Seminar on "Listen to This: Musical Narrators across Mediums" - April 30–May 3, 2015

full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Languages Association
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What does it mean to employ music to tell a story? How is listening to a musical narrative different from other modes of narrative reception? Such questions have fascinated philosophers and students of the art of storytelling throughout history. From Plato's dissection of the modes of poetry and rhapsode to Nietzsche's fascination with Attic tragedy, the musicality of speech and narrative has been a contested site of cultural and political ramifications.

This panel aims to bring together scholars of literature, cinema, philosophy, and music to investigate the category of musical narrators – agents who deploy music or musicality to tell, show, or present a story. Candidates include explicitly represented narrators in works of theatre and film who either perform or incorporate music as part of their narration (e.g., Vere in Britten and Forster's Billy Budd, the Balladeer in Sondheim's Assassins, and the narrator in Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat); the idea, commonplace since Wagner's time, that the musical accompaniment of songs, operas, and musicals functions like a Greek chorus commenting on the action and guiding the audience's attention; the musicality of writers like Thomas Mann; and literary narratives structured by musical form such as Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française or Milan Kundera's Slowness.

Such cross-disciplinary dialogues will further the understanding of the ways music is given signification via its deployment as a storytelling medium. The rise of multimedia culture—particularly television and digital mediums involving a multiplicity of real-life narrating agents through collaborative writing and directing—has made this line of inquiry even more pressing. Film and theatre are often dominated by visual analysis, but by focusing on musical narrators, we engage with the voice and geography of their soundscape in order to hear a little bit better and, perhaps, listen to a story that we may have felt but have never heard.

This panel is in a seminar format. Participants will circulate their papers prior to the conference. Instead of reading papers, participants will give a brief presentation of their work. The session will be oriented towards discussion.

To submit an abstract proposal, please go to, create a user account and sign in. Abstracts should be no more than 300 words.

Direct questions to the session chairs (please CC both):

Christopher Culp
University at Buffalo, SUNY

Nina Penner
McGill University