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Director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, opening in theaters this weekend in the US, sounds better than any war movie ever made.
I saw Dunkirk in 70mm and digital surround sound at the earliest possible showing at my favorite suburban St. Louis multiplex. Having just published a book on war movies from Apocalypse Now to American Sniper,I was eager to see and hear this latest entry in the intermittent but persistent World War II film cycle kicked off almost two decades ago by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
At just 1 hour and 47 minutes, Dunkirk is a lean and gorgeous piece of filmmaking and film scoring that deserves to be experienced without undue preparation—so no spoilers here!
Instead, I want to offer some hopefully helpful hints about how Nolan’s film fits into the sonic and musical traditions of the post-Apocalypse Now war film. I detail these traditions at length in my book in separate sections devoted to each of the three elements of the soundtrack—dialogue, sound effects, music. Below is a quick consideration of Dunkirk along the same lines.
There’s very little talking in Dunkirk. Nolan has made a “silent” war film where sound effects and music carry the soundtrack: the film’s dialogue could easily be replaced with title cards as in the pre-sync sound era.
Nolan’s historical subject lends itself to minimal dialogue: Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers await evacuation from France on the beaches of Dunkirk. The British navy and a flotilla of civilian craft—pleasure boats, mostly—set out across the English Channel to bring them safely home. German bombers and fighter planes attack the evacuation and British Spitfires fight back. It’s a land-sea-air battle with clear geometric lines that Nolan effectively tells with sound effects following long traditions of the war film (see Chapter 6 in my book).
And, indeed, the sound effects in Dunkirk are astonishing—some of the loudest, clearest, and most physical I have ever experienced. I saw the film in a just renovated cinema outfitted with “dream loungers” (padded, automatically reclining seats straight out of high-end home theatre set ups). The low sounds of bombs reverberated through my whole seat with tremendous tone and clarity. My head felt vibrations as if on a rollercoaster. As with so many war films—especially the early digital surround sound hit Saving Private Ryan—Dunkirk in the theatre uses sound to put the viewer’s body into motion, striving to elicit felt sonic identification with the soldiers in the story.
Dunkirk’s score is by composer Hans Zimmer, who also composed original music for The Thin Red Line and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. All three of these films feature what I call almost continuous scores. Indeed, I can’t recall a single moment of Dunkirk when the soundtrack mix didn’t contain something categorizable as music. Zimmer’s score provides crucial support to Nolan’s “silent” film approach to storytelling.
And the music does something else, too. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that, as in his earlier films Memento, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan is again exploring issues of time and narrative shape. Zimmer’s score for Dunkirk plays a crucial role pacing the action and instantly shifting the film’s momentum with a huge array of beat-driven textures (such as the below teaser track released on Youtube).
Zimmer offers only one melody in Dunkirk and it’s borrowed. To prepare yourself for the film’s most self-consciously emotional moments—best experienced in a theatre full of British nationals (who’ll likely be crying to more than just the music itself)—listen to Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations below.
Among many YouTube’s of “Nimrod,” I chose a version featuring the Staatskapelle Berlin at the BBC Proms, a site of nationalistic celebration in the UK. A German orchestra playing this British orchestral staple feels to me like a needed, tiny correction to Nolan’s film, which begins (like countless war films) with an informative title that euphemistically and problematically reads, “The enemy have driven the British and French forces to the beach.”
I hope you enjoy Dunkirk as much as I did.
Todd Decker is Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. The author of four books on American commercial music and media, he has lectured at the Library of Congress, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and LabEx Arts-H2H in Paris.
The Otto Kinkeldey Award each year honors a musicological book of exceptional merit published during the previous year by a scholar who is past the early stages of his or her career. “Early stages” of the career is normally considered to mean no more than ten years beyond completion of the Ph. D. degree.
What can institutions tell us about contemporary art music? The Warsaw Autumn festival provides some intriguing answers to this question. Launched in 1956 (and still running today), the Warsaw Autumn was at the heart of a vibrant musical culture in Poland whose diversity and modernity were unique in Cold War Eastern Europe. Electronic music from West Germany, symphonies from the Soviet Union, sonic experiments from Poland, and avant-garde dance from the United States—these were just some of the things a festivalgoer could see and hear in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The Warsaw Autumn fascinates me because of its unique location during the Cold War. At the time, the festival was on the cultural fault line between East and West, and, as a result, it was a place where there were heated debates about what new music could (and should) be. I’ve been just as intrigued by the stories of the people who’ve been involved with the festival. In writing this book I’ve encountered savvy composers, traveling performers, wheeling-and-dealing cultural officials, partisan critics, curious tourists, and rioting audiences. Telling their stories has allowed me to present new music as a social phenomenon—the creation of many different actors working through institutions. Following the journeys of people, objects, and ideas has also led me to a more nuanced understanding of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Instead of being muffled by an Iron Curtain, musicians in Poland, through the Warsaw Autumn festival, were able to participate meaningfully in networks that stretched across the world.
Lisa Jakelski is Associate Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.
This post is also in honor of International Open Access Week, October 24–30, 2016. At publication date, a free ebook version of this title will be available through Luminos, University of California Press’s Open Access publishing program for monographs. Visit www.luminosoa.org to learn more.
In languages ranging from French to Turkish and German to Japanese, the verb “to play” is applicable to both games and instrumental music. But what kinds of games might we be playing when we play music? Johan Huizinga, the founder of modern play studies, remarked in 1939 that “it seems probable that the link between play and instrumental skill is to be sought in the nimble and orderly movements of the fingers.” Growing up, I was vaguely aware of parallels between the hours I spent at the piano keyboard and the computer keyboard, or with Nintendo gamepad in hand. Exercises of dexterous timing and the navigation of obstacles in the form of double thirds or Goombas occupied me throughout my childhood. Decades later, when writing Keys to Play, I found myself articulating my sense of what exactly these activities have in common and how they might illuminate one another.
I was particularly intrigued by how Huizinga’s focus on “the nimble and orderly movements of the fingers” hints at a genealogy of digitality that links fingers to numbers and fortepianos to game controllers. Since its earliest musical incarnations, the keyboard has materialized and arrayed bits of information, making them available for processing by both humans and machines. Keys and buttons represent bits as spatially divergent entities that are configured and mapped according to cultural memory, the elements of which are stored and retrieved by recourse to notes, letters, numbers, tunings, and temperaments. Temporally, the keyboard enables these bits to be processed in sequence, configuring strings of events that can be programmed (composed), executed in real time (performed), or both at once (improvised).
At the same time, keyboards afford analogical modes of play. From the clavichord’s infinite sensitivity to the Guitar Hero controller’s cheerful fakery, both the isomorphism and the discrepancy between digital action and sonic outcome activates the logic of mimesis, revealing the senses in which play unfolds in a subjunctive mood. Under the rubric of make-believe or fantasy, we play as if things might be otherwise.
To alight on another point of linguistic contact between music and games, in both cases the “score” is indicative of a need to objectify and quantify the outcome of a playful process. To score, etymologically, is to mark: to tally, in the case of games, and to prescribe, in the case of music. In this sense, a score describes and constitutes the ludic rules according to which the music is to be played. Throughout Keys to Play, I wanted to conceive of figures such as Mozart and Beethoven not as composers in the traditional sense, but as game designers, creators who engineered playful adventures for themselves and others to act out.
These connections help explain why Keys to Play considers the playing of Mozart’s keyboard concertos and Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. Wii side by side (and even goes so far as to mash them up). Shuttling between the digital and the analog, between the concrete and the fantastical, between the nimbleness of eighteenth-century fingers and the wanderings of the twenty-first-century imagination, musical play enables us to act as if the world were—or might yet become—a more wondrous place.
Roger Moseley is Assistant Professor of Music at Cornell University. Active as a collaborative pianist on modern and historical instruments, he has published essays on the interface of the keyboard, the performativity of digital games, the practice of eighteenth-century improvisation, and the music of Brahms.
Last year the University of California Press launched Luminos, a new Open Access publishing program for monographs. With the same high standards for selection, peer review, production and marketing as our traditional program, Luminos is a transformative model, built as a partnership where costs and benefits are shared.
While the original print edition of The Art of Fugue included a CD with recordings, the digital product released on the Luminos platform features embedded sound files, providing a seamless reading/listening experience. In a series of elegantly written essays, Kerman discusses his favorite Bach keyboard fugues—some of them among the best-known fugues and others much less familiar. The book also features scores including preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Forthcoming in early October, Keys to Play: Music as a Ludic Medium from Apollo to Nintendo by Roger Moseley looks at how keyboards make music playable. By remapping the keyboard’s topography by way of Mozart and Super Mario, Keys to Play invites readers to unlock ludic dimensions of music that are at once old and new.
Sam Floyd, a prolific scholar and founding director of the Center for Black Music Research, passed away on July 11, 2016 in Chicago. Among his astonishing catalogue of accomplishments, Sam was the founding editor of Music of the African Diaspora, a series at the University of California Press. In this capacity, he sought out and curated a list of authors, whose topics covered the geographies of the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe and a multiplicity of genres such as jazz, gospel, Latin music and concert music.
I had the great fortune of being one of Sam’s authors in the series. I learned much from that experience. Although Sam was a visionary leader in every regard, another one of his singular strengths—perhaps, even superpower—was his desire and ability to collaborate. It was a talent that made him a natural editor. By example and through his kind but decisive words, he encouraged those around him to be their best. It’s rare to experience someone with as many administrative and scholarly projects in motion as Sam did have the inclination to guide the work of other scholars. Yet he did this consistently and successfully, earning him the deepest level of respect from colleagues around the world.
The establishment of the series indicates (and will continue to reflect) not only Sam’s interest in the African Diaspora but also his belief in interdisciplinary inquiry. One of his impactful contributions to the broader field of American music includes his use of the term “black music research,” a pre-hashtag phrase that I believe expressed some of the political urgency of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. As he began to institutionalize his ideas through scholarship, fundraising and organizing, many joined his call. Composers, musicians of all stripes, music educators, music historians, ethnomusicologists, and music theorists, among others, attended the Center’s biannual conferences. They joined in with the common purpose of approaching black music research with the seriousness and comradery that Sam modeled. A gifted convener, Sam convinced established music societies to meet in conjunction with the Center for Black Music Research. The cross-fertilization of ideas that resulted through the years certainly can be felt in the books published in the Music of the African Diaspora series and in every corner of music scholarship.
When his work took a “theoretical” turn in the early 1990s, he applied the insights of poststructuralism, history and literary theory to black music research. This move culminated in a groundbreaking article on the ring shout ritual and his Call-Response concept, the imprint of which is now considered fundamental to black music studies. The passing of time will teach us more about the powerful influence Samuel Floyd’s exemplary scholarship, professionalism, generosity and activism had on American, Caribbean and African music studies. As someone who has felt that power directly on both the professional and personal level for the last thirty years, I can testify that it will be, without doubt, immeasurable.
We listen to music for pleasure: that seems obvious. But what does it mean? I devote some pages to that deceptively simple question in my book The Thought of Music. The book proposes that music is one of our primary means of understanding the world. If that’s right, my question should be: What understanding of the world does taking pleasure in music put into practice? We don’t usually ask music such things; I think we should.
Before the European Enlightenment and the rise of the modern middle class, the opposite of pleasure tended to be virtue. Afterwards, the opposite tended to be pain. This change (always imperfect, never without precedent) coincides with major social changes including the development of modern ideas of privacy and private space and the concept of “ownership” in oneself. Such ownership also extended to owning things, amid the first stirrings of consumer culture. Seeking pleasure in life, and taking pleasure in objects, became principles of what the historian Michael Kwass called “rational hedonism.” The idea that pleasure is inherently corrupting faded; the idea that a well-lived life included the quest for pleasure thrived.
In the later eighteenth century, the instrumental music now basic to the classical repertoire found ways to give pleasure on the same terms. And it still does. A favorite form, the theme and variations, helped foster its era’s reinvention of pleasure. Previously, “variations” had usually meant the invention of different melodies over a repeating bass. After mid-century, the default form changed to theme and variations: the varied repetition of a self-contained melody, usually with similar harmony. The process is a series broken by short pauses, not a continuous evolution. Each variation is a distinct item with its own mood, color, and texture. In many cases, the series serves no end other than the pleasure of sampling and savoring. (In time the question of whether to seek something more would become central.) The listener or performer acts like a collector of musical pleasures and decides which to prize most.
Such variations are the very embodiment of rational hedonism: hedonistic because they aim to please and nothing more, and rational because their pleasures depend on an exquisite balance of difference and repetition. A listener who takes pleasure in this music participates in the understanding that supports it. But so does anyone who listens for pleasure alone, no matter to what: when we listen this way, we are all rational hedonists. Whether we should seek something more remains an open question, or rather many questions, all of them posed, to my ears, by the thought of music.
Lawrence Kramer is Distinguished Professor of English and Music at Fordham University and the author of numerous books. His trilogy on musical understanding includes Interpreting Music,Expression and Truth, and The Thought of Music. He is also a prizewinning composer and the editor of 19th-Century Music.
In honor of the 2016 annual conference for the Society for American Music, we are showcasing UC Press’ list of music journals, which together explore all types of musical genres, subjects, composers, and time periods. To celebrate, we are pleased to offer limited-time free access to select articles from each journal through the end of the meeting on March 13th.
We are very pleased to announce that Raina Polivka will be joining the University of California Press as our new acquisitions editor in Music and Cinema & Media Studies.
Raina is currently an acquisitions editor at Indiana University Press, where she acquires books in music and cinema, in addition to several other humanities areas. She holds masters degrees in both library science and comparative literature from Indiana.
We are delighted that Raina will bring not only her knowledge and experience in both music and cinema to the press, but her passion for scholarly communication and her genuine warmth.
In her words:
“University of California Press has long been a leader in publishing and scholarly communication, pushing the industry into new directions. I am delighted to join such an innovative and creative organization, to uphold a high standard of scholarship, and to further contribute to the fields of music, film, and media studies in major and lasting ways.”