is not so funny when your name, or the name of someone you love, is on the list.


<1>On 28 November 2017, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump is now denying the authenticity of these tapes, allegedly suggesting that the voice in the tape was not his.
<2>Often misattributed to Raymond Chandler.
<4>And yet this just in: the presiding judge in the recent “wolf pack” rape trial in Spain decided to allow evidence about the alleged victim’s personal life and character into court, but barred the prosecutor from presenting texted conversations between the accused which apparently made plans to rape women.


Chair of the music-history faculty at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, Kristi Brown-Montesano received her Ph.D. in musicology from UC Berkeley, combining her strong interest in both musical performance and scholarly research.
Her book The Women of Mozart’s Operas (University of California Press, 2007) offers a detailed study of the female characters in the Da Ponte operas and The Magic Flute. Dr. Brown-Montesano has presented and published essays on music in contemporary film, opera, trends in marketing classical music, and musical culture in late 19th-century England.
In 2014-15, she was honored to participate in the UCLA Musicology Department’s Distinguished Lecture Series. An active “public musicologist,” she has been engaged by numerous organizations in Los Angeles, including the LA Opera (“Opera for Educators”), the Opera League of Los Angeles, the Mason House Concerts, and the Colburn Orchestra. She is especially thrilled to join the LA Phil’s “Upbeat Live” faculty this concert season.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Dissertation Digest: Portraying the Anti-Heroine in Contemporary Opera

By Nicholas Stevens

In September 2017, I pasted a link to an interview into an email, and sent it to my former doctoral advisor with the subject line “!!!!!!!!” In the interview, the film director Darren Aronofsky had hinted that he might pursue an adaptation of his surrealist horror hit Mother!: an opera, to be scored by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhansson. Two men, coming together to depict the abuse and murder of a woman in an operatic allegory of the misdeeds of humanity – I had seen this movie before, so to speak. Just as the concluding minutes of Mother! imply unending repetition of the film’s grisly scenario, so did Aronofsky’s statement suggest, in light of my recently completed research, that the trend I had been examining might renew itself for years to come. To put it plainly: expect opera’s undoing of women, named as such by Catherine Clément in the context of the historical operatic canon, to continue and even intensify in new works by living composers.<1> Expect these new works to reproduce familiar musical and dramatic contours, no matter how subversive the intent.

In my dissertation, Lulu’s Daughters: Portraying the Anti-Heroine in Contemporary Opera, 1993-2013, new opera serves as both a focal point and a gateway to history. Over the course of the dissertation’s introduction and four case study chapters, I argue that opera’s anti-heroine archetype – one of the most familiar in the genre’s traditional repertoire – returned to prominence at the turn of the twenty-first century, along with many of its associated tropes and plot trajectories. However, I also document the cultural changes and shifting media landscapes that informed the creation of several pieces: Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face (1995), Louis Andriessen’s Anaïs Nin (2009-10), Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole (2011), and Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu (2012). The project implicates reality television as well as experimental theatre, the history of cinema as well as that of the operatic voice, and urgent concerns of real-world violence as well as aesthetic debates amid European art music circles.

Between 1993 and 2013, these and other leading composers chose to update and adapt the basic scenario of a transgressive heroine who rises within her society, only to fall silent in the end. Each of the creative teams behind these works advances a novel way to modernize, transform, disrupt, or critique opera’s long tradition of doomed anti-heroines, yet each also draws upon a common, historically rooted set of musical and dramatic devices in characterizing their compromised protagonists. Like Alban Berg’s landmark Lulu of 1935, these operas include gestures toward American popular music in otherwise late-modernist scores. They also foreground and thematize forms of audiovisual media, such as film, photography, and recorded sound – a tendency that has assumed even more importance since I completed my research.

In the introduction, I trace the phenomenon of opera’s anti-heroine type back to its historical heyday: the decades between 1875 (Georges Bizet, Carmen) and 1935 (Berg, Lulu) in which many male artists, writers, and psychoanalysts took up misogyny itself as the bedrock on which their aesthetic theories, narratives, and treatises would rest. The first two case studies cover new opera’s depictions of two real women who came of age between the wars. Margaret, Duchess of Argyll becomes a complex concatenation of archetypes in Adès and Philip Hensher’s Powder Her Face, and Anaïs Nin, the posthumous librettist and sole physical character of Andriessen’s eponymous monodrama, becomes an insatiable femme fatale in the Dutch composer’s tightly edited biographical sketch. The second pair of case studies, devoted to operas about protagonists enmeshed in U.S. culture and history, opens with a look at a third quasi-biographical account of a female celebrity’s demise: Turnage and Richard Thomas’s Anna Nicole. A satire influenced by the tabloid culture of the 1990s and 2000s, the piece lifts the velvet rope between opera and pop musical theatre in service of ripped-from-the-headlines tragicomedy. In the final chapter, I turn to a work that eschews the depiction of a real woman, instead featuring a new version of a pre-existing character: Berg’s Lulu, reimagined as a New Orleans native and Josephine Baker-like dancer in Neuwirth’s experimental American Lulu.

The project emerged at the intersection of my earliest academic interest – the work of the Second Viennese School composers – and the topic of a seminar I took early in my graduate career, “Opera since Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.” Fascinated with Lulu and its entanglements with jazz and film, I entered the seminar thinking that composers had, at midcentury, simply left such opera scenarios behind, and that the works of our putatively more enlightened age would bear little resemblance to the shockers of yore. Pieces by Glass, Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, and others initially bore out this expectation. Adès, whose third opera The Exterminating Angel had its stateside premiere in October of 2017, had by then become best known for his 2004 adaptation, with librettist Meredith Oakes, of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Yet something familiar growled in the bass saxophone lines of Adès’s earlier Powder Her Face – an undertow of fate, pulling the protagonist toward a dark denouement. Something familiar glimmered in the eyes of Cristina Zavalloni, the mezzo-soprano and jazz musician who created the title role of Andriessen’s Anaïs Nin, based on especially sordid episodes from that literary luminary’s diaries. Something familiar lay just behind the rhetoric that Thomas, the librettist of Anna Nicole, advanced as he assured many an interviewer that his and Turnage’s satirical romp would underscore the tragedy of the title character’s demise. Neuwirth, opting for a more direct approach, had gone back to the source, crafting an elaborate audiovisual palimpsest over and around Berg’s score for Lulu. As I looked more deeply into Powder Her Face, I realized that Adès had done something similar, folding the anti-heroine archetype into a sort of meta-opera: an allusive late-modernist masterpiece as history of the form. Yet even in Neuwirth’s bracing, subversive treatment of the Lulu tale, a stubborn truth remained: somehow, over the two decades around the turn of the century, the set of musical, visual, and theatrical ideas that suffuse pieces like Berg’s had become not just newly viable, but intensely appealing to living artists.

In writing the dissertation, I aimed to expand the small but growing literature on contemporary opera.<2> However, I also hoped to issue a wake-up call to creators and practitioners. As the librettist, producer, and performer Aiden Kim Feltkamp has recently pointed out, contemporary operas tend to celebrate fondly remembered male characters while clinging to age-old negative depictions of women. With figures like Saariaho, Chin, Chaya Czernowin, and Tania León increasingly recognized for their operatic innovations, and relative newcomers such as Du Yun, Missy Mazzoli, and Ashley Fure winning some of contemporary art music’s highest honors, the needed change may come soon, without much help from the academy. However, my dissertation asks a simple question, still in want of an easy answer: why must opera lovers, like the titular mothers of Aronofsky’s film, keep waking to find the same horrific scenario laid out before them?


<1>Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
<2>Writers who have examined these pieces include Emma Gallon [“Narrativities in the Music of Thomas Adès” (PhD diss., Lancaster University, 2011)]; Drew Massey [“Thomas Adès and the Dilemmas of Musical Surrealism” (paper presented at the national meeting of the American Musicological Society, Milwaukee, November 5-9, 2014]; Heidi Hart [“Silent Opera: Visual Recycling in Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu,” Ekphrasis 2 (2013): 126-7]; Clara Latham [“What Makes American Lulu American?” (paper presented at the 42nd annual conference of the Society for American Music, Boston, MA, March 9-13, 2016)]; and Jennifer Tullmann [“Confronting the Composer: Operatic Innovations in Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu” (paper presented at the 80th annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Milwaukee, WI, November 6-9, 2014)].


Nicholas Stevens studies art and popular music after 1920, and lectures in music history and methodology at Case Western Reserve University. His recently completed dissertation considers the aesthetics and ethics of contemporary operas that aim to depict archetypal fallen women, with emphasis on their gestures toward popular music, film and broadcast media, and historical convention. His current projects include a monograph on new opera as medium, and a journal piece on the music of Thomas Adès. He was a fellow at the Library of Congress in 2015, and an Affiliate at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities in 2016. He also writes concert reviews and program notes, tweets about new music and musicology @sufjan_wallace, and maintains a personal website and blog at

Friday, November 17, 2017

Building a Better Band-Aid

By Gwynne Brown

To teach any survey course is to resign oneself to a series of regrettable omissions, generalizations, and compromises. I was keenly aware of this fact a few years ago when I prepared to teach a new course that had been added to my institution’s music history sequence for majors. The two-semester sequence had been dedicated almost exclusively to the Western classical tradition, with a couple of weeks for jazz. The new third semester (“Western and World Music Since 1914”) was to include popular music and some non-Western music—topics whose prior absence was rightly understood as unacceptable in a 21st-century college music curriculum.

The university catalog’s description of the new course demonstrated our ongoing preoccupation with the Western classical tradition, however. It promised that the new course would offer the following smorgasbord of topics: “the legacy of modernism, neoclassicism, the post World War II avant-garde, postmodernism, jazz and popular music, and representative non-Western traditions.”[1] The third semester didn’t just broaden the survey’s scope: it also made more room for Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

I was daunted by the logistical challenge, but also excited to teach a class that combined virtually all of my favorite things. I divided the semester into thirds. The first, on art music after The Rite of Spring, concluded the prior two semesters’ overview of classical music history. The second unit attempted a concise overview of the “official version of jazz history” so ably identified and fileted by Scott DeVeaux in “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography” (which I assigned).[2] The third provided a swift introduction to the field of ethnomusicology, followed by a taste of Shona mbira music and South Indian vocal music, chosen largely because these were of particular interest to me.

Since the catalog had promised that the course would include popular music, I shoehorned it in. There was obviously no point trying to survey every major pop style in three class meetings, so instead I explained that our goal was to sample some of the different methodological approaches in pop music scholarship. I assigned three readings that ranged widely both in their authors’ scholarly perspectives and in the music under consideration. We had particularly lively and worthwhile discussions of Jeffrey Magee’s revelatory song biography of “Blue Skies” and Peter Mercer-Taylor’s dazzling and eccentric analysis of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People.[3]

On the whole, that first semester went smoothly, but by the end it was clear to us all that we had plowed through jazz history, pop music scholarship, and two non-Western musical traditions at an almost comically accelerated pace. The students were openly critical of the disproportionately lavish amount of time the music history sequence had bestowed on Western classical music. My new third course, designed to improve the inclusiveness and diversity of our music history curriculum, had rendered unmistakable that curriculum’s ongoing imbalance—not to mention its overwhelming whiteness.

Ultimately, and perhaps obviously, the roots, structure, and priorities of my institution’s music history sequence need to be reconsidered, and we are not alone. Many of my AMS colleagues (including my AMS 2016 co-panelists Vilde Aaslid, Ryan Raul Bañagale, and John Spilker) have been thinking deeply about these issues for years now, and radically revised music history curricula are emerging around the country. As my own department peers warily into the future, I wish to share what I have discovered to be a reasonably satisfying approach to my interim “Band-Aid” of a course—one that could certainly be applied to other music history courses as well.

The seeds of this approach lay in my pragmatic solution to the challenge of dealing with popular music in three measly class sessions. When I abandoned comprehensive stylistic survey as a realistic goal, I discovered the advantages of calling my students’ attention to the diverse values, goals, and tools that musicologists bring to their work on the music they care about. I have made this “meta” perspective a unifying theme for the semester. Major styles, canonic repertoire and recordings, and important individuals and groups remain important, as one would expect in a typical music history survey. However, when students consider questions like “What kind of evidence does the author use?” and “What relevant topics does this scholar leave out?” they gain additional knowledge: that music history is constructed, brick by brick, by individuals with particular priorities, strengths, and limitations.

The jazz history unit offers a good example of this perspective in action. (Incidentally, I have taken to starting the semester with jazz history, having discovered that beginning with the classical music unit only served to underline the curriculum’s implicit devaluation of other musics.) Early in the term, the students read Brian Harker’s “‘Telling a Story’: Louis Armstrong and Coherence in Early Jazz.”[4] The article offers an impressively detailed and insightful musical analysis of several of Armstrong’s solos, but equally noteworthy is Harker’s framing of his analysis. He acknowledges that Armstrong would have had no use for the article’s meticulous, microscopic account of motivic connections. Nonetheless, Harker argues that by applying these analytical tools, he is able to describe and understand the processes that Armstrong’s contemporaries said they heard unfolding in his miraculous solos of the 1920s. In other words, Harker claims that although his methods may be alien to the musicians about whom he writes, he is nonetheless paying due respect to those musicians’ values.

Soon after, we spend a day on the two chapters on Billie Holiday in Angela Y. Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.[5] Davis writes forcefully and persuasively about many aspects of Holiday’s career, artistry, public persona, and cultural significance. She brilliantly unpacks the politics of Holiday’s incendiary performances of “Strange Fruit,” and also of seemingly innocuous love songs like “You Let Me Down.” Davis does not, however, write in any detail about the music, making her a perfect foil for Harker. Students typically express a visceral preference for one approach or the other; with guidance the discussion goes deeper, into fundamental questions of authorial voice, objectivity, evidence, and values. The humanness and individuality of the writers comes into the picture: their personal and professional backgrounds, their stated goals, and their careers. For some students, the discussion sheds a disquieting light on the invisibility of race and gender in their previous thinking about music history and those who write it.

By paying attention not only to the “what” of music history but to the “who” and “how” of musicology, I believe that my students gain more than knowledge about some major styles, figures, and repertoire. First, they learn to approach assigned readings more critically and more compassionately, understanding that published scholarship is biased and limited, yes, but also that it strives doggedly—and sometimes courageously—toward knowledge and understanding. Scholars are human, and music history, much like Soylent Green, is (spoiler alert) people.

The second gain follows from the first: students discover that music history, like music history pedagogy and curriculum-building, is an ongoing endeavor. There are new topics waiting to be explored, and venerable ones still capable of surprising us when approached from a new angle. If this Band-Aid course disillusions students about the completeness and trustworthiness of the historical narrative they’ve learned over three semesters, at least now they know that it’s up to people, perhaps even themselves, to continue working on it.


[2] Scott DeVeaux, "Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography," Black American Literature Forum 25/3 (1991), 525-60.
[3] Jeffrey Magee, "Irving Berlin's 'Blue Skies': Ethnic Affiliations and Musical Transformations," Musical Quarterly 84/4 (2000), 537-80; Peter Mercer-Taylor, "‘Stupid, stupid signs’: Incomprehensibility, Memory, and the Meaning (Maybe) of R.E.M.’s ‘Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,’" The Musical Quarterly 88/3 (2005), 456-86.
[4] Brian Harker, “‘Telling a Story”: Louis Armstrong and Coherence in Early Jazz," Current Musicology 63 (1997), 46-83.
[5] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 161-97.


Gwynne Kuhner Brown, Associate Professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, teaches classes in music history, music theory, and world music. She received her university’s President’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2013. Her writing has been published in the Journal of the Society for American Music and in Blackness in Opera, a collection edited by Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor. She has conducted archival research on 20th-century arrangers of African American religious folk music, including Eva Jessye, Hall Johnson, Jester Hairston, and especially William Levi Dawson, about whom she is writing a volume for the University of Illinois Press’s American Composers Series. She is a classical pianist and player of the Shona mbira.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Adventures in “Survey Adjacent” Music History Courses

By John Spilker

At the 2017 Teaching Music History Conference, colleagues discussed two potential trends in teaching music history courses: a content-oriented music history survey approach and a methods-oriented musicology approach. A colleague asked how I would describe “Music History: Gender & Sexuality” and “Music History: The Environment.” I responded that these two required music history courses at Nebraska Wesleyan University are “survey adjacent” and we shared a laugh at this new terminology. I teach topic-based music history courses structured around a limited number of case studies and my pedagogy lies in between the content vs. methods poles described above.  My students dig deep with the intentionally selective content to develop research and writing skills, which they apply to a semester-long research project that culminates in a thesis-driven paper on any topic of their choice, including music outside the Western art music tradition. This approach is definitely a very different place from when I first started teaching the music history survey in 2007. In fact, I would have never imagined participating in such a strange new pedagogical landscape ten years ago. For example, as an especially fastidious and overly-conscientious teacher of the traditional music history survey, I assigned the textbook reading and three anthology pieces (early, middle, and late exemplars) for the single 50-minute class period on the Renaissance madrigal. (It’s precious to look back at this.) Some colleagues would point out, “They’re never going to do all that work for one class period.” Nevertheless, I persisted…for a while.

Initial Reconsiderations
After having taught the music history survey for two years, I used Kay Kaufmann Shelemay’s Soundscapes to teach my first world music course during the 2010–2011 academic year. I wondered, “what if music history courses were structured using a case-study approach similar to Shelemay’s textbook?” With fondness, I recalled Douglass Seaton’s approach to the Classical and Romantic period courses I took in graduate school. Each class session focused on a single piece and an article connected to the composition and/or genre. During the 2011–2012 academic year, my first semester teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University, the exiting seniors suggested it would be much more helpful to learn music research methods during their sophomore and/or junior years. They noted that other majors had anywhere from one to three research methods courses as part of the curriculum. I wondered, “Why do we wait until a senior seminar or graduate bibliography course to teach research methods to music students? Furthermore, why is the approach usually so musicology-centric?” (Consequently, a new book offers a more comprehensive approach to music research methods.) During my three years of experience teaching the survey, I noticed that student papers often lacked a clear thesis and thorough engagement with scholarly books and articles. Some students didn’t know how to find a topic beyond “The History of the Trombone” or “Beethoven’s Symphonies.” Then it hit me: we guide students through an encyclopedic textbook and anthology about the chronology of compositional newness; then tell them to do research with secondary sources and write a paper. Often, there is scant instruction or hands-on workshop time spent on how to read and analyze articles, gather and organize data, formulate a thesis, construct a narrative, and revise prose…largely because “there’s no time” when you feel compelled to cover so much content. Furthermore, students may not want to research and write about art music from the time periods encapsulated by the survey course because it doesn’t seem readily relevant to their professional goals.

Skills and Topics: Lessons Learned from the Liberal Education Curriculum
I learned how to use less content to help incoming students develop skills in analytical reading, research, and writing as part of professional development activities for NWU’s first-semester seminar. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer discusses “Teaching from the Microcosm” as a way to engage students in the practices of the field, rather than merely covering disciplinary content. I struggled with the idea of cutting content to build in time for developing intellectual skills (e.g. research, writing, public speaking, etc.). How could I possibly let go of all this good information that the students need to know? A religion colleague shared a perspective that changed her outlook about coverage and curriculum design: “I don’t need to educate my students as if I’m training my replacement.”

As NWU worked to create a new liberal education curriculum, we discussed the idea of scaffolding skills across the curriculum. Accordingly, both of my music history courses are upper-level writing instructive. Music History: Gender & Sexuality is diversity instructive. George Kuh identifies writing and diversity as high-impact educational practices. The integrative core of our new curriculum requires students to take courses in “threads,” cohorts of courses from various departments organized around a single topic or issue. A senior music colleague inquired, “could you re-design your music history courses so they will simultaneously satisfy the requirements for specific threads?” He likely expected a surface-level fulfillment; however, musicology has been moving in the direction of engaging deeply with interdisciplinary topics like, ecomusicology. I could offer music history courses that connect with concepts from environmental and gender studies, while remaining connected to the context of the music history survey by constructing each course from case-studies. Furthermore, a topic-based case-study approach freed me to select repertoire that represents the diversity of music that extends beyond “art music,” which is laden with issues of race and socio-economic status. My new courses include blues, hip-hop, pop music, Broadway musical theater, film music, monophonic secular song, the madrigal, opera, and varied 20th-century art-music genres, some of which reference genres from earlier time periods such as the mass, symphony, and piano character piece.

The Case Study
For my new courses, each case study typically focuses on a single musical work and a related piece of scholarship. Each case study comprises two to three seventy-minute class sessions, during which students develop musicological research skills associated with historical social/cultural context, stylistic analysis, and current scholarship. Students apply these skills by completing required reading, listening, watching and/or analysis before class, engaging in activities and discussion during class, and working on the scaffolded research and writing assignments that culminate in their research paper. The case study on Edgard Varèse’s Déserts from “Music History: The Environment” illustrates the construction of a single case study. First, the “historical social/cultural context” class session addresses information about the historical period, genre, performance practice, intellectual history, and developments across disciplines including music. Students are assigned to read “Prelude to the Twentieth Century” from Mark Evan Bonds’s textbook and “Second Half of the 20th-century” from Douglass Seaton’s text. Students also research information about Transatlantic U.S. modernism, experimental music, and electronic music. Second, for the “stylistic analysis” class session, students have access to the score and a recording of the work. They guide their listening and score study by taking notes on salient features of each element of music: scoring, dynamics, rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, and form. Third, the “current scholarship” class session requires students to understand, analyze, and critique the content, research methods, and writing found in a scholarly publication. For the Déserts case study, students prepare notes on Denise Von Glahn’s essay “‘Empty Spaces’: On the Conceptual Origins of Déserts” in Edgard Varèse.

“Survey Adjacent” (Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.)
Although NASM accreditation guidelines do not require coverage of the six historical periods, both of my new music history courses provide students with a foundation rooted in the music history survey. “Music History: Gender and Sexuality” includes concepts and genres from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods and “Music History: The Environment” addresses the Classic period through the present. This information complements content from other required music courses ranging from theory to ensembles and applied lessons. It also provides a helpful frame of reference for students who need to prepare independently for graduate school entrance exams or the Praxis II exam for music education certification. For these students, process remains paramount: they need to apply their research skills to approach the task of studying for a comprehensive exam. One colleague, who teaches graduate students at a R1 institution, helped me see the big picture as I swirled in insecurity and self-doubt about doing something new: “Your new courses are actually preparing students for the things they will need to do in graduate school, not just exposing them to the information that could appear on the music history entrance exam.” At the end of the day, my courses use discipline-specific content to help students build the skills they need to excel in any career and lifelong-learning endeavors, whether or not grad school beckons. After all, even I can say to my students that my current job routinely requires me to do many things that I never learned as a part of my degree coursework, pedagogy being chief among those.

John D. Spilker holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from The Florida State University and is Associate Professor of Musicology and Gender Studies at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He serves as the co-coordinator for the campus-wide liberal education assessment initiative, a project sponsored by the Higher Learning Commission’s Assessment Academy. He has received the United Methodist Church Exemplary Teacher Award (2014-2015), NWU Faculty Advocate for Diversity Award (2017), and the Margaret J. Prouty Teaching Award (2016-2017). At the 2016 national meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Dr. Spilker presented his work on music history curricular revision and integration with NWU’s new liberal education program. He has presented his scholarship on writing pedagogy, care pedagogy, and alternative approaches to the music history survey at national meetings of the American Musicological Society. His research on dissonant counterpoint and Henry Cowell has been published in American Music and the Journal of the Society for American Music.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Quick Takes — Mother! as Impulse-Image: Sound, and the Steepest Slope

By Jim Buhler

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an exceptionally bleak film. It offers an ambitious and disturbing allegory of creativity and, evidently, “climate change and humanity’s role in environmental destruction”—though the final blast of total destruction is performed by the central, unnamed character played by Jennifer Lawrence, whom the credits identify only as “her” and, as Lawrence stated in an interview, represents the figure of Mother Earth.

Mother! has also proven a divisive film, less among critics, who have generally given it grudging respect if not love, than among audiences, who have responded with surprising vigor to a film that is faring poorly at the box office. The New York Times even devoted an article to its readers’ responses to the film, with one reader claiming that the film’s “repetitive theme of creation and destruction plays out more like Groundhog Day in hell than a biblical allegory,” a statement that encapsulates well my own experience. Throughout the film, the allegory is nothing if not heavy handed, but it is also not fully coherent. The various levels of allegorical content often collide in a way that gives the film more the heady, disorganized quality of a dream—or a nightmare—than an intelligible story.

The film is also closed-in on itself, almost claustrophobic at times, presenting what Gilles Deleuze would call an “originary world.” In any event, the film accords as well as any film of recent vintage with Deleuze’s category of impulse-image. The originary world of the impulse-image, Deleuze says in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, makes “all the parts converge in an immense rubbish-dump or swamp, and all the impulses in a great death-impulse. The originary world is therefore both radical beginning and absolute end; and finally it links the one to the other, it puts the one into the other, according to a law which is that of the steepest slope.” Characters in Mother! wander in from some nebulous outside, but anyone who is sucked into the vortex of the house seems fated to remain (or if they leave, they soon find themselves back), and the longer they remain, the more destructive they become.

The house offers a world of immanence. This closed quality is also manifest in the film’s treatment of sound, which is virtually devoid of music and so makes it difficult for the film to offer a promise of an exterior, transcendent position. The most overtly musical moment in the film occurs during the apocalyptic sequence in the final act. Here, we briefly hear throbbing club music, the narrative situation forging an association of this music (and dance) with carnal urges and the breakdown of social order. Otherwise, music is used very discreetly in the film, invariably serving as a furthermost point of stylization in the film’s sound design, moments that are mostly reserved for Lawrence’s “her” communing with the house. Although the film is about creativity and explores through allegory issues of responsibility (or irresponsibility) in the creation of a world, the sound design mostly emphasizes realistic rather than stylized sound, which has the effect of presenting the world more as posited than created or constructed.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) reacts to the disruptions of Man and Woman.

The house creaks and groans with hyper-realistic detail as the characters move through it—this is especially the case in the early scenes that introduce Lawrence as Mother. This approach to sound gives the house an undeniably haunted quality, and the sound is effective in investing the house with the potential to become a character in its own right rather than simply a space for the action to play out. The Man (Ed Harris) and the Woman (Michelle Pfeifer) soon arrive, however, and if the house doesn’t stop making noises in their presence, those sounds more frequently move to the background behind the seemingly endless chatter of the guests. The house’s potential to become a character diminishes as its sounds recede into the background, and ultimately it haunts no one really, certainly not Mother, who seems if anything drawn to the house, nor her husband, “Him” (Javier Bardem), the self-absorbed poet who should be haunted by the past destruction he has caused. The house seems only to haunt itself, as it recoils from the endless cycle of destruction that it seemingly knows to be its fate. But the film seems to have little empathy for the plight of the house, just as the Poet has little empathy for the plight of his wife, from whom he'll nevertheless demand everything—over and over again.

During the final act, the house becomes populated with an impossibly increasing number of guests, and the action turns violent. The world, already closed off, seems to collapse in on itself, and the geography of the house grows more and more confused as the guests in the house devolve into figures of pure drive and impulse. The action in this final act also traces a rapid line of descent for Mother. She moves from the relative quiet of the upper reaches of the house where she initially escapes with her baby, through the chaos of the middle floors, to the final descent into the basement. Here, Mother traverses the steepest slope of the impulse-image. In this horrifying descent, she and the house are subject to increasing amounts of violence. The sound crescendos and increasingly relates directly to the guests or the violence the guests inflict on the house (and one another). Slipping through to the basement, Mother finds a degree of quiet again, but, despite the pleading of her husband, she destroys everything except Him in a fire. Before she dies, the Poet asks whether she will give him her heart from her charred body. She agrees, he takes it and transforms it into a crystal that will create the world anew, and the film begins again with a new Mother.

This structure of eternal return is another feature of impulse-images. The curvature, Deleuze says, allows beginning and ending to touch, creating a closed loop of time. Brooke’s post notes the significance of the sound of a pen scratching on paper that appears in both opening and closing credits as a framing device that insists on the power and violence of logos. A variant of this sound also appears in the middle of the film, when the Poet writes the poem that will renew him but also bring ruin to the house. The slope of the impulse-image, Deleuze says, either “makes it into a closed world, absolutely closed off, or else opens it up on to an uncertain hope.” In the sounds of the pen, in the sounds of the house, the film offers inconclusive signs of a world that might escape the cycle of bad repetition if only we could hear them as music.


James Buhler is on the faculty at the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses on music and media. He writes frequently on music and film and is the author of Hearing the Movies, now in its second edition. He is active on Twitter (@jimbuhler), where many of the ideas in this short essay were first broached.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Quick Takes — Sounding Empathy in Aronofsky’s Mother!

By Brooke McCorkle
The season of fall horror movies is upon us; It reigns the box office and a slew of Halloween slashers will soon follow, but it is Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! that is generating the most debate. At once a psychological thriller and eschatological allegory, Mother! is perhaps more horrific than horror, though it brushes at the edges of the genre in several regards. The film dissects the relationship between “Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence) and “Him” or the Poet (Javier Bardem). As unexpected house guests arrive at their home, the poet nonchalantly and unceasingly undercuts Lawrence’s character at every turn. In this respect, I believe Mother! serves both as a metaphor for human existence and participates in a lineage of horror films concerning marginalized, tormented young women that undergo some sort of supernatural transformation (Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Witch come to mind).

The movie closely aligns audience members with the Mother. Over-the-shoulder, hand-held shots follow her throughout the home she has so lovingly restored for the Poet after a fire. Numerous extreme close-ups of Lawrence’s face as well as point-of-view shots strengthen the audience’s connection to the character. We share her sense of beleaguerment when Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, one of many unwanted guests, brazenly leaves the kitchen filthy after making lemonade, teases the Mother about her underwear, and interrogates her about having children. Lawrence’s character begs the Poet to dismiss the rude visitors, who multiply exponentially by the film’s climax. The Mother, now heavy with pregnancy, inspires the Poet to write after a long stretch of writer’s block. The success of the new work brings with it pilgrims hoping to meet the Poet. He refuses to turn the visitors away; he thrives on their adoration and abandons his wife’s love for the blind devotion of strangers. What begins as fanatic fervor transforms into a violent mob of anarchic disciples seeking to steal, consume, and destroy the Mother’s beloved creations: the home, and, eventually, her newborn son. Devastated and desperate, the Mother sets fire to herself and the home. All is char. Yet, she remains conscious in a black coal of a body while the Poet is unscathed. He carries her up to his study, where she bestows him with a final gift: her heart, now a crystal of flame. The Poet digs the crystal out of her chest and places it in a display stand. The world is renewed; the film “returns” to the beginning, with a new Mother.

Just as the narrative and cinematography work to generate audience empathy for the Mother character, so does the sound design. The soundtrack for Mother! exploits sound design to effectively arouse tension and fear. In this, it is hardly unique; horror films from Hitchcock’s The Birds to Peele’s Get Out utilize sound to heighten the cinematic sensorium. Mother!, however, pushes the boundary between sound and music in a specific way. I argue that not only can we consider sound as musical in the film (a Cagean approach to listening that befits many horror films), but that sound in Mother! does the semiotic heavy-lifting that is typically expected of an underscore. In other words, not only does sound seem musical, it acts like music in the film. The aesthetic of sound rendering along with a few key sound effects contribute to this phenomenon.

In Mother!, sounds are hyper-rendered; they are sweetened with reverb and raised to the foreground of the audio mix. From the very opening of the film, this super-sonicity is associated with the Mother. Throughout the film, it is as if auditor-spectators hear through her tinnitus-afflicted ears. The groans of the house reverberate through the auditorium thanks to Dolby stereo. The sounds emitted by the house envelop the audience; it is as if the structure replicates an in utero soundscape. External to the body, electric lights buzz like lightening, a broken teacup rings its destruction without decay, water, wind, crickets all are hyper-realized in the soundtrack. This effect is used most powerfully towards the climax of the film. The Poet steals the newborn son from the dozing Mother’s arms and passes the crying babe to his thralls. Like a demented crowd surfer, the baby floats on the hands of the mob; at the doorway a disgusting thud, offset by a silent pause, reverberates through the soundtrack. I gasped at the shock of it; auditor-spectators, like the Mother, are attuned to the sounds of the newborn and horrified by the sound of his head being crushed. It is the sound of finality. Overall, the hyper-rendering of sound effects lead auditor-spectators to hear from the point of audition of the Mother; they are thus encouraged to empathize with her position in the narrative.

Two other effects work as narrative bookends for the film. The first appears during the opening credits; the sound of a nibbed pen echoes in synchronization with the animated scrawl of Mother! in the title credits. The scratching immediately informs auditor-spectators of writing’s centrality to the story. Yet, the sound is sweetened with an effect reminiscent of the unsheathing of a sword. There is a violence to these handwritten words, a violence made apparent in the film’s final half hour. The end credits complete this impression. After a haunting cover of “The End of the World,” the sound of the slashing pen returns, illuminating the end credits. The ink blots splatter like the blood of the baby and the Mother that the audience saw destroyed a few minutes earlier. When natural sound effects like the chirping of crickets encroach on the sound effect of the pen during the end credits, it seems as if nature might remedy the world of violent logos.

Immediately following the opening credits with the metallic scratch of writing, the audience receives a sound advance. The screen remains darkened while the sound of fire blazes in stereo. A close up of Jennifer Lawrence’s face aflame fills the screen a second later. The emphasis on the sound of fire before the film’s visual narrative begins is a striking one. It indicates through sound the thematic relevance of fire to the story. Beyond this, the sound of the fire is deeply elemental—it is a giver and destroyer of life, ruinous and purifying at once. Over the course of the film, the audience discovers that it is the sound of the Mother, the cyclically ravaged and renewed muse to Him.

While Mother! is not a horror film in the traditional sense, in many aspects it functions like one; its story reveals humanity’s deepest fears and dark desires. What is so haunting about the film is the accumulation of minor offenses into something of apocalyptic proportions. It can be read as allegories of humanity’s relationship to nature, to gender politics, and to Christianity. However we choose to perceive Mother!, one thing is clear: the soundtrack invites us to listen to the marginalized and maltreated. It is in this act of listening that we might lay a foundation of empathy upon which a home can be rebuilt.


For more on this, see Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 101-140.


Brooke McCorkle is an opera and film music scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at SUNY-Geneseo. Her published and forthcoming works address topics as varied as Star Trek Concerts, Wagner reception in Japan, and ecological critiques in monster cinema. Please see here for more information.