Reviewed Elsewhere: Jennifer Fleeger, Sounding American: Hollywood, Opera, and Jazz.

Lars Fischer's picture
 
Jennifer FleegerSounding American: Hollywood, Opera, and Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 197 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-199-36648-4.
 
Through thorough exploration of a variety of case studies—most notably, examples of conversion to sound-era short films—Fleeger demonstrates how jazz and opera not only should be considered as complementary genres in the development of sound film, rather than distant relatives, but also should be given due credit for forming much of the foundations of current Hollywood film music. ...
 
Early on in Sounding American, Fleeger emphasizes the important point that as opposed to the musical climate in America today, both jazz and opera were considered part of popular rather than "high" culture during the conversion era. More so than German opera, Italian opera contained short, tuneful arias that focused on the individual singer, which were easily recognizable and perfectly suited for short films and popular consumption. This explanation of Italian opera's prominent role in Hollywood short films as well as popular culture is both important and overlooked in much of current film and music scholarship ...
 
It seems likely that in addition to the reasons Fleeger provides for America's preference for Italian opera, tense feelings toward Germany after World War I might have contributed to the aversion to German opera, leaving Richard Wagner to be a "fodder for satire," as Fleeger says.
 
Sounding American concludes by emphasizing the need to avoid the common practice of likening Hollywood film scores to European music of the Romantic period. It has been easy thus far for scholars to apply musical elements of Romanticism such as the leitmotif and programmatic music to the classical Hollywood film score—because film music does in fact use these techniques. However, Fleeger cautions us against assuming that a Hollywood film score can be considered as an autonomous, unified, and continuous work that can be analyzed using the same methods one would use to approach a Romantic piece of music. Instead, Fleeger argues for considering the Hollywood film score as an "image-sound relation" that is best analyzed not as a separate entity but as a fundamental part of the film's ideology. Furthermore, Fleeger suggests that the spectator, who is often overlooked in Romantic music scholarship, does not play a passive role in receiving a film and its music but in fact is quite necessary for constructing meaning from the film's score. Overall, Sounding American provides a singular approach to classical Hollywood cinema and scores by taking subjects and methods that have remained largely separated in film and music scholarship and combining them in a way that demonstrates the importance of considering jazz, opera, sound technology, and consumers of film as interacting with, rather than apart from, each other.