Despite many obvious similarities between stage works and motion pictures, the two media are very different, even almost opposite, in one important respect. The type of world we observe when we experience a play or opera is, in terms of those "universals" of concern to aestheticians, quite different from the world we perceive when we watch a movie. These "universals" I refer to are, quite simply, space and time. This paper focuses on space, and especially on how an audience's impression of space creates the illusion of the world where the drama "takes place." Music is critical in fostering this essential illusion of "a real world," both on the stage and on the screen.

This very effective music is of a specific dramatic type discussed by Edward T. Cone in The Composer's Voice. Cone calls it realistic song, meaning that an operatic character enacts the singing of a song—and gives Cherubino's arietta "Voi che sapete" as an example. (p. 31) Since this is a song which Cherubino performs for the Countess to the accompaniment of Susanna's guitar, one might define realistic song in opera as music heard by the characters as music. In The Composer's Voice and a later paper entitled "The World of Opera and its Inhabitants,"1 Cone is primarily concerned with the relation of realistic song to "normal" or conventional operatic song. However, I will be examining realistic music in general, both vocal and instrumental, with particular attention to how such music can serve drama, whether cinematic or operatic.

Cone did not neglect motion pictures in The Composer's Voice, and applied the concept of persona to the film experience:

One might say that the expressive power of every art depends on the communication of a certain kind of experience, and that each art in its own way projects the illusion of the existence of a personal subject through whose consciousness that experience is made known to the rest of us. . . . A picture implies the presence of an observer—the artist's persona, if you like—whose point of view we are invited to share. . . . In the case of the cinema, . . . [we] find its controlling consciousness in the moving eye of the camera. (p. 3)

And in his final chapter, Cone suggests that background music for the cinema is often allied with that camera eye (pp. 144-45)—which leads to my thinking of such music as being "sung" by "the camera's voice."

If it seems strange that the appreciation of every art involves the illusion of a persona whose point of view we share, that may arise from the fact that musicians are unused to talking in these terms. Words and phrases such as "point of view" and "perspective" are more common and perhaps more often required in art history and literary criticism than in music analysis. But when we examine a "Gesamtkunstwerk," made up of musical and visual elements, we may find such concepts helpful. I need them now, to talk about space, because "that point of view which we share with the illusory persona" is inextricably bound up with our perception of space. In the theater, our "point of view" differs in quality (and even in quantity) from that which we share when we watch motion pictures; and therefore our perception of space in the two media is dissimilar.

Concerning theater space and perspective, the art historian Erwin Panofsky observed that "In a theater, space is static, that is, the space presented on the stage" as well as the spatial relation of the beholder to the spectacle, are absolutely fixed."2 To clarify this idea of stage space as something fixed, let me liken the stage to "the definition of a picture" given by Leone Battista Alberti, a 15th-century architect, musician, and painter. According to Alberti, a picture is "a framed surface or pane situated at a certain distance from a viewer who looks through it at a second or substitute world."3 We will see in a moment how Wagner tries to get around this static quality of the stage, but first I want to distinguish among three categories of realistic music in opera. Music falls into one category or another on the basis of where it is performed. The simplest case is music actually played onstage: the "anvil chorus" of gypsy laborers in Il Trovatore, or the band of peasants at the opening of Der Freischütz. A little more complicated are instances of musical ventriloquism—the audience, and the characters in the drama, are supposed to believe that the music is occurring on stage when it is actually being played somewhere else—and these instances are of two types: first, music such as Susanna's accompaniment of Cherubino's song, which is depicted onstage but played in the orchestra pit; second, Siegfried's comically bad piping and subsequent fantastic horn playing for the Forest Bird—Siegfried mimes onstage, but the musicians are in the wings. Sometimes, however, the music is not mimed onstage, and it is this third category which interests me here: if the music is understood by the characters as really coming from "back there," then their world has grown—its space is, effectively, extended.

The 3rd Scene from Act I of Tannhäuser involves realistic music that influences our perception of space. Figure 1 diagrams the stage and backstage action during Scene 3.


Figure 1



Tannhäuser spends the first two scenes of the opera in the Venusberg, and Scene 3 marks his return to the world. As he is miraculously transported to the valley of the Wartburg, we see and hear a shepherd boy alternately singing and playing a pipe, as cowbells are heard from backstage, representing the flock the boy watches over. The cowbells gradually become fainter, and the boy's piping likewise, until he disappears into "the hills beyond the stage" to tend his flock. During all of this a choir of pilgrims, heard before they are seen, progresses to the front of the stage—singing realistically all the while—and then also retreats beyond our view. As the offstage pilgrims' final phrase is taken over by muted low strings, Wagner gives cues for the very faint sound of church bells, "as if from the town of Eisenach," and gradually adds another backstage element: hunting horns. Wagner's spatial arrangement of the horns (shown in figure 1), combined with the disposition of their music, suggests a hunting party, broken up into groups but gradually approaching. To illustrate this effect, an excerpt from the end of Scene 3 is given below; the score also directs that the distant bells should cease as the sound of the horns "comes closer."4


Example 1: Wagner, Tannhäuser, Act 1, Scene 3





The analogy between the stage and Alberti's definition of a picture can help to characterize the impact of realistic music in this example. The stage is like a window into a second world, and if we, following Coleridge, are to "suspend our disbelief," we must pretend that this second world extends indefinitely beyond our view, just as the real world does. Backstage music fosters that illusion by causing our sense of hearing to reach into and "image" a space beyond what we can perceive with our eyes. This backstage space is not simple, but rather differentiated and demarcated by the various qualities of the music occurring there in specific spots. It has its own left and right, its own far and near. In fact, in Tannhäuser there sometimes seems to be more going on literally "behind the scenes" than on stage, and this is reflected in the instrumentation: in the course of the opera, over fifty winds and brass play from backstage, only twenty in the pit. Finally, the illusion of "a wide, wide world" is fundamental to this opera. The Landgraf must have a realm to rule over, whose citizens can join with him in celebrating Tannhäuser's return. And this realm must be wide enough to contain a road to Rome for Tannhäuser's subsequent tragic journey.

If Tannhäuser requires a world big enough to include Germany and Italy, what about The Ring? Even Das Rheingold, a relatively short and simple one-act opera (at least within the context of the tetralogy), requires a very deep world, encompassing the Rhein (Scene 1); a high mountaintop near Walhalla (for Scene 2); and Nibelheim, deep in the earth. John Culshaw has written that Wagner's visual imagination was pushing beyond the limits of practical 19th-century theater techniques toward something like the uninvented realm of the wide-screen cinema5—and I would add that, as in Tannhäuser, Wagner relied upon realistic music to help make his illusion believable.

We can see this during the transition between Scenes 2 and 3 of Das Rheingold. At the end of Scene 2, Loge and Wotan disappear into a cleft in the mountaintop, in order to descend to Nibelheim and retrieve the stolen Rheingold. Before discussing the music which accompanies the scene change from the mountaintop to Nibelheim, let me recall Panofsky's observation that stage space is fixed, as is the beholder's relation to the stage. What happens, then, when the scene changes? Returning to Alberti once more, a scene change is like substituting one picture for another: stage space remains static, as does the viewer's relation to the scene. (Or, if we want to liken it to looking through a windowpane, the viewer is instantly transported during the interval to a new and different vantage point.) Wagner, however, is after something much more radical in the transition between the 2nd and 3rd scenes of Das Rheingold. He directs that after fog has obscured those left behind on the mountaintop, an outcropping of stone should appear, which continually moves upward, so that the scene seems to be sinking deeper in the earth. What is being attempted here is a gradual change in the viewer's spatial relation to the stage—that is, the windowpane through which we view the stage world is moving, and we, the audience, move with it, from Walhalla, high in the clouds, all the way down to Nibelheim. As we get closer to Nibelheim, we begin to hear suggestions of the Nibelungs' leitmotif in the lower strings. This figure coalesces as:


—and grows and spreads to include eighteen anvils behind the scenes. When the anvils take over completely, Wagner's stage directions indicate that a dark red glow should shine out from different spots on all sides, and that a growing noise of forges is heard above everything else. (So, although the anvils are not actually shown on stage, being struck by Nibelungs forging the Rheingold, the red glow of the furnaces represents them.) Finally, as the deafening noise of the anvils dies away, the subterranean cavern where Loge and Wotan will confront Alberich has at last been reached.6

An illusion contrary to the nature of the stage is being attempted here, something very difficult to pull off, and the realistic music of the anvils helps. We are supposed to feel that we are traveling in our seats, something quite normal in an airplane or bus but highly unlikely in the theater. Since realistic music must be produced in a particular place—it requires and implies space—it confirms our impression of traveling past a particular spot, the forges of the Nibelungs.

This example forces a new definition of realistic music. It is not enough to define it as "music heard by the characters as music"—in this case there are no characters onstage; the sound of the anvils is for the audience's benefit. Let me then redefine realistic music as music occurring in the world of the drama, and stipulate that such music is subject to all the conditions of time and space which prevail within that world. This means that realistic music must be produced in a particular location in the space constructed for us by the drama (hence the power of the anvils in suggesting a journey down into the depths of the earth). A corollary is that the ability of realistic music to make us imagine space (as in Tannhäuser) is partly due to the fact that space has its effect on music. If this seems like circular reasoning, it should: the point is that realistic music is inseparable from the space in which it is produced. For example, distant sounds are softer—which means that soft sounds can suggest distance, even more distance than may really be there. Realistic music can be a powerful tool in expanding the world of the operatic stage, especially in the hands of a skilled and imaginative composer.

If realistic music is linked with the place where it is produced, that fact remains unchanged in film. Just as in opera, realistic music in motion pictures can give us "spatial clues" about the world depicted there. But I hinted earlier that the space of the screen world is fundamentally different from that of the stage. Panofsky defined this difference:

In a movie theater, too, the spectator has a fixed seat, but only physically, not as an aesthetic subject. Aesthetically, he is in permanent motion, as his eye identifies itself with the lens of the camera which permanently shifts in distance and direction. And as movable as is the spectator, is the space presented to him.7

To paraphrase, the world we view through the camera's eye is composed of space which is changeable and fragmented. So our perception of space in cinema is in a sense opposite from that of the stage, stage space being essentially static and continuous while cinema space is mutable and discontinuous.8 Therefore, we might suppose that cinema space would have different requirements from those of the stage. Wagner was able to expand the relatively static stage world, thereby making it more like the real world. By contrast, the world presented to us by a movie is in constant danger of falling apart, and, as Susanne Langer and Aaron Copland, among others, have noted, music can serve as a sort of glue to hold it together.9 Such unifying music may be background music or "underscoring" provided by "the camera's voice" to join together montage sequences. But realistic music, or source music as it is often called by writers about film,10 also functions as a force of coherence.{Presumably this term arose because the source of the music is visible on the screen.) Realistic film music is "of the world of the drama"—this is not true of background or non-realistic music. For that reason, source music is potentially more powerful than non-realistic music in knitting together the screen's ever-changing space into a world we can believe in.

Cone's notion of a persona whose point of view we share when we experience a work of art is valuable in understanding our linked experience of sound and image in film. For cinema, a descriptive way of putting this would be that we spy on the scene through the camera's eye, even as we eavesdrop on it with the camera's ear. The camera gives the spectator/auditor "a point of view" which includes a corresponding "point of hearing." This becomes particularly important when the dual "point of perception" changes during the course of a scene.

A scene from Citizen Kane, the 1941 classic film made by Orson Welles with music by Bernard Herrmann, will serve to demonstrate that realistic music in movies can give us information about space. Kane attempts to mold his second wife, Susan Alexander, into an opera star. During a rehearsal for her disastrous debut, the camera pans away from the singer and, as it ascends into the scene loft, the sound of the soprano's voice changes. James G. Stewart, the soundman for Citizen Kane, has stated that he gradually added reverberation to the voice, to produce the effect that the viewer is rising higher and higher, up to the level of the critical stagehand, who holds his nose to indicate his opinion of Susan Alexander's singing to his companion.11 The circle of realistic music requiring and implying space is operative here.

In the world of a movie, there are basically just two ways to "move around," and it is moving, of course, which expands and extends the space. These two modes of motion are panning and cutting. The scene from Citizen Kane involved keeping the camera eye open as it moves: panning. As in the Rheingold example, this gives the viewer a sense of gradual movement, and serves to connect different sections of the movie world's space. Cutting means that the camera eye closes on one scene only to blink open on a new and different view. And even as it creates a movie world, cutting puts that world in constant danger of falling apart, because the space it presents to us is so fragmented. Seymour Chatman has noted that extreme cutting is becoming more common, as audiences become more sophisticated12—and when I began to take note of this aspect of movies, I was amazed at the amount of cutting going on, even in scenes which are just conversations between two people together in one room—oftentimes they are not even shown in the same frame. Since the camera can and does move anywhere, as for example in James Bond movies hopping from London to Moscow in "the blink of an eye," how are we to know when the camera has simply shifted its view across the room? The matching halves of a conversation, if there is one, might tip us off, but we are more thoroughly convinced of the continuity of movie space if realistic music bolsters our sense of contiguity and proximity. A clear example of this occurs in Jean-Jacques Beineix' 1981 film Diva (music by Vladimir Cosma):

Shot 1: Two Oriental men sit in a car outside a building; an old man plays accordion nearby.

Shot 2: Interior of M. Gorodish's apartment; telephone rings; accordion music still heard, but more softly. Telephone conversation: the Orientals ask if Gorodish received their "deposit" for the pirated Cynthia Hawkins tape. Gorodish picks up the money by the phone.

Shot 3 (same as Shot 1): The money comes flying through the air and lands near accordion player (music still going), whose dog picks it up. Old man joyfully discovers it, and departs, playing in a more lively tempo.

In backstage music which is meant to be coming from behind the scenes (as in the Tannhäuser example), we hear more than we see. Our view is limited in film also, for the camera's eye often focuses on only one thing at a time—the camera's ear may hear over a wider range than its eye encompasses. In the scene from Diva, when the camera cuts from the accordion player to the man answering the telephone, the fact that we continue to hear the music leads us to believe that the two locations are close to each other. More generally, when a cut is made, we see and hear from a different location, and if we hear the same thing in that new location, we assume that the two places in question are adjacent. Realistic music, by providing a consistently open camera ear, can unify the fragmented world which results from the camera's continually blinking eye.

During the past half century a considerable controversy has arisen over the use of realistic music versus "background" music in motion pictures. During the silent films of the twenties, which were accompanied by live instrumentalists, most music for film fell into the category of non-realistic music. Not surprisingly, when "the talkies" came in around 1930, there was an emphasis on source music, and many musicals were made at that time. Background music made a gradual but highly successful comeback during the era known as "the golden age of Hollywood," the 30's and 40's. But many directors decried its use as unrealistic; for instance, John Ford remarked that he did not like to see a man alone, dying of thirst in the desert, with the Philadelphia Orchestra behind him.13 My favorite anecdote, though, involves too much water, not too little: apparently the film composer David Raksin heard that Alfred Hitchcock had decided that his film Lifeboat should not have any background music—it just would not be believable out there in the middle of the ocean. Raksin retorted, "Ask Mr. Hitchcock to explain where the cameras come from, and I'll tell him where the music comes from"14—which supports the idea of the camera as implying a persona which spies, eavesdrops, and even "sings." The distaste directors felt for background music was summed up by the critic Kurt London when he complained in 1935 that this "barbarous habit" meant a return to the primitive film.15 On the other hand, in 1977 Roy Prendergast stated that the increasing use of source music reflected an aesthetic regression to the infancy of sound in the movies.16

The interaction of realistic and non-realistic music in film deserves further study, and such work can, I believe, be informed by operatic scholarship. The most fruitful approach to the old debate about their use may be the one employed more than a century ago by opera composers such as Verdi and Wagner, and pointed out to us by Cone: that to play on the ambiguity between these two types of dramatic music, causing them to interact with each other and interpenetrate one another, can give a work a fascinating magical realism, a multi-layered quality. Some of the more thoughtful composers and directors are currently using this double edge of music to influence our perception of time and space in their films. If we care about the music of our own time and place, we should not neglect their efforts.17

1Edward T. Cone, "The World of Opera and its Inhabitants," in Music: A View from Delft, ed. Robert Morgan (Chicago, 1989), 125-38. The term "realistic song" first occurs in this later essay, although the concept was developed in The Composer's Voice.

2Erwin Panofsky, "On Movies," Bulletin of the Department of Art and Archaeology of Princeton University (June 1936), 8. More commonly available (in an expanded form) as "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures," in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Mast and Cohen (New York, 1974), 151-69.

3Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago, 1983), xix.

4Oddly enough, Wagner did not indicate how the two groups of F horns were to be placed in relation to one another. However, the music makes their antiphonal function clear, whether they perform side-by-side, or with one group behind the other. A related problem is the scarcity of dynamics; perhaps Wagner assumed that the spatial arrangement of the horns would provide the sound levels necessary for the illusion of space.

5John Culshaw, from an untitled article for the supplement to the Decca recording of Das Rheingold, The Decca Record Company (1959, reissued, London Records, 1984).

6The anvils' dynamics here are much clearer than the horn dynamics in the Tannhäuser example: they gradually rise (while those of the orchestra fade) as we "approach" them, and diminish, with the parts also gradually disintegrating, as we "pass" them. Since the anvils maintain a constant distance from the audience, terraced dynamics and a fade-out structured into the music are essential to the spatial illusion.

7Panofsky, "On Movies," 9.

8See Susan Sontag, "Film and Theater," reprinted in Film Theory, ed. Mast and Cohen, 249-67, especially 256.

9Susanne K. Langer, "A Note on Film," in Feeling and Form (New York, 1953), 414; and Aaron Copland, "A Tip to Moviegoers: Take Off Those Earmuffs," New York Times Magazine (6 November 1949), 28-32. Reprinted in Film Score: The View from the Podium, ed. Tony Thomas (S. Brunswick, N.J., 1979), 21-22.

10Irene Kahn Atkins, Source Music in Motion Pictures (Rutherford, N.J., 1983), 13.

11Roy M. Prendergast, A Neglected Art: A Critical Study of Music in Films (New York, 1977), 55.

12Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, 1978), 52.

13Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968), 99.

14Tony Thomas, Music for the Movies (S. Brunswick, N.J., 1973), 15. This anecdote demonstrates Hitchcock's sensitivity to the potential significance of sound in film; his later films' development of that potential has been applauded by many critics of film music. In addition, Walter Everett has drawn my attention to two early instances of Hitchcock's masterful use of music as a space-defining device: in Young and Innocent (1937), an extremely long pan finally focuses on the Grand Hotel's dance-band, whose music has progressed from an offscreen sound element underpinning conversation, to become the sole aural link with the visual image identifying the murderer (a member of the band). Secondly, the end of the 1955 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much features Doris Day's performance of "Que Sera, Sera" as a message to her kidnapped son; the sound of her voice is altered to match the camera's journey up several flights of stairs, finally reaching the boy.

15Kurt London, Film Music, trans. Eric S. Bensinger (1936; reprint, New York, 1970). Quoted in Prendergast (see note 11 above), 28.

16Prendergast, 165.

17I wish to express my appreciation to Carolyn Abbate and Fred Maus for their help in preparing this paper.

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Last modified on Friday, 27/12/2013

Alicyn Warren

Alicyn Warren is a composer of electronic music whose pieces often include extra-musical elements: video images, text, or recognizable recorded sounds. She employs technology in an emotionally expressive manner, with a focus on difficult topics such as blindness, betrayal, old age, illness, abortion, and death. Her works have been performed and broadcast around the world; several have been released on CD or DVD, and are available on the Centaur, Computer Music Journal, SEAMUS, and Le Chant du Monde labels.

Warren’s M.F.A. and Ph.D. degrees, both in music composition, are from Princeton University. Her doctoral dissertation essay, titled Levels of Reality in Dramatic Music, was advised by Carolyn Abbate and Paul Lansky, and her main composition teachers were Paul Lansky, Steven Mackey, and Milton Babbitt. She holds an A.B. degree in music from Columbia University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She is an honors graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, Interlochen, Michigan.

Alicyn Warren has received grants and prizes from the NEA, the American Musicological Society, and the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition.
At Columbia University, Warren was a postdoctoral Mellon Fellow in Music and a member of the Society of Fellows in the Humanities. Currently an adjunct assistant professor in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Warren previously taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan.

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