The Unexamined Power of Classical Music in Modern Cinema

Classical music is often used to help frame film narratives. Stanley Kubrick used Johann Strauss and György Ligeti for his futuristic classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” was used to underscore the hellscape of Vietnam in Apocalypse Now.

Although scholars have tended to read those choices in an ironic fashion, Professor Matthew Lau (Queensborough Community College) saw a deeper exchange at play. “There is also a fundamental continuity, a likeness, between classical music’s traditions and the aesthetics of modernist cinema, which can both be regarded to varying degrees as avant-garde in sensibility,” he writes in his new book Sounds Like Helicopters: Classical Music in Modern Cinema.

Famed directors such as Kubrick, Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michael Haneke — all covered in Lau’s monograph — developed distinctive styles at the height of their careers. Examining how they used classical music adds to that cinematic understanding. “Modernist cinema is thus original in a double sense,” Lau writes. “Its new developments are original, as are its returns to its origins to find them. And to an underappreciated extent, those origins are in classical music.”

Each chapter provides a close reading of how modernist directors used classical music in their work, though Sounds Like Helicopters at first begins more broadly. Lau examines Wagner’s Ring cycle, looking at its influence on Coppola, Werner Herzog, and the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man. For a contemporary medium like film, music from the 19th century or earlier may — on the surface — create a jarring juxtaposition. But Lau poses that modernist directors saw the possibility of constructing new contexts. “These filmmakers have in effect already convinced themselves … that the new historical context of their film is what the music now means, and these new contexts alter the significance of the music away from Wagner’s intent,” he writes.

Sounds Like Helicopters offers an in-depth study of a long existent relationship between artforms. As Lau writes, “Classical music in modernist cinema is ready for its close-up.”

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Sounds Like Helicopters
SUNY Press, 2019

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Matthew Lau (Assistant Professor, English) | Profile 1 | Profile 2