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Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade

The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.

Normalization of white supremacist rhetoric via American news media

Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.

In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’

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My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.

Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.

As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.

I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.

European slave traders forced tens of thousands of African people onto slave ships through the “Door of No Return” at  Elmina Castle, Ghana; many died here before making the “middle passage.”  Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle was the center of the Dutch Slave Trade through 1814  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.


In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife.  Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands].  The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.

Charleston 1837 Bed and Breakfast, Image by Flickr User Anthony (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?

In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.

Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives

Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.

Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.

The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.

Midway plantation house, post move, image by Flickr user Preservation North Carolina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.

Still from Moving Midway trailer, Robert Hinton talks with Godfrey Cheshire

Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:

Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?

Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.

[Both men laugh.]

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“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu

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Featured Image: The author  listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author

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Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Echoes of Ian Curtis: Film and the Punk Voice

PUNKSOUND

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here. For part three click here. For part four click here. For part five click here.

Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands.  Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel.  While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?

In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on.  In today’s essay Landon Palmer shows us how film may be just as responsible as music for how we remember the punk voice.

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)

In Joy Division’s 1979 song “Transmission,” singer Ian Curtis embodied several aspects of what made the group’s post-punk sound unique with the chorus, “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.” As a piece of music, its repetition is intense and rousing, working as a compelling instruction that, when played loud enough, can be felt to the bone via Curtis’s deep timbre. At the same time, Curtis’s voice is robotic and distant, the signature of the group’s bleak sound that signified the post-industrial alienation of Thatcher-era Manchester. A historically specific critique of media, “Transmission” plays out a loss of agency. In the 21st century, however, the song has circulated more as a self-referential testament to Joy Division’s – and Curtis’s – musical skill, a container and a summary of myth.

Image by Ho-Teng Chang @Flickr CC BY.

To adopt Alexandra Vasquez’s question that has framed this series, what happens to representations of punk sound as they change over time? I argue that the cinematic techniques employed in presenting Ian Curtis and his voice in both 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom 2002) and Control (Anton Corbijn 2007) help us to understand the construction of a mythic punk voice.

Punk’s avoidance of comprehensibility, identification, and what Dave Liang calls “the prettiness of the mainstream song” have existed in awkward relation to narrative cinema, which requires legibility as a central component of storytelling (70, 71). While displacing the voice through fragmentation and asynchronous sound work has proven vital to theorizing and subverting cinematic norms, rarely has depicting a well-known punk singer’s voice in cinema translated to a cinematic punk aesthetic, as Stacy Thompson argues regarding the narrative and documentary Sex Pistols biopics Sid & Nancy (Alex Cox 1986) and The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple 2000) (49-50). Even the revered punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris 1981) renders punk voices legible by providing lyric subtitles. However, the two most notable cinematic portrayals of Ian Curtis–24 Hour Party People and Control, released during the band’s resurgence in 21st century popular culture–demonstrate competing interpretations for a punk voice’s place within filmmaking and put into play the question of how to interpret it.

Image by a town called malice @flickr CC BY.

Despite Curtis’s short lifetime, his voice continues to be amplified throughout popular culture. These extended echoes of his voice have participated in shaping its meanings and myth. In his book Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Chris Ott writes that Joy Division’s music “defied imitation” (xiii); however, imitation (and citation) have fueled public memory of the band and augmented the myth of Ian Curtis. By the time Joy Division’s two LPs were re-released by Rhino in 2007, several contemporary bands–The Killers, Editors, Interpol and She Wants Revenge–built music careers that are openly indebted to this Manchester sound but distinct from its socio-historical context. Public memory of the group has been interpreted through uses of their music in the 1980s-set period pieces like Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly 2001) and Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016). The contemporary circulation of Joy Division’s music has extended to films that resurrect Curtis himself.

To start, 24 Hour Party People self-consciously stages an inquiry into Ian Curtis’s meanings and his contemporary resonance as part of the post-punk scene writ large. Chronicling the ‘70s-‘80s Manchester music scene through Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), the attention-seeking TV personality and unlikely underground music patron who formed Factory Records, the film fits several tenets of Thompson’s definition of punk cinema in its “engage[ment] with history” and “critique [of] its own commodification” (64). A tongue-in-cheek historical guide, Wilson narrates via a fourth-wall-breaking blend of mythmaking, footnotes, and commentary that reflects upon the film’s historiography as he articulates it, and in so doing overtly selects myth over “truth,” stating, “When you have to choose between truth and the legend, print the legend” (itself a quote dubiously credited to John Ford). The film’s self-conscious performance of history extends to its musical numbers, where Winterbottom liberally blends imitation with the genuine article through a mix of archival and staged footage, thus overtly staging encounters with key moments in Manchester musical history. The film’s play with historiography does not go so far as to trouble its reinforcement of a canonical timeline.

It is in this spirit that 24 Hour Party People brings actor Sean Harris’s portrayal of Ian Curtis to life. In re-creating Joy Division’s performance of “Digital” at the Hacienda Club, Harris invokes Curtis’s jittery-mechanical dance style while his “voice” remains Curtis’s. Additionally, the film mixes ambient crowd noises with a band of actors performing in synch to the song’s studio recording. 24 Hour Party People not only preserves Curtis’s voice as an inimitable icon of this history, but places the studio recording of “Digital” as the authoritative version of the song within the nascent period of the Manchester scene, thus mapping this studio recording onto the band’s live sound (rather than implementing an existing live recording). Curtis’s voice is reproduced only through the most valuable, resonant historical record of it–the recorded commodity.

Image by bixentro @Flickr CC BY.

The retrospective framing implied by this choice speaks to the film’s greater approach to Ian Curtis as a figure best understood (or perhaps inevitably shrouded) via his posthumous legacy, and thus foregrounds Curtis’s transformation into myth. Due to the timing of his passing, there exists a relatively limited media archive of the actual Curtis compared to other late-20th century rock singers of similar influence. Beyond official performances on television, music video, and records, scant recordings of Curtis performing and speaking are available via silent 8mm home movies and archival audio interviews. Thus, 24 Hour Party People cannot resort to the historical record(ing) in all instances, and thus Harris’s voice proves central to interpreting Curtis off-stage. In recalling Joy Division’s notorious first encounter with Wilson, 24 Hour Party People portrays Curtis as intimidatingly sure-footed, confronting Wilson through quick, direct speech and locked eyes. Harris conveys the actorly qualities that so often typecast him in villain roles. Further complicating Curtis’s public image, Coogan’s Wilson provides a counter-narrative of the singer following his suicide, asserting to the audience that Curtis was not exactly the “dark and depressive…prophet of urban decay and alienation” that his music suggested, and recounts a rousing collective rendition of “Louie Louie” with the band to prove his point. The only instance in which Harris’s actual voice is used as Curtis’s singing voice, this cacophonous chorus depicts a Curtis participating in a deliriously muddled punk sound. Yet even this counter-narrative does not challenge the mythmaking of Ian Curtis, for it reinforces Curtis’s suicide as central to his meaning and value as a musician.

Music biopics have long bolstered definitive interpretations of a popular performer’s biography. In contrast to 24 Hour Party People’s self-conscious approach to mythmaking, Control is adapted from Deborah Curtis’s autobiography and directed by a former Joy Division photographer. Control’s most conventional choices as a rock biopic are the narrative associations the film makes between events in Curtis’s life and his songwriting, connecting Curtis’s music directly to his troubled marriage and the distress caused by his epilepsy. Control juxtaposes Curtis’s interior life with his production of music, cutting to the recording of “She’s Lost Control” after he learns that a client in his unemployment office has died of epilepsy, and featuring a performance of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” following a scene in which he tells his wife (Samantha Morton) that he no longer loves her. Control thus connects the singer’s authorial voice to the film’s narrative voice, arguing that the sounds Ian Curtis left behind are legible remnants of his biography. In so doing, the film deterministically situates his life through the framework of his death, his music serving a seemingly inevitable path to his suicide and thus transformation into musical myth (staged at the end with a crane shot rising up to the Manchester skyline during “Atmosphere,” indicating a ubiquitous echo of Curtis that has transcended the corporeal).

Punks in Manchester. Image by agogo @Flickr CC BY.

The film’s voicing of Curtis is articulated through Sam Riley’s performance, not through archival audio of the singer. As with 24 Hour Party People, Corbijn initially planned to have Riley and the supporting actors mimic their performances. However, during preproduction the band of actors rehearsed together until they were confident enough to play live shows for Joy Division fans. This convinced Corbijn to utilize them as a sort-of legitimate cover band for the purposes of embodying Joy Division’s history. Riley’s voice is notably higher than Curtis’s and is thus distinctive enough that it resonates comfortably alongside the numerous bands of this century whose leads “sound like” Curtis. Indeed, the resonance of Curtis throughout contemporary alternative rock may have helped make Riley more palatable as an authorized substitute for Corbijn and Joy Division fans. Such homage through imitation is reinforced by Control’s end credits, which features The Killers’ cover of “Shadowplay.” Both of these invocations of Curtis locate his value in his contemporary influence, not his historic place, an approach evident in Control’s less overt interest in post-punk’s socio-cultural context than 24 Hour Party People.

Control is uninterested in recreating the details of Joy Division’s history with exacting verisimilitude, forgoing the archive for a resonant aura of the band’s history. This approach is evident in Corbijn’s visual decisions – shooting the film in black-and-white memorializes the band through the stark photography with which Corbijn captured them – as well as his musical ones. In Control’s depiction of the band’s breakthrough performance on Tony Wilson’s (here played by Craig Parkinson) Granada Television program So It Goes, for example, Corbijn’s Joy Division perform the enduringly popular “Transmission” rather than “Shadowplay,” the song they actually played. Joy Division’s breakthrough television moment was further recast through “Transmission” in a fan-made Playmobil animation that curiously combines introductory audio of Parkinson’s Wilson from Control with Joy Division’s 1979 performance of “Transmission” on BBC2’s Something Else. Control not only situates Curtis’s singing voice coherently within authorial and narrative legibility, but also reflects and participates in contemporary popular memorialization of Joy Division regardless of the historical accuracy of such choices.

Pamela Robertson Wojcik argues that the human voice and its mediation through recording technologies is an important but overlooked component of cinematic performance. It is also vital to consider how famous voices travel and gain meaning through processes of imitation and citation–tropes of authenticity which pervade the musical biopic. While 24 Hour Party People and Control avoid many clichés of the musical biopic, narrative cinematic imperatives of legibility, coherence, and individual-centered storytelling motivate each film to participate in the production of rock star myth despite efforts at historical critique in the former or the austere style of the latter. Even in punk, rock star death is the most compelling biographical framework. The punk voice has long held a discordant relationships to cinematic norms, and these two films demonstrate how the translation of punk sound into cinematic soundscapes presents the inherent problem of recounting punk’s history.

Featured image “scream” by be.refreshed @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Landon Palmer is a PhD Candidate studying Film and Media in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and recently defended a dissertation on the cross-industrial history of casting rock stars on film titled “Rock Cinema: A Transmedia History, 1956-1986.” He has published on popular music and moving image media culture in Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, iaspm@journal: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, and Celebrity Studies.

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Coconut Clops and Motorcycle Fanfare: What Sounds Medieval?

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Until the nineteenth century, very little medieval music had been rediscovered, and what little was known was known mainly to specialists.  However, the nineteenth-century fascination with the Middle Ages, the Gothic Revival in art and literature, inspired composers to write symphonic works and operas using medieval stories and themes.  By the time twentieth-century musicologists began decoding and publishing music from the medieval past, a general consensus as to “what sounds medieval” had already been established in the minds of educated listeners familiar with European art music (see Annette Kreuziger-Herr’s 2005 article “Imagining Medieval Music:  A Short History”). Ideas of the medieval constructed in the 19th century via medievalist works of art persisted well into the twentieth, and eventually the imagined medieval sound of Romantic music turned out to be incompatible with the newly discovered historical record.

While Early Music performers in the 1970s and 1980s based their performance styles on historical research, their artistic work was inevitably conceived in relation to existing concert repertoires and standards of performance, as well as ideas about the Middle Ages known by them and by their audiences.  A general goal was to create performances that audiences could feel were convincingly accurate to how the music would have sounded in the past.  But a sense of authenticity depends not just on the performers’ historical accuracy, but on a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.

Screen Capture by SO!

Screen Capture from Monty Python by SO!

Two films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Knightriders, play directly with the clash between romantic interpretation of the Middle Ages and historically informed performances of music, for comedic effect.  In Music in Films on the Middle Ages:  Authenticity vs. FantasyJohn Haines examines six tropes of music in medievalist films:  bells, horn calls and trumpet fanfares, court and dance music, minstrels, chant, and warriors on horseback.  Haines mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail several times, but does not discuss any of its music; he does not discuss Knightriders, likely because of its modern setting.

This essay examines the way these two films used music to highlight issues of the real, the historical, and the existence of competing medievalisms central to the understanding of medieval music in modern times.  In the director’s commentary for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), writer/performer/director Terry Jones had this to say about the film’s music:

Neil Innes had originally written the music for the entire film, and when we showed it, it didn’t really seem to work… we’d all agreed that Neil should go for a very authentic sound, and authentic instruments.  The trouble is, it sounded quaint, and when we went to do the read-up I realized that actually you needed kind of mock-heroic music.  But of course at that stage, we couldn’t afford to go and record some more music, so the only thing I could do was to go to a music library – I went to DeWolfe’s [a music library that licenses stock music] in London, and spent sort of weeks going through their discs, and sorting out bits of music to put on to it, to give it that sort of … it was just that we realized that if you had sort of music that sounded slightly quaint, because it was on original instruments, and you had all these silly goings-on, it looked comic, the music, instead of actually looking, um, real….

They wanted an “authentic sound,” but what they got didn’t seem real:  here is the problem of conflicting expectations in a nutshell.  Jones likely meant that the newly composed music, including the sounds of pre-modern instruments, was consciously reminiscent of older music as it was beginning to be known. The song sung by Sir Robin’s minstrels is likely a survival of Innes’ “authentic” score.  The singer – Innes himself – sings a minor-mode melody reminiscent of a Tudor-era tune (think “Greensleeves”), accompanied by recorders, some reed instrument, and drum beats.  The terms “original instruments” or “authentic instruments” don’t just refer to antique instruments (or copies of antique instruments), they were code for a particular approach to the performance of old music, an approach that was becoming very popular in 1970s Britain (for more on the British Early Music revival, see  The Art of Re-Enchantment:  Making Early Music in the Modern Age by Nick Wilson).

Jones characterized the pre-existing stock music chosen at De Wolfe’s as “mock Heroic,” but there’s really nothing mock about it per se— it’s genuinely heroic-sounding orchestral music, in the romantic post-Wagnerian style of Hollywood film scores, probably written in the 1950s or 1960s.  There are brass fanfares when the company sights Camelot in the distance, angelic choirs for the vision of God who speaks to Arthur from the clouds, and especially, there is the wonderful music used when the company is galloping with coconuts.  Here they are, approaching the castle of Gui de Lombard

The music for the galloping horses is heard several times during the film, and the contrast between its epic majesty and the sight of King Arthur and his knights not riding horses but rather banging two halves of coconuts together to simulate the sound of hoofbeats enhances the sight gag.  The melody consists of four repetitions of the same melody, a strong rhythmic fanfare.  The melody itself is made up of two almost identical phrases that each rise and then return down.  The rhythm both emphasizes the steady pace and, through its mixture of long and short durations (a so-called “dotted rhythm”), suggests the gait of galloping horses.  First we hear percussion, the high-frequency snare drums and lower booming tympani, then the low brass play the melody, harmonized.  Higher trumpets join in for the second repeat, with flutes doubling the melody at a higher octave for added brilliance.  That combination plays the third repeat, with strings joining for the fourth repeat.  The tympani play faster, approaching the fanfare’s final cadence, but it becomes an anti-climax as Patsy, played by Terry Gilliam, can’t really play his long herald’s trumpet.  A very knowing joke, as onscreen Hollywood heralds are frequently accompanied by the sound of modern valved trumpets playing chromatic phrases impossible to play on the visible long trumpets.

[The whole piece can be heard here; the part heard repeatedly in the film begins at 1:27:]

 

In its instrumentation, especially the use of brass and percussion, and the dotted rhythms (long, short, long, short, etc.) suggesting hoofbeats, this fanfare draws on a long tradition of music written to suggest galloping horses, whether ridden by medieval knights or other hunters or warriors.  The most famous example is probably the finale to the “William Tell” Overture by Gioachino Rossini (1839).  That galloping music influenced many film scores featuring knights on horseback, and it is likely that Terry Jones recognized the style from films he could have seen since the 1950s, such as MGM’s Knights of the Round Table (1953), starring Mel Ferrer as King Arthur and the very wooden Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot which features music by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995), who wrote similar music for both medieval knights and Roman charioteers, including trumpets to suggest fanfares and uneven rhythms to suggest hoofbeats.

The music in my second example deals directly with the clash between then and now.  The 1981 film Knightriders was written and directed by George A. Romero, better known for his horror films (he invented the modern zombie film with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead).  Knightriders follows the adventures of a traveling Renaissance-faire troupe of actors who stage jousting tournaments while riding motorcycles; the interactions between the actors come to parallel Arthurian stories.  The film revolves around the conflict between modern reality and the desire to live one’s life according to (a modern understanding of) medieval chivalric virtues.  This scene shows the troupe’s act:  the action is straightforward, but the music is complicated, with the score by Donald Rubenstein using five distinct kinds of music in a theoretically sophisticated manner.  In order, we hear:  live music played on-screen by visible performers, recorded music played onscreen, and then three musically distinct flavors of underscore music.  Watch for a yet another knowing gag about the technical capabilities of heralds blowing straight trumpets, as well as a cameo appearance by the writer Stephen King as a scornful man eating a sandwich.

The music performed on-screen functions as part of the scene.  The painfully amateur band of minstrels plays a tune from Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” (1746), probably known to the squeaky violinist from its use as a Suzuki teaching piece.  We can imagine that these musicians are playing the oldest piece of music they know, and in response the audience—both onscreen and offscreen—is led to believe that the rest of the show will be similarly amateurish.  The professionally recorded trumpet fanfare demonstrates again how their (and our) musical associations for medieval scenes, especially tournaments, come so strongly from Hollywood.  The actors can’t begin to play their instruments, but everyone knows that the heralds and their fanfares are crucial for the scene they’re trying to set.

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

When King William and Linet take their thrones, we hear underscore music—guitar and fiddle—for the first time; the shift from source music to underscore is done with great subtlety.  This music has the informal flavor of folk music, which connects it to the little onscreen band, but now played professionally.  The cue is extremely short, but serves as a transition from the real world of the tacky Ren-fest to the imagined world of chivalry and knighthood in some mythical past enacted by the modern-day warriors.  The spectacular motorcycle stunts are underscored by more folk-sounding music:  again fiddle and guitar, this time playing a fast jig.  This music is exciting, as befits the action, but the specific sounds, reminiscent of Irish folk music, do more than just underscore excitement:  they begin to move us backwards in time.  Folk music reads as traditional, as old, but not ancient.  The folk music sounds inhabit an intermediate place, a remembered past between the present and the imagined distant past of the middle ages.

When the individual jousts begin, the underscore music changes again, first to the heroic type of “Hollywood Knights” music, prompting the audience to equate the “real” riders onscreen with their fictional (and filmic) knightly counterparts.  This kind of orchestral music, with prominent strings, is used throughout the film for moments of almost magical transformation, suggesting that for believers, such transformation is indeed possible.  For the second and third jousts the underscore changes one last time, to trombones playing very archaic-sounding music.  Here at last in 1980 is the sound of “authentic instruments” that Terry Jones eschewed back in 1974, and it doesn’t sound quaint at all here, it sounds real.  These riders aren’t (just) carnival performers, they are knights at a tournament, risking bodily injury in their quest for personal excellence.

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

Screen Capture from Knightriders (1981) by SO!

The music in this sequence plays with a basic distinction in film music and film music scholarship: is the music diegetic, that is, part of the film’s story, or nondiegetic, that is, as Robynn J. Stilwell describes in “The Fantastical Gap between Diegetic and Nondiegetic,” in Beyond the Soundtrack, “an element of the cinematic apparatus that represents that world?” (184).  The terms were first used by Claudia Gorbman in her pioneering study, Unheard Melodies:  Narrative Film Music (1987), and have been a major focus of film music scholarship ever since.

In this sequence, the amateur musicians and the taped fanfare, count as diegetic music, while everything else is nondiegetic.  Stilwell points out that border crossings between these two categories are common, but meaningful; she coined the term “fantastical gap,” the gap between what we see and hear and what we hear without seeing, to discuss the liminal (conceptual) space between the two (185-187).  Stilwell describes movement from diegetic to nondiegetic as a “trajectory [that] takes on great narrative and experiential import.  These moments do not take place randomly; they are important moments of revelation, of symbolism, and of emotional engagement within the film and without” (200). The Knightriders tournament sequence, already liminal as a “play within the play” of the film, traverses the fantastical gap in a way that dramatizes a central question for the performance of Early Music:  what happens when modern performances are historically informed, but emotionally unsatisfying?  For George Romero, as for Terry Jones, the answer is to give priority to the emotional, drawing on their and their audiences’ expectation for “Hollywood Knights” soundtrack music.  Early Music performers in the 1980s made similar choices, merging familiarity and unfamiliarity in exciting ways that unfortunately left them open to criticism that their performances were “inauthentic,” an advertising claim they found themselves defending.

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Recorded fanfare in Knightriders, Screen Capture by SO!

The modern performance of surviving pieces of medieval music, recorded in notation, will always enact a kind of medievalism, involving the creative use of material survival from the past.  But to understand the goal for the performance of medieval music as historical accuracy alone is to miss an important point.  Medievalisms, the creative use of historical material, create meanings for modern audiences, meanings that then help to shape further understanding of the historical past.

The decades since these two films were made and released saw great growth in both artistic approaches to Early Music, and in the skill of performers in playing old instruments and singing in newer, non-Classical styles.  Professional recordings enjoyed real commercial success as a sub-genre in Classical music starting in the 1980s, accelerating audiences’ familiarity with the novel sounds of old music re-vivified.  The 1990s saw “new age” music and Celtic folk-music sounds added to the mix, while performers in the 2000s have drawn inspiration from Greek Orthodox chant, and continental folk musics.  “What sounds medieval” will always be conditioned by what modern performers and listeners imagine “the medieval” to be, and how “the medieval” is understood to be different from later times.  As those imaginings are themselves constantly changing, so will their representations in music.

Featured Image: “Monty Python Coconuts” by Flickr User Mark Turnauckus

Elizabeth Randell Upton is Associate Professor of Musicology at UCLA and the author of Music and Performance in the Later Middle Ages (“The New Middle Ages” series, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which examines late fourteenth and early fifteenth century vocal music to discover evidence for the experiences of performers and listeners in the medieval past, recorded in surviving musical notation. Her next book will explore mid-twentieth century Early Music revivals in the UK and US, moving beyond the usual focus on musicological scholarship and classical music traditions to examine Early Music’s interactions with both folk music revivals and popular music. 

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