The limits of cinema’s representations (what they tell us and what they won’t let us hear)

When using cinema as a vantage point for studying the workings of music in contemporary culture, I have often felt a sense of frustration with the limitations of cinema’s representations of classical music. By this, I don’t just mean a frustration with the seemingly endless reiteration of a limited number of stereotypes (classical music as sign of social distinction, of intellectual complexity, of universality, of pastness etc.), but also with the very process of using music (indeed, all kinds of music) as a symbolic sign. In this sense, it seems to me that cinematic representations of classical music as privilege, as universal language, as an old cherished object etc., not only foreclose many of the music’s possible meanings but also function as listening obstructions. These representations often seem to ask me to read music as a sign before I get the chance to experience it.

So, what can we do with these limitations? As possible catalysts for our discussion on Friday, I would like to put forward two sets of questions:

  • What can the limitations of cinema’s representations tell us about classical music? Does the stereotypical fixity of many of such representations reveal a narrowing in the music’s cultural significance? Does the common use of classical music as a symbolic sign reflect—in a microcosm—the broader sense in which the discourse of music as classical can be an obstacle to one’s engagement with the music’s aesthetic and historical specificity? If so, what would have to change for these representations to give way to rich cinematic experiences of music?
  • Should we also question the very usefulness of focusing on cinema’s representations as a way of understanding classical music’s significance in twenty-first-century culture? Should we ask, instead, how cinema, as a technology and a representational system, remediates listening to classical music? And should we do more work on how film continues to shape our engagement with classical music beyond the cinema?

Dr. Carlo Cenciarelli is a Lecturer at Cardiff University and is the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Cinematic Listening (OUP, 2021).