Scoring silent film: Music/nation/affect

George Steele, University of Rhode Island


Scoring Silent Film: Music/Nation/Affect studies the history of film music as a way to understand how the "soundtrack" operates in contemporary popular culture. I argue that forms of playful appropriation of film music today, as in the technological innovations of iPod culture, of re-mixing movie trailers on YouTube, or most importantly, of performing original scores live to silent film are all implicated in past industrial cinematic production practices. ^ Early twentieth century film accompaniment in America began as something commentarial before an industry preoccupied with its social and affective influence began to shape its course. In time, the ability for improvisational musicians to craft emotional associations with film on a local scale shifted toward massively distributed scores on a national scale. As a result, industrial influences over film music became industrial influences over audiences and over feeling. ^ The project begins by bringing Theodor Adorno's notion of the "culture industry" and theories of affect together, and asks whether the body vulnerably encounters industrial formulae in film music, and if so, what potential implications there may be. It begins with improvisational music of the nickelodeon era; literary exploration of music in fiction of Willa Cather and James Joyce; nationwide, massively distributed scores of early twentieth-century blockbusters (like Griffith's The Birth of a Nation); prerecorded scores of studio-system films of the 30s (like Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln); and contemporary forms of film music play. ^ Because topoi linking Abraham Lincoln and Barak Obama shape our contemporary political moment, I study specific films about Lincoln, as well as the 44 th Presidential Inauguration's cinematic qualities, to explore whether certain mainstream films, as well as political events, in rendering their sense of nation with certain musical associations in their scores, also affectively access the body to political ends. ^ I conclude by arguing that the resurgence of scoring film live today revives bygone early twentieth-century practices. The return of the film musician's body, a presence industry previously removed, allows audiences to feel film music differently. Industry directed feeling throughout the twentieth-century in developing its film music practices, industrial practices that with the iPod appear to become one's own. ^

Subject Area

Music|Mass Communications|Cinema

Recommended Citation

George Steele, "Scoring silent film: Music/nation/affect" (2009). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3380539.