Talk examines music and song interaction in Gosford Park

January 28, 2009

Part of a series on Music

Every desk in the second floor classroom in CFA was occupied in anticipation of Gayle Sherwood Magee’s talk about the music in the Robert Altman film Gosford Park. Magee was invited to campus by Assistant Professor of Music Sarah Day-O’Connell on Friday, January 23 for the lecture.

Day-O’Connell had many reasons for bringing Magee to campus.

“I heard Professor Magee give a talk last summer in Toronto,” said Day-O’Connell. “Her interdisciplinary interests made me think she would be a great speaker for our music department colloquium, which I am now coordinating.”

The talk, entitled “Song, Genre, and Transatlantic Dialogue in Gosford Park,” focused on the ways in which music and song intersect with action in Gosford Park. First, Magee focused the audience’s attention on one of the key scenes in the movie, a vicious murder, before providing a larger context for the film by discussing predecessors in the genre of British Heritage Film and some of Altman’s earlier work.

Magee then showed short clips where the music was very closely tied to the action. One of the clips showed a car driving down a country lane in the rain. The music to accompany it was a waltz, creating a nostalgic air, and the car’s windshield wipers moved with the beat, as did knocks on the car window, the footsteps of a servant in the mud, and the opening of a thermos. This phenomenon of music and action being tied by beat or, in the case of songs, theme, was referred to by Magee as “Mickey Mousing,” with each instance being a “hit”.

The rest of the talk focused on songs sung by the character Ivor Novello, a real life British film actor from the 1920’s and 30’s, played by Jeremy Northam. The lyrics in these songs serve to highlight action and characters by describing, or by ironically contrasting, what is happening on the screen. For instance, the word “snub” is sung at the same moment that a character in the film is delivering a snide comment.

The connections between action and music are not immediately apparent when viewing the film. Magee said she had seen the movie over 50 times during the course of her research.

Magee’s talk was the first in the music department’s colloquium series. Day-O’Connell has goals for that series, many of which Magee’s talk helped to meet.

“My vision for the colloquium series is that we offer the entire campus — not just our department — talks that stimulate discussion and get us thinking about music. I thought Professor Magee’s talk was a great kick-off event because her very subject, a quote from the movie, pretty much sums up what I want students to take away from music colloquia and music classes: ‘It’s not just background music, is it,’” said Day-O’Connell.

The next talk in the series will be a piano recital by Michael Coonrod, of the Interlochen Academy of the Arts, featuring Russian composers on February 23 at noon in Kresge Auditorium. It is being cosponsored by the Philosophy and Religious Studies departments.

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