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Sounding American: Hollywood, Opera, and Jazz tells the story of the interaction between musical form, film technology, and ideas about race, ethnicity, and the nation during the American cinema's conversion to sound. Contrary to most accepted narratives about the conversion, which tend to explain the competition between the Hollywood studios' film sound technologies in qualitative and economic terms, this book argues that the battle between disc and film sound was waged primarily in an aesthetic realm. Opera and jazz in particular, though long neglected in studies of the film score, were extremely important in defining the scope of the American soundtrack, not only during the conversion, but also once sound had been standardized. Examining studio advertisements, screenplays, scores, and the films themselves, author Jennifer Fleeger concentrates on the interactions between musical form and film technology, arguing that each of the major studios appropriated opera and jazz in a unique way in order to construct its own version of an ideal American voice. Traditional histories of Hollywood film music have tended to concentrate on the unity of the score, a model that assumes a passive spectator. Sounding American claims that the classical Hollywood film is essentially an illustrated jazz-opera with a musical structure that encourages an active form of listening and viewing in order to make sense of what is ultimately a fragmentary text.
Jennifer Fleeger is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Ursinus College. Her second book, Mismatched Women: The Voice Meets the Machine, will also appear in Oxford's Music/Media Series.