Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9 - 11 december 2005

<< Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht / Social Reproduction and Cultural Innovation. From a Semiotic Point of View

Playing with Norms: Queer-semiotic Considerations on the Homosexual Iconography in the Music of Angels in America (HBO 2003)

Susanna Välimäki (University of Jyväskylä & Academy of Finland)



The paper discusses the sound-realm and musical representation of sexual otherness in a TV-series Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner's play (HBO 2003, dir. Mike Nichols). By this case study, the paper aims at reflecting some general challenges of queer-semiotics in current social and cultural studies. - In today's media-glutted (Western) world, audiovisual "media music" works as one of the most powerful signifying practices of negotiating sexual and gendered meanings in culture. It is an identity and ideology technology that permeates almost everything in the audio-visually-oriented Western media society, in its cultural circuit of meaning, and perhaps even more so when its workings are not consciously noticed, as is often the case with non-verbal acoustic representation. The musical figuring of sexual otherness, on the other hand, has been a central theme and part of aesthetics in Western art and popular music throughout its history. Moreover, during the past few years, TV-series that deal with sexual otherness in a more sensitive and multifarious way than before, have gained new force, space and power in the mainstream TV-output, becoming even fashionable. - In my paper, I will focus on the dialogue of presenting the sexual norms and their transgression in the music and sound-text of Angels in America. The original sound track is composed by Thomas Newman, but the score also includes compiled music, and draws on a kind of textural use of sound, which dissolves the border between "film music" and "sound effects". Rather than teleological passages, the music-sound score creates timbral "spaces", recurrent acoustic stagings and identities. It eclectically builds on various materials, including e.g. woodwind and string dominated postmodern orchestral music, rhythmically restless experimental soundscapes, "ethereal" "new age"-type instruments (e.g., bells), "surrealist" electronic music, echo effects (e.g. cathedral acoustics), distinctive vocal colors (e.g. a boy soprano, choir), baroque-like choral text, historical references to art music tradition (e.g., Glück's Orpheus), jazz of the 1930s (Duke Ellington), old film music ("Moon River'), gospel, etc. All these construct a complex socio-cultural discourse negotiating subjectivity, homosexuality and otherness. - In my talk, special emphasis is given to the aesthetical queer strategy as a constant position of opposing every norm it traverses (also homosexual norms), and to the camp aesthetics, as these pertain to an innovative attitude and "sign-conscious" play towards the reproduction of conventional, established meanings.

Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-10-09