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.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Quick Takes — The Apocalypse “Through a Glass Darkly”

By Mark Durrand

Without knowing from the outset that Darren Aronofsky originally conceived Mother! as a critical intervention into the increasingly fraught relationship between humans and the environment as symbolized through biblical narratives, it seems unlikely that the writer/director’s intentions would be apparent. In fact, even knowing what the film is ostensibly “about” still leaves me without any strong confirmation that it delivers its allegorical payload. Addressing only the acoustic domain, one would expect such a film – that is, one purporting to be of the avant-garde variety and dedicated to such a high-stakes concept – to employ sound in innovative and rhetorically forceful ways. And yet, with notable exceptions (particularly in regards to subtleties of vocality which I will address below), the soundtrack fails to venture beyond convention, even if it is a bit rowdier than the standard Hollywood fare.

The film is structured around Aronofsky’s idiosyncratic take on elements of the biblical tradition, mainly as informed by the Protestant Christian perspective (although the circular point of view the film projects is somewhat at odds with the teleological concept of time that prevails in most Christian systems). Mother! revolves around the relationship between a poet (Javier Bardem) representing the Judeo-Christian God, and referred to in the end credits simply as “Him” (note the capitalization), and his younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence) standing for the soul of Mother Earth and serving as the generative and restorative force giving rise to the house in which they live, and referenced in the end credits as “her” (note the lowercase). The house, in turn, operates within the director’s allegorical frame as proxy for the Earth.

Mother! opens in medias res with a conflagration that gives way to images of the charred dwelling undergoing a process of rejuvenation. “Him”/The Poet and “her”/Mother interact, uncomfortably, and shortly “man” (Ed Harris) appears at the door to the delight of The Poet and the annoyance of “her.” “Man’s” entrance is followed by a series of largely undiscernible events and the following day “woman” appears at the door (the wound glimpsed on the back of “man” resulted, indeed, from the removal of a rib). The pre-lapsarian state is short-lived indeed, as the couple commit the original sin of entering the Poet’s workspace – an act expressly forbidden by Mother – and recklessly shattering a shard of crystal kept reverently on display by “Him.” The film then proceeds as a series of vignettes following a more or less Dispensational version of the biblical timeline, beginning with the murder of Abel by Cain, and concluding with an apocalyptic immolation and the beginning of yet another cycle of the process.

The soundtrack for each vignette functions variously to bestow the house with a dense materiality, highlight the disquieting carelessness of the growing collection of “house-guests” (altogether representing the people of Earth), and within each episode creates an affective trajectory beginning at a low dynamic level followed by a gradual crescendo leading to a loud punctuation at the end. These increasingly maddening peaks of loudness in turn operate on a higher level to perform a longer dynamic trajectory from the almost bucolic beginning of the film to the raucous destruction of the house. None of this is especially innovative, which in itself may or may not not pose a problem. There is, however, a terminal flaw in Aronofsky’s recourse to convention, which becomes most apparent in a late scene in which “her”/Mother is ruthlessly beaten by a frenzied mob.

Rather than enhancing the affective and rhetorical force of this destruction, the sheer wall of sound strikes the sensorium like so many sonic body blows that actually distracts critical attention, and – even more significantly given the polemical intentions of its author – ultimately disables meditation on the escalating grotesqueries. In other words, the violent soundscape actually renders a less hideous field of representation. I do not feel as if I am watching the world end; I am merely watching an incoherently noisy mess. Imagine the difference had Mother been beaten by the mob in near silence with a few judiciously chosen hyper-realistic sounds punctuating the brutality. The juxtaposition a gentler soundtrack upon the representation of violence would form a familiar cinematic irony, but that convention would at least allow the sickness of the events to really settle into my experience of the film.

The film’s most critical affect – its ethos, perhaps, and what I believe makes it nearly successful in articulating Aronofsky’s allegory – derives from a deeply discomforting duality, simultaneously expressed, between the principles of extreme nearness and that of great distance. A claustrophobic intimacy is achieved through the camera’s close proximity to Mother even as she moves about the house, which forms a tense and irreconcilable counterpoint to her almost complete alienation from not only “Him,” but from the concerns of human players overall. This phenomenon is subtended also by comparison between their respective vocalies. His voice is resolutely authoritative; there is greater volume, and also a lot of low-end in the mix for Bardem’s voice that is reminiscent of what Michel Chion has called the “I” voice, particularly in the moment he chastises “Adam and Eve” for shattering the crystal heart of her previous iteration. In essence, his vocality is the sonic analogue to an empowering low-angle shot.

Contrastingly, Mother’s gently breathed vocality occupies an upper alto range ignored by the houseguests such that throughout the film she possesses no agency among the human melee. She is the voiceless subaltern in her own world rapidly colonized by humans recalcitrant to her quite reasonable pleas and disdainful toward her fundamental well-being. This distinction becomes overturned, of course, with her expression of abject grief in the moments before the “apocalypse” in which she achieves a powerful vocal register that partly shatters the house.

There is little doubt that our shared environment is a precious endowment worth contemplating, respecting, and nurturing. Aronofsky’s noisy polemic is thus a timely one. Through its soundtrack, however, Mother! appears only “through a glass darkly,” without much prospect of providing “face to face” clarity.


Mark Durrand is a Senior Lecturer at The University of Akron (Ohio), and holds a PhD in Musicology and a MA in Film and Media Studies from University at Buffalo. His research centers on music and sound in film from a phenomenological standpoint. His article “Hearing and Seeing with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West: Toward Re-thinking Audio-Visual Hierarchy” appeared recently in the Music and the Moving Image Journal, and he is currently co-editing, with James Buhler, a collection of essays on music and sound in action film.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Quick Takes — Sonic Footprints of Doom in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

By Danijela Kulezic-Wilson

It’s been said that Darren Aronofsky’s style has the subtlety of a chainsaw, which is not entirely undeserved and can pose a big problem for an artist with a taste for “big themes”; but Aronofsky also possesses the technique of a virtuoso and a striking ability to conjure abstract, elusive, and esoteric concepts through innovative audiovisual means. You could say that Aronofsky’s audiovisual and narrative style channels the earnestness and brilliance of a Romantic artist/genius, amplified by the sensibility of the MTV generation and the tools of digital technology: the result can be embarrassingly pompous at times, but it never fails to hit the designated mark and then some.

In his latest film Mother!, which addresses the plight of our exploited and abused planet, Aronofsky muses on the cyclical nature of history, the reckless, destructive, and violent nature of humanity, and the seemingly endless power of nature’s resurrection which has managed to sustain us so far. I couldn’t help but also read it as an allegory of a much more personal kind, an exploration of the dark rooms of the artistic soul; the exhilaration of creation and the terror of writer’s block; the conflict between the purity of inspiration and the corrosiveness of fame and need for recognition; and the ultimate selfishness of the creative drive which is willing to sacrifice everything that it can feed on, which – Aronofsky’s film suggests – applies both to the Almighty, embodied by the character played by Bardem, and to humans (who are “made in God’s image,” after all). My impression is that Aronofsky pursues both layers of meaning, following the dream logic of a nightmare.

Shortly before the film’s general cinema release it was revealed that Aronofsky, in consultation with his new collaborator, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, decided to eliminate the already-written score in favour of an elaborate sound design. Aronofsky stated that he didn’t want to give the audience “any relief by allowing them to lean back on something that easily gives you emotion.” Echoing the sentiment of many other directors who avoid the use of non-diegetic scores, Aronofsky’s comment goes to the heart of the central aesthetic question facing directors and film music composers today: should music fulfil its traditional roles by shadowing the characters, reacting to and illuminating the narrative, or could there be some other purpose to its presence in film? And, should music “tell the audience how to feel” or should its “hand-holding” function be eschewed for establishing a space for exploration, interrogation, and generally more active engagement of the audience? Hollywood’s answer to these questions is well known. Others who prefer more semiotically neutral film scores or no scores at all tend to look for alternatives in expressive sound designs which sometimes feature overtly musical qualities. Interestingly enough, Darren Aronofsky’s own hip hop editing style which he developed in his first two films, Pi  and Requiem for a Dream, became one of the most recognizable tools of this new film sound vocabulary, epitomizing the digital-era style of sound and image musicalization which is imitated across audiovisual media. While Mother! does not exactly burst with the same ambition for audiovisual innovation,  it does draw on the notion of sound design as an expressive device which can replace the functions of a traditional film score; it embraces the idea of musicality in its broadest sense while also taking advantage of the narrative and emotional ambiguities traditional scores tend to eliminate. The danger, of course, is that the lack of score can be experienced as a lack of emotional commitment and guidance from the film which denies the viewer an affective “reckoning” with it. I would argue, though, that this decision makes Aronfosky’s allegory more powerful, opening up a space for spontaneous and highly individual responses.   

Mother! is not a genre film but, as part of its strategy of undermining a single point of view position and interpretation, it pretends to be one for a good portion of its first half. Leaning on the archetypal “damsel in distress” scenario, it reinforces genre tropes by gravitating towards moments of surprise or anxiety-inducing ambiguity and by using sound effects in a manner typical of horror scores.  From the beginning the sound design encourages us to perceive the house in which Mother (Lawrence) and the Poet (Bardem) reside as a living, breathing organism which sighs, throbs, groans, and bleeds. Creaky sounds of doors and floorboards dominate the first half of the film and although mother is almost always barefoot, her footsteps nevertheless resonate through the house, alluding to its age and the mystical aspects of its nature. These sonic allusions gradually give way to increasingly visceral moments of discomfort. When uninvited guests start appearing at the house, their actions are sonically amplified with whooshes and echoes which affect Lawrence’s character, making her physically sick, as if she’s reacting to the guests’ “sonic footprints.” The repeated scenes in which Mother communicates with the house by placing her hands on the wall to feel its heartbeat are evocative of those key moments from Aronofsky’s earlier films – pill or drug taking, communing with the tree of life, etc. – which, treated as audiovisual samples, become symbolic of their core ideas. In this case, the image of a gradually shrinking and dying heart comments on the state of our planet, but the first time we see it, the sound in the scene is bent on creating a sense of suspenseful ambiguity, leaving the viewer guessing whether Lawrence’s character is mentally disturbed or if the house might embody some malevolent presence.

It could be argued, though, that these sonic flirtations with horror conventions serve more as a comment on the nature of our relationship with Mother Earth than as an actual tool of suspense, because it is the later scenes in which the house is overrun by people that evoke the real terror of nightmares. Although the eye of the camera is generally focused on Lawrence’s beatific face, which is often framed as a Madonna from Renaissance paintings, the sound design reflects the chaos surrounding her, the shouts and mayhem caused by strangers filling the house to the brim. In the midst of all that, Mother’s repeated but ineffective requests to the guests to stop destroying her house and leave, and her helplessness in the face of humanity’s destructive nature, are more unsettling than any scenes of violence before or after.

The God-like figure of Bardem’s character called “Him” in the credits and the Poet in the film is a Creator who preaches love and generosity but also abandons his abode from time to time and seems equally impotent when confronted with the human propensity for violence and destruction. He’s also vain and hungry for adoration, which seems to be the main reason his “projects” regularly end up burned to the ground. More disturbingly, he can create only by sacrificing those who love him. Aronofsky’s decision to have the male protagonist represent both God and the Artist is probably the most provocative and biting aspect of the film, which  seems to carry both religious and autobiographical resonances. The audiovisual allusions to the divine aspect of Bardem’s character, however, are executed with the same playfulness Aronofsky displays when dealing with genre conventions. Apart from obvious biblical references in the narrative and some memorable low-angle shots, this character’s deific nature is also implied by sound, his voice reverberating unrealistically in several crucial moments. In one of those moments, when he comes to rescue Mother from a mob of uninvited guests, the unnatural volume and resonance of his voice is “explained” by his wearing of a gas-mask even though by that point in the film any expectations of the narrative being grounded in realism are long gone.

The unlikely combination of an interest in esoteric topics and an intensely visceral type of filmmaking inspired some ground-breaking practices in the use of sound in Aronofsky’s early films. Mother! won’t be remembered for the same reason, but the passionate opposing reactions it has provoked with its allegorical narrative and storytelling style indicate that Aronofsky is not done with rearranging the landscape of contemporary American cinema.


Danijela Kulezic-Wilson is Lecturer in Music at University College Cork. Her research interests include comparative arts, approaches to film that emphasize its inherent musical properties, the musicality of sound design and musical aspects of Beckett’s plays. She is the author of The Musicality of Narrative Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and co-editor (with Liz Greene) of The Palgrave Handbook of Sound Design and Music in Screen Media: Integrated Soundtracks (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Book Preview: Ferruccio Busoni and His Legacy

By Erinn Knyt
Ultimately it is always in a man’s impact and not in his successes that his value is determined. And the influence that Busoni has had on our generation, not just as a pianist as most people take him to be, but as theoretician, teacher, innovator, creator—in short as a master in the old sense of the word which made the man and his work one— will perhaps be fully appreciated only by the next. –Stefan Zweig, Neue Freie Presse (April 18, 1918)
When I mention Ferruccio Busoni’s name in conversations with musicians, many state that they think of him primarily as a legendary pianist with a penchant for altering notes, or else as a transcriber of J.S. Bach’s compositions. Some can name a few of his better-known compositions, such as his final opera, Doktor Faust, or his piano elegies. However, it is rare for anyone to be able to name more than one of his composition pupils.

This unfamiliarity with Busoni’s pedagogical activities is somewhat understandable. Aside from his mentorship of students attending the composition master class in Berlin at the Akademie der Künste from 1921-1924 (Kurt Weill, Wladimir Vogel, Walther Geiser, Robert Blum, Luc Balmer, Svetislav Stančić, Erwin Bodky, Hans Hirsch, and Heinz Joachim-Loch), which has been documented by Tamara Levitz, Busoni’s activities as composition teacher have been nearly forgotten.[1] Yet it is simultaneously puzzling, as his impact was both long lasting and far reaching, extending across the globe from Europe to the United States to Australia. Composers today still cite his influence. Many of those who studied composition with Busoni credit him with having been the most influential teacher they ever had.

Ferruccio Busoni and His Legacy is part biographical and part critical analysis. It seeks to help remedy this loss of knowledge by documenting Busoni’s activities as a composition teacher during the early and middle parts of his career, while contributing new knowledge about previously little-understood periods in the lives and careers of several significant composers of the early twentieth century. Through archival research in collections located in the United States and Europe, it documents how Busoni taught, and describes in detail Busoni’s influence on five composition mentees who studied with him during the beginning and middle parts of his career: Jean Sibelius, Edgard Varèse, Otto Luening, Louis Gruenberg, and Philipp Jarnach. In addition to these five figures that serve as core case studies, it considers the continued transmission of his ideas to grandpupils and other followers, such as John Corigliano, Peter Maxwell Davies, Morton Feldman, Michael Finnissy, Toivo Kuula, William Grant Still, Charles Wuorinen, Alistair Hinton, André Jolivet, Larry Sitsky, and Bernd Alois Zimmerman.
Because Busoni embraced many different musical styles and did not formulate any specific methods of instruction, a stylistic genealogy would be difficult to establish. Instead, he focused on transmitting his idiosyncratic aesthetic ideals. As my book reveals, Busoni preferred an informal instructional style, and avoided institutional settings. He encouraged students to create their own exercises related to their compositional projects rather than rely on his own, and he refused to systematically guide students through technical drills. He often used interactive dialogues to speak about aesthetic ideas that inspired imaginative responses and led to creative experiments.
This teaching style resulted in widely divergent styles from his students, even if the students explored and embraced similar aesthetic ideas. From Sibelius’ s nationalistic tone poems, to Varèse’s atonal masterpieces, to Luening’s electronic soundscapes, to Gruenberg’s movie soundtracks and radio operas, and to Jarnach’s atonal chamber music, his students struck out on their own paths. Their music sounds so diverse that it is hard to believe that all five of these composers studied with the same teacher, but they shared Busoni’s interest in explorations of sound/timbre, stylistic pluralism, and new scales/harmonies.

My book also calls for a reevaluation of Busoni’s impact on the trajectory of music composition in the twentieth century, suggesting his omission from the main narrative of music history is unwarranted. It documents how musical development was unalter­ably impacted by Busoni and his disciples as they contributed to major twentieth-century strands of composition, including electronic, textural, spectral, and pluralistic styles of music. Although a nearly forgotten composition mentor today, Busoni left a lasting legacy, the significance of which is only beginning to be recognized.

This short excerpt comes from the fifth chapter of my book, which explores Busoni’s pedagogical interactions with Otto Luening. It reveals Busoni’s role in stimulating Luening’s interest in the possibilities of electronic resources.

Electronic Music

In his interview with Page, Luening stated, “The electronic thing was an episode that could not be missed because Busoni told us about electronic possibilities.”[69] He was convinced that instrumental music had reached a dead end and that new instruments were needed even while he predicted a revolution in the field of harmony and suggested a scale of thirty-six divisions within the octave as an interesting possibility for new music. He was especially fascinated by the earliest experiments with electronic instruments and drew his students’ attention to them:[70]

I received from America direct and authentic intelligence which solves the problem in a simple manner. I refer to an invention by Dr. Thaddeus Cahill. He has constructed a comprehensive apparatus which makes it possible to transform an electrical current into a fixed and mathematically exact number of vibrations. As pitch depends on the number of vibrations and the apparatus which makes it possible to transform an electrical cur­rent into a fixed and mathematically exact number of vibrations and the apparatus may be “set” on any number desired, the infinite gradation of the octave may be accomplished by merely moving a lever corresponding to the pointer of a quadrant.[71]

Discussions with Busoni stimulated Luening’s interest in electronic instruments as well as in acoustics and timbre. Beginning in the 1920s, he started to investigate new possibilities within traditional genres. In the 1950s, this experimentation took on new life as he explored new tim­bral possibilities through the electronic manipulation of traditional in­strumental sounds through electronic means. Since tape music can be viewed as music that is composed directly with sound instead of being first written on paper and later transformed into sound, it dovetails well with Busoni’s emphasis on sound and sonority: “This child [music]—it floats on air! It touches not the earth with its feet. It knows no law of gravitation. It is wellnigh incorporeal. Its material is transparent. It is sonorous air.”[72] Neff remembers that Luening cited two passages in particular of Busoni’s music that were specifically shaped by an understanding of acoustics: successions of augmented chords and the stark octaves appearing after thicker textures in the Sonatina no. 2, BV 259 and the opening of Doktor Faust, BV 203 in which Busoni creates a quasi-electronic aura based on combinations of pitches reflective of the overtone series.[73]

Since the 1920s, Luening’s music had reflected his interest in acoustical harmony or the use of voicings and overtones for special coloristic effects, and this stemmed from his studies in Zurich. In an interview with Theresa Bowers, he claimed that it was there that he became interested in sonority and acoustics: “I was then [in the 1920s] studying a lot of sound, acous­tics, and the use of sound in a very free way and new way which has now come out very much through the electronic thing. But I had the feeling with them that they thought I was possibly—well they couldn’t say I was academic because I was too much of a good practical musician. I could play too well and conduct too well so I wasn’t academic. Well, I wasn’t conservative either.”[74]

In particular, Luening was interested in using a segment of the over­tone series as the basis for harmonic material. He also experimented with varying the spacing of chord tones to achieve differing sonorous effects.[75] Already in 1922, his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, W. 42, for instance, features bitonality based on the harmonic series. In addition, he also tried tuning the piano differently than the tempered scale even as he was avidly reading up about acoustics, relying on texts such as Helmholtz’s Sensa­tions of Tone, Dayton Miller’s The Science of Musical Sound, and articles about Mersenne, Pythagoras, and Ptolomy.[76] He came to the conclusion that a study of acoustics and sound was essential for any composer, even if not working in electronic music: “I have come to believe that it is an essential basis for the contemporary composer to know something about how sound works—whether he uses electronic sound production or not. Not only how it is produced but what effect it has and how it is perceived under varying conditions.”[77]

By the mid-1930s at Hanya Halm’s Trend productions, Luening encoun­tered for the first time a playback machine, which fascinated him: “We also had a playback machine, a new kind of sound recording with a fellow named Paneyka so I got interested in projection of sound and it seemed to be very advanced and daring.”[78] With regard to electronic music, he was particularly interested in exploring whether electronics could help him detect new relationships between a fundamental tone and its overtone series. He wanted to know what would happen if partials were displaced by transposing them toward the upper and lower threshold of hearing or if transposition beyond the normal range of an instrument would make the instrument sound new and different.[79]

In his electronic compositions, Luening took as his starting point acoustic musical sounds—often produced on the flute and played by him­self. These acoustic sounds then underwent metamorphoses as the sounds were manipulated and distorted. Repeating and amplifying pitches make the sounds spiral out with continuous pulsations, whereas changing the speed of the tape alters the register, for instance. Concern with color and timbre was indeed an important motivating factor behind his earli­est electronic works, Fantasy in Space, W. 148 (1952), and Low Speed, W. 150 (1952), which focus on the manipulation of natural acoustical sounds as primary formal components. Luening was principally interested in extending timbral possibilities using electronic means. The juxtaposi­tion of acoustic and electronic sounds creates multiple textures, timbres, and styles, a plurality encouraged by Busoni and adopted by Luening in Zurich.


69. Otto Luening, Interview with Tim Page.
70. For better understanding Luening’s theory about the evolution of electronic music consult Otto Luening, “Origins,” in Jon H. Appleton and Ronald C. Perera, The Development and Practice of Electronic Music (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975).
71. Luening, “Some Random Remarks,” 92.
72. Busoni, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, trans. T. Baker (New York: Schirmer, 1911), 4.
73. Severine Neff, phone interview with the author, May 22, 2014. Neff also noted that Busoni rewrote Schoenberg’s Klavierstuck, op. 11, no. 2, because he didn’t like the timbre.
74. Otto Luening, “Conversation with Theresa Bowers,” 68.
75. Jack Beeson, “Otto Luening,” Bulletin of the American Composers Alliance, iii: 3 (1954), 4.
76. Otto Luening, “Electronic Music—First Pieces, Analyses of Fantasy in Space, Low Speed, and Invention in 12 Tones,” in 1952 Electronic Tape Music: The First Compositions (New York: Highgate Press, 1977), 32.
77. Ibid.
78. Otto Luening, “Conversation with Theresa Bowers,” 22. Halm was a dancer, choreographer, and dance instructor. She helped found the American Dance Festival and her first major work, Trend, dealt with social criticism.
79. Otto Luening, “Electronic Music—First Pieces,” 33.


The book received support from the AMS 75 Pays Endowment and a Faculty Research Grant (University of Massachusetts Amherst).
Labels: Ferruccio Busoni, Jean Sibelius, Edgard Varèse, Electronic Music, Spectral Music, Polystylism, Twentieth-Century Music
Biography: Erinn E. Knyt is Assistant Professor of Music History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Knyt special­izes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century music, aesthetics, and performance studies, and has written extensively about Ferruccio Busoni. She has published articles in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, the Journal of Musicologi­cal Research, American Music, the Journal of Musicology, the Journal of Music History Pedagogy, Musicology Australia, 19th-Century Music, and Twentieth-Century Music.

[1] Tamara Levitz, “Teaching New Classicality: Busoni’s Master Class in Composition, 1921–24” (Ph.D. diss.: University of Rochester, 1993). Levitz later converted her dissertation into a book, Teaching New Classicality: Ferruccio Busoni’s Master Class in Composition, European University Studies, Series 36, vol. 152 (Berlin: Peter Lang, 1996). Austin Clarkson has also written extensively about Busoni’s influence on Stefan Wolpe. See, for example: “Wolpe, Varèse, and the Busoni Effect,” Contemporary Music Review 27:2/3 (April-June, 2008), 361-381.