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Feel the film music

The average moviegoer might not see the connection between a Hollywood blockbuster and the traditions of Wagnerian opera. But for musicologist Berthold Hoeckner, the similarity lies in the emphasis on spectacle and the concealment of the music. Just as Wagner hid his musicians in an orchestra pit, the better to stir the audience’s emotions directly through the music, Hollywood films rely on sound tracks—“unheard melodies,” as one critic described them. Because “film is more viewed than listened to,” says Hoeckner, an associate professor of music and the humanities, “the music is taken in without much reflection, with very little resistance.”

Hoeckner, who has taught at Chicago since 1994, grew up in Olpe, Germany (50 miles east of Cologne), and studied at the Musikhochschule Cologne, University of Cologne, and King’s College London before earning a musicology doctorate at Cornell. His first book, Programming the Absolute: Nineteenth-Century German Music and the Hermeneutics of the Moment (Princeton University Press, 2002), focused on music’s interaction with text. Seeking to push his research into the 20th century, he hit upon the interplay between music and images.

Hoeckner’s research centers on film music’s relationship to memory, whether trauma or nostalgia. He finds it useful to think in pairs, looking for overlap. Though trauma is generally understood as unhappy memories and nostalgia as happy ones, nostalgia actually carries both senses, he says: it was first defined in the 17th century as a disease that afflicted soldiers, often triggered by hearing the music of one’s homeland.

For the essay “Audiovisual Memory,” to be included in Beyond the Soundtrack (edited by Richard Leppert and Daniel Goldmark, 2005), Hoeckner uses Nietzsche’s opaque fragment “On Music and Words” as the foundation for his conceptual framework. “Music can generate images?” Nietzsche asks, “But how should the image be capable of generating music? [I]t is impossible to proceed in the opposite direction.” In Hoeckner’s reading of Nietzsche, music can both create and destroy images—that is, it can make listeners remember or forget. “Music jogs our memory,” Hoeckner writes, “but in the moment of transport it makes us forget—perhaps even ourselves.”

This notion of transport is part of another pair: “transport” (being carried out of oneself through emotion) and “transportation” (being carried to another place). In film “transportation is associated with musical generation of images,” Hoeckner writes, and “transport with their destruction.” Take, for example, Casablanca, which is all but synonymous with the song “As Time Goes By.” When the melody is first played for Ilsa, Hoeckner observes, we see her emotional reaction to it—the transport—but not what the music makes her see; when later it is played for Rick, we see what he sees—the transportation—that is, a flashback to their Paris romance. The notion of transportation, Hoeckner explains, is a way to “conceptualize how music becomes a carrier of associations, of cultural codes, of periods, of times.”

In the paper “The Morality of Audiovisual Memory,” he analyzes what happens when well-worn pieces of music are reused in different contexts, looking at Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), a groundbreaking Holocaust documentary. “Once music is matched up with moving pictures,” Hoeckner notes, “images will stick to it,” creating a collection of associations. And yet Hanns Eisler, the composer for Night and Fog, recycled an old composition for the opening credits, and after the film was released reused half the score for another project. The morality of using music for such a film at all is murky, Hoeckner says: “Can you play music when you show atrocities? Is it appropriate or gratuitous?”

Despite such complex questions, sound tracks are still somewhat overlooked, if not disparaged, he argues. “Film music often lacks form or complexity,” he says. “It is music for easy listening that does not interfere with the primary perception of the image track.” Thus musicologists view the genre as “inferior music. It doesn’t exist on its own.” Media and cinema studies chair James Lastra also sees “film music falling between the cracks. Musicologists as a rule are not very interested...and most of the work done by film scholars tends to focus on the visual at the expense of the aural.” Nonetheless Hoeckner’s research “recasts some of the basic assumptions of film history,” Lastra says, helping other scholars “to understand film as emerging out of the spirit of publicly performed music, rather than out of theater or the novel.”

Hoeckner finds working in a new field freeing: “you invent your theoretical frameworks, you can experiment. The lack of an institutional discourse liberates you.” Asked which movie he last enjoyed, he shakes his head. He stalls, trying to remember the title of the film, and finally resorts to humming its theme song: “Daaaaaaah-da-da-da-da-daaaaah-da-da.” The title, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, is revealed before he even remembers the words.—Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93


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