Sunday, 14 September 2008

Conference report

This conference (5-7 September 2008) offered an alternative to Peter Brooks’s idea of melodrama as a mode underpinning modern literature, taking instead the starting point that melodrama is central to our understanding of nineteenth-century music drama – spoken plays with music, operas, musicals, early film and other hybrid genres that combine music with text and/or image – and arguably to our understanding of nineteenth-century music tout court. Complementing the events of the rest of the project, which have explored the idea of melodrama as a performance process, the conference brought together people from different disciplines, working on diverse genres, countries and eras, to discover ways in which we are theorising melodrama’s effects and affects, and the degree to which the melodramatic aesthetic remains a meaningful concept and scholarly tool.

Although it was keenly felt that we should resist collapsing methodologies and repertories, oversimplifying, for example, the relationship between nineteenth-century theatrical practice and twentieth-century film, or French and English meanings of the term ‘melodrama’, there were nevertheless recurring themes and ideas that ran through the conference. These centred on music’s role as a mediating force between different ‘spaces’, and included the mutability of ‘voice’, the use of musical clichés and the creative tension between high and low cultural traditions. It is clear that ideas and critical approaches associated with certain disciplines and/or repertories can profitably be shared, and that the ‘melodramatic’ is a useful tool with which to understand repertory from the eighteenth through to the twentieth centuries - embracing the overlapping categories of genre, technique and aesthetic.

A number of speakers demonstrated ways in which the separate traditions of melodrama that emerged in France at the end of the eighteenth century – what one might categorise as elite and popular (the conceptions of Rousseau and Pixérécourt respectively) – continued to evolve through the nineteenth century. The former was particularly associated with a concert tradition influenced by Benda and cultivated by such German composers as Schumann, the latter with a theatrical phenomenon in France (and also notably in England, the US and the Czech Lands) that had a particular influence on opera. (Though there was some cross-fertilisation between these concert and theatre traditions.) Two speakers also highlighted a tradition of melodrama in eighteenth-century England, with roots reaching back to the genre of mad songs (Rooley), and inspired by English events (eg the Gordon Riots) as much as by the French Revolution (G. Taylor).

The persistence of monologue as a component of melodrama from the eighteenth century was demonstrated (Waeber), and it remained the locus of the most musically rich explorations of character/mood in Fibich’s stage melodramas at the end of the nineteenth century (Tyrrell). However, in early twentieth-century Germany there was a clear differentiation between melodrama and more psychologically rooted monodrama, informed by the culture of cabaret (Payette).

As a technique, melodrama is commonly understood to refer to musically accompanied recitation – already a step away from Rousseau/Coignet’s and Benda’s eighteenth-century practices of generally alternating music and speech. Papers explored the rich tradition of recitation in the early twentieth century, both in the domestic and commercial spheres (as cultivated by women in the US, Wilson Kimber, Smith) and in concert (as exemplified by Strauss’s concerts with Possart in London, Tunbridge). The voice was perceived variously as part of a soundtrack (in Resnais’s 1961 film L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, Waeber), as autonomous (in radio commercials and Hollywood film melodramas, Smith), or more specifically either as becoming music, with the exaggerated intonation patterns of the enunciating voice, or as resisting music, as speech and accompaniment continued on defiantly separate planes. In an operatic context, the voice’s materiality in its own right was explored (Cruz), and the affect of ephemeral virtuosity was set against material artificiality (Townley). An instrumental ‘reconstitution’ of voice in the afterlife of Schumann’s Träumerei (in a range of films and cartoons) was presented as a solution to the problems inherent in the sounding voice (Raykoff). In many of these papers, the tensions between music and text, instruments and voice were highlighted in what amounted to the negation of a Gesamtkunstwerk understanding of melodrama (Tunbridge).

Melodrama can also be understood as exemplifying a close – mimetic – relationship between music and gesture. However, several papers revealed an often loose – or even contradictory – relationship. During the early years of Pixérécourtian melodrama, a shift from static to highly choreographed tableaux, and music’s changing function in the drama can be traced (Astbury). Janacek’s practices more than a century later demonstrate ways in which music can contradict or occlude stage movement when it is attached to internal states of mind (Sheppard). Melodrama’s bodily influence via Italian opera can be seen in examples of 1940s Italian film in which natural, physical expression rather than techniques of editing shape the flow and pace of the drama (Bayman).

Melodrama’s musical topoi (a vocabulary of diminished 7ths, tremolo strings, etc, in passages of entrance/exit music, punctuation and underscoring) were discussed in many papers. Their survival in a 1939 musical version of the Wizard of Oz (Ford), and their relation to equally striking visual topoi in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus were identified (Sheil). And their creative contribution to a work’s dramatic and/or political meaning through parody, or through wilful mismatch of music and text/drama, was analysed (Raykoff, M. Taylor, Dean).

Many papers addressed melodrama specifically as an aesthetic, and identified ways in which music negotiates between different temporal, imaginative, geographical and generic spaces – a characteristic of the earliest examples of melodrama (Waeber). Because of its non-specificity, music is capable of blurring distinctions – or easing the transition – between subject positions (who is thinking/speaking at a given moment), between real and imagined worlds (dreamed, remembered or experienced in the present), or between locations. For example, music negotiates between juxtaposed contrasting urban spaces and between otherwise non-communicating characters in a late nineteenth-century melodrama in London (Hicks), or even between (monumental) performance space and intimate human drama at the Fêtes romains at Orange in the 1890s (Olin). Equally, music can render the diffuse narrative of a silent film coherent without oversimplifying it (Goodwin). Music can however create distance and rupture by its very artificiality in a drama (G. Taylor), while silence can allow realism to intrude (Hicks).

Music can also work across different genres and different ideologies. The inherent tension between popular and elite culture was evident in the critical responses to hybrid works (an opera borrowing musical techniques associated with popular melodrama, Hibberd). But a number of speakers revealed ways in which melodrama in its ‘popular’ guise became an important influence not only on romanticism, but also on constructions of modernism – both in opera (1920s Germany, Nielsen) and in the symphony (notably Mahler, Barham).

Music’s evocative relationship with the physical world in melodrama is exemplified in Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, in which the score alludes to other musical genres (which in turn relate to the body – including opera, dance) and to specific performances of Shakespeare’s play in Paris (Anger). It can effectively suggest ‘imaginary’, ‘internal’ or ‘virtual’ theatre to the listener (Barham, Anger), or conversely encourage a ‘visualisation of music’ on the part of film-makers or dramatists (Higgins). By extension, music can convey political meanings by association which intensify the emotional affect, often evoking memories of real events – with quotations of known melodies (Republican resistance in Northern Ireland, Anderson), or with the intrusion of brutal, graphic music that can be understood as standing for the authorities in the aesthetic of shock that characterised Parisian melodrama and opera in the 1820s and 30s (Hesselager).

Music can thus manipulate the audience into a particular understanding of a situation, or even act as a transgressive agent, disrupting the narrative altogether (Waeber). For these reasons, it is perhaps more fruitful to understand melodrama as an aesthetic of moments rather than a narrative type (Carli), and to focus on the experience of such moments – on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ (Carli, Bayman).

Conference programme and abstracts.


Anonymous Serena Formica said...

Conference report by Serena Formica (University of Nottingham, Film & TV Studies):

Music and the Melodramatic Aesthetic conference was part of an AHRC-funded project, under the auspices of MOSS that aims to respond to the lack of academic studies on the role of music in melodrama. Over the period of one year (December 2007 to December 2008), the project has seen the collaboration of scholars and graduate students from a variety of disciplines (music, drama, film), and has explored melodrama as “a performance process” and has investigated its legacy, spanning theatre and film. The project has included a study day, various workshops and a British silent film festival panel held at the Broadway Cinema and Media Centre in Nottingham. The conference was hosted by the Department of Music at Nottingham University, and took place over three days from the 5th to the 7th of September 2008. The papers were divided into nine panels exploring “music and the melodramatic aesthetic” including “music as text” and as “mediator”, “recitation”, “voice” and “technological transformations”.
The panel dedicated to the exploration of “Music as text” investigated the function of music in the early melodramas. Kate Astbury’s paper (University of Warwick) “Performance, the press, and the rise of melodrama in France” explored the role of music in early French melodramas through an examination of Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s plays. Astbury’s paper considered how Pixérécourt dramas were reflective of the French political situation of the time - Victor, described as the “first historical melodrama” was written in 1789 and can be understood in some senses as enacting the Revolution. Although music plays a central role in Pixérécourt dramas, Astbury pointed out how theatrical critics of the time were initially dismissive of it. This attitude resulted on the one hand from the fact that Pixérécourt preferred to employ theatre composers instead of established ones, and on the other hand from the fact that music composed for melodrama was generally held in low esteem. However, noted Astbury, “not all the critics remained silent” and some highlighted the overlaps between music composed for melodrama and for opéra comique.
Astbury’s paper built on Sarah Hibberd’s study on how music is used in Pixérécourt’s dramas, and, importantly, encourages music scholars to undertake further research on the “role of music in the origins of melodrama”. In the lively question and answer session that followed, Astbury highlighted the lack of original scores of Pixérécourt’s plays, and pointed to the role of music in shaping the audience’s reaction.
Astbury’s remark about Pixérécourt’s tendency to use a theatre’s composer (rather than a “proper composer”) is interesting when considered in relation to silent film. Considering Astbury’s talk from my own perspective of PhD film student, I reflected that audiences attending Pixérécourt’s melodramas with scores by theatre composers would experience a similar situation to audiences attending the early screening of silent films. While silent films were generally accompanied by live music, the quality of the musical score and the nature of the experience depended on the circumstances of an individual screening.
During the conference, the delegates had the rare opportunity to experience the screening of Frank Lloyd’s silent film Within the Law (1923), in a theatre with live piano accompaniment. Philip Carli’s brilliant performance was one of the highlights of the conference, and, in accordance’s with the conference’s aim, enabled us to appreciate the fundamental role of music during the silent film period. Carli’s changes of tempo and mood guided the reaction of the audience to the situation developing on screen, either building the suspense preceding a revelation, or creating a more relaxed atmosphere during the less tense moments of the film.
The centrality of music to silent cinema came to the fore during Polly Goodwin’s (London, Independent Researcher) paper “Acting Suspicious, Exemplification of Silent Film acting technique(s) in Hitchcock’s Early Crime Talkies”. Goodwin examined actors’ difficult transition from silent to sound films through the case studies of two of Alfred Hitchcock’s pictures: Number 17 (1932) and Blackmail (1929). Goodwin illustrated how in these early talkies the actors significantly drew from silent performing techniques giving the audience the same visual markers familiar from silent movies. This often resulted in a stilted performance with almost comical effects. Goodwin argued that these Hitchcock films would have worked better as silent movies, and demonstrated her point by firstly showing a sound clip of Number 17 and then muting and having it accompanied by a live performance at the piano by Philip Carli. Goodwin highlighted the excessive “response time” during dialogues, and emphasised the lack of musical support during the film. Interestingly, while the hesitant performance of the actors during the first clip provoked some laughter, the second viewing was received with a respectful silence, thus reinforcing Goodwin’s point of the necessity of reintroducing music accompaniment in Hitchcock’s early “talkies”.
Goodwin’s paper brought to the fore the idea that texts belonging to different media can share melodramatic qualities, or, as Jacqueline Waeber, keynote speaker of the conference put it, there are “invariant traits of the melodramatic”. In her paper “Music-image-text: searching for the melodramatic”, Waeber pointed out the difficulty of “defin[ing] the melodramatic in music”, and explored different case studies of melodrama as a genre (crossing boundaries with theatrical melodrama), as a technique (in opera and also pantomime) and as an aesthetic (“marked by redundancy, abrupt juxtapositions and discursive breakdowns”). Waeber illustrated the different traits of melodrama and focused on music’s role in negotiating between different worlds or spaces. She explained, for example, how the dialogue in the George Anton Benda (libretto by J.A. Brandes) Ariadne auf Naxos (1775) is a masqueraded monologue, in which the music marks the difference between Ariadne’s dreamlike situation and the reality lived by Theseus.
Waeber continued by comparing the 1832 and 1855 versions of Hector Berlioz’s Lélio, ou Le Retour à la vie. Berlioz’s play is divided into six tableaux (Le pêcheur. Ballade, Chanson de brigands, Chant de bonheur – Souvenirs, La harpe éolienne, and Fantaisie sur la "Tempête" de Shakespeare) while the first version is focussed on the present time, the 1855 version presents variations between the different times and introduces Lelio’s imaginary voice, in which the melodramatic has a “transitory function, creating footbridges between the real and the unreal, the present and the past”, and the recurring musical theme, or “idée fixe”, representing the beloved, becomes an autonomous object.
Interestingly, the tableaux structure of Berlioz’s melodrama is also identifiable in another case study presented by Waeber, Alain Resnais’ film L’Année Dernière a Marienbad, in which the protagonist Albertazzi’s voiceover has a “melodramatic status”., recalling memories (or imagining them?) of the previous year. It accompanies the camera panning over the characters, who remain motionless and speechless – as they would be in tableaux vivants.
During the conference, to put it in Sarah Townley’s (University of Nottingham) words, “delegates explore(d) one central idea through many others”. Townley’s paper “‘O wicked, wicked voice, violin of flesh and blood!’: the resistance of material form and the role of the melodramatic aesthetic in Vernon Lee’s supernatural tale ‘The Wicked Voice’”, explored the contrast between the Wagnerian aesthetic, characterised by “an extreme slowness of vital tempo”,that devitalises the listener, and the “spontaneous and emotively-charged cadenza” of Lee’s Zaffirino, the Venetian castrato singer who “revitalises the listener by resetting the link between aesthetic value and formulaic expectation”. In her paper, Townley illustrated how Magnus, the protagonist of Lee’s work, is at first haunted by, and then becomes enamoured with Zaffirino’s voice, in a novel that defied the “publish-or-perish print culture of late-Victorian literary life”.
The function of voice was also explored by Louis Bayman (King’s College, University of London) in his paper “The operatic expressivity of Italian melodrama”. Byman reinforced a view shared by several delegates: the difficulty of defining melodram. With examples from Italian films of the 1940s, he illustrated “how Italian melodrama translated an operatic way of constructing drama into film”. Bayman highlighted how the Italian word “melodramma” means both opera and melodrama, and argued that, in Italy, melodramma entered cinema not through theatre but rather through “the operatic stage”. This is reflected in the operatic techniques present in the Italian films, in which “fast movement and sensational effects” are downplayed in favour of an emotional expressivity of the voice, linked to the body. The operatic sensibily of Italian cinema, argued Bayman, is not a step backwards to pre-cinematic days, but rather is a “tensely climatic use of cinema”, which influenced post-war Italian directors such as Luchino Visconti.
Music was also examined during the conference in its function as “mediator”. As a film student, I was particularly interested in Ceri Higgins’s (Trinity College, University of Wales) paper “Composing the Comedia Ranchera: image and music in the Mexican musical melodrama”. Higgins examined “the melodramatic aesthetic through the relationship of sound and cinematography in the early Mexican film genre”, with a discussion of the Mexican musical melodrama, Allá en el Rancho Grande (Fernando de Fuentes, 1936). Higgins underlined how the music of the film is all diegetic and “is produced entirely by the characters present on screen”.
Martín and Francisco, the two protagonists of the film, are rivals in love. Martín also questions Francisco social position in the hacienda, and the two engage in a singing duel that becomes the narrative climax of the film. Interestingly, the song becomes a vehicle to express the protagonists’ politcal stands and emotions, conveyed more effectively through music than through simple dialogue. Figueroa’s cinematography highligts the difference between the characters “privileging José Francisco and emphasising his central position and role within the hacienda community and the narrative”. Higgins underlined how the film is more complex than the critics suggested, and discussed the “lack of connection between the study of sound and image in film”, recommending “a synthesis of critical approaches to enable a more syncretic appreciation of both elements”.
Although music and melodrama were the central focus of the conference, the rich and various academic backgrounds of the delegates meant that different perspectives were adopted, and different approaches emerged in discussion. While musicologists and music scholars concentrated their attention more on the relation between the scores and the librettos of the various plays and dramas discussed (which, regretfully, can not all be included in this report) film scholars added the cinematic dimensions of image and sound, rendering the conference truly interdisciplinary. In his paper “Tearing Speech to Pieces: Voice Technologies of the 1940s”, Jake Smith explored the significant impact that “talking machines” – the voder and then the sonovox – had in Hollywood cinema of 1940s. These new devices amazed audiences with their ability to simulate human speech, and were soon employed to create cinematic special effects. Interestingly, Smith points out that these machines were almost exclusively operated by “‘female enunciators’, and the use of this device was inflected by notions of gender at every point in its implementation”. The paper analysed the use of sonovox in the Hollywood melodramas (or “women’s films”) Possessed (1947) and Letter to Three Wives (1949). In Possessed, the sonovox acts as an “equivalent to a subjective camera”, exteriorizing Joan Crawford’s anxieties. “Bringing to life the ‘career’ of sonovox”, argued Smith, “illustrates the importance of sound and the performance of the female voice in film melodrama”.
The conference’s organisers chose to have all the papers in the same conference room, to avoid overlapping panels. This gave the delegates the chance to follow and enjoy every talk, and participate in lively debates during the question and answer sessions. This atmosphere continued in the coffee breaks, and encouraged the exchange of ideas on the study of music and melodrama within different contexts and across different genres.

October 06, 2008  
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