COOL CLASSES: “Strange Music: Monsters, Ghosts, and Aliens on Stage and Screen”

Richard Freedman’s class explores the role the ear plays in the cinematic experience. This semester, there’s a particular focus on the ghosts, monsters, and aliens that have appeared on screen.

Class name: “Strange Music: Monsters, Ghosts, and Aliens on Stage and Screen”

Taught by: The John C. Whitehead 1943 Professor of the Humanities and Chair and Professor of Music Richard Freedman

Says Freedman about his class:
Film scholars often speak of the camera as an “all-seeing eye.” But what role does the ear play in cinematic experience? This course will explore the history, character, and function of music (and sound) with a particular focus on stage and screen: how they worked with (and against) the audiences’ and camera’s gaze to complicate narratives, to articulate time, and more generally to represent feeling and identity.

This term will also put a special focus on the non-human: monsters, aliens, machines, and, more generally, the idea of the magical or supernatural. What does such radical otherness sound like? How has it been represented musically? And how have composers and sound designers put such conventions to work on stage and screen? To answer these questions, we’ll explore the songs, operas, and film scores of the last 200 years. We’ll consider the legacy of romanticism, the possibilities of modernism, and even the avant-garde and learn about orchestration, harmony, and thematic processes as they contribute to cinematic narrative. 

We will also consider various theories of sound, music, and film staked out by film and operatic composers themselves, as well as critical and scholarly essays by leading writers on the sublime, uncanny, and, therefore, the monstrous, the alien, and the supernatural. 

Freedman on why he wanted to teach this class:
I’ve long had an interest in representation and music. The theme is a key part of my work on the music of the Renaissance. I’ve also long been fascinated by the ways in which new technologies of “encoding” music (from the earliest notation to music printing and later sound recording) have changed the circulation of this art and its very possibilities.

Meanwhile, I have also had an enduring love/hate relationship with the life and work of Richard Wagner and the long shadow that his art cast over music of the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Music for film is a great place to explore those connections. Many of the key figures in the American scene (directors and composers alike) were emigres from Hitler’s Europe, themselves steeped in the expressive cultures of both the 19th century and the modernist reactions to them. So the class is a not-so-disguised course in that story, too. The place of ghosts, monsters, and aliens in all of this provides another common thread, teaching students about the aesthetics of the sublime and uncanny.

Freedman on what makes this class unique:
The department supports a wide array of musical inquiry, from practical music making (vocal and instrumental) to the craft of creation (theory and composition, both traditional and now electronic), and the exploration of music in its cultural and intellectual contexts (with courses in a wide array of historical and cultural contexts, from early music to the Caribbean). 

Now that we have a new set of courses devoted to music and various technologies (my “Encoding Music” class and Mei-ling Lee’s electronic music courses), the time is right to think about the influence of the new medium of film and what students can learn from its history.