Music, Performance, and the Realities of Film: Shared Concert Experiences in Screen Fiction

By Knight, Douglas | Music, Sound and the Moving Image, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Music, Performance, and the Realities of Film: Shared Concert Experiences in Screen Fiction


Knight, Douglas, Music, Sound and the Moving Image


Ben Winters Music, Performance, and the Realities of Film: Shared Concert Experiences in Screen Fiction New York: Routledge, 2014: 260 pp.

review by douglas Knight

Music, Performance, and the Realities of Film is a stimulating new addition to the musicological literature within film music studies, in which Ben Winters is an influential voice. Recent works in this area include Peter Franklin's Seeing Through Music (2011), which is invoked here several times, and the ever-expanding series of film score guides published by Scarecrow Press (2003-13), to which Winters has already contributed a monograph (2007), on Korngold's score for The Adventures of Robin Hood. His new book is first and foremost a theoretical work. Despite its advance as a study of the depictions of classical concert performance in film, the book closes as a provocative 'revisionary' philosophical treatise on film music in toto. It divides into three interrelated sections: the first is an examination of 'real' musicians appearing in films in contrast to 'reel' (fictional) musicians and works of concert music, while the second is an exploration of the ways fictional concert performances and their listeners are presented and how this might affect 'real-world musical encounters' (11). The third and final section allegorises these earlier moments of concert performance to tackle the perennial topic of diegesis, boldly 'arguing from a new theoretical perspective for the importance of music to a proper understanding of film's power' (14).

The opening chapter starts by examining the problematic nature of fictional and metafictional depictions of real-world musicians and musical works. Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s made frequent use of genuine musicians, even virtuosi such as Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein, where other films of the period might have incorporated a musician playing a historical or fictionalised version. Marginalised in this book, however, is non-Hollywood cinema's relation to 'real' musicians; films from this tradition sometimes take classical music performance as subject matter, though they are far less likely to incorporate the presence of a real musician, or to structure a narrative around their performance (a rare recent exception being pianist Alexandre Tharaud's brief appearance in Michael Haneke's Amour [2012], as the former pupil of principal character Anne).1 The avoidance of real musicians in fictional films and the abnegation of the presence of nondiegetic music indicate a pursuit of everyday verisimilitude, as opposed to 'film reality', which Hollywood does not share. Winters does acknowledge this opposition, but only in passing on the book's penultimate page (197).

Winters's exploration of the relationship between 'real' musicians and their quasi-fictionalised cinematic counterparts allows him to make an analogy between their status and that of classical musical works used in film. Pieces are very rarely heard in their entirety and are more often 'made cinematic' by means of seamless cuts or false cadences. That some films offer more 'honest', or 'realistic', presentations than others raises an interesting ontological question about film, he suggests. Does the audio-viewer interact with these pieces of classical music as 'cinematic versions of their real-world selves' (19), in the manner that the spectator might watch an identifiably real musician in a fictional context? Winters concludes that the recognisable presence of a famous musician may impede the viewer's capacity to construct and determine the film as a fictional world. Instead, such scenes of 'reel' concert performance are more closely akin to the experience of watching and listening to a performance in a concert hall and therefore cause us to re-negotiate our viewing/listening mid-film. More radically, these cinematic arrangements may alter our real-life engagement with these pieces of music.

The second chapter serves as a flipside to the first: an examination of 'fictional' concert works and actors performing as musicians, particularly those that might fail to convince the musically cognisant audio-viewer. …

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