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Intermedial Modernism: Music, Dance, and Sound

Milian, Patrick. Intermedial Modernism: Music, Dance, and Sound. 2019. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

Intermedial Modernism: Music, Dance, and Sound examines how twentieth-century combinations of literature with sound-based arts like music, dance, and radio emerged from aesthetic negotiations with new media technologies. Such technologies—specifically phonography, electric amplification, modern stagecraft, and radiophonic broadcast—practically and conceptually integrated multiple artistic mediums and their meaning-making potentialities. I use the framework of intermediality, especially as utilized in word and music studies, to describe such integrations. Intermediality is a centuries-old practice of “making it new,” but what sets its twentieth-century iterations apart from those of Aeschylus or Monteverdi, I argue, is that they interpolate the acoustic effects, cultural practices, and expanded perceptual vocabularies affiliated with new media. By fully contextualizing case studies of opera, musicalized literature, expressive dance, and radio programs within a broader media ecology and by understanding the role of stipulated sense modalities and listening practices, we can develop a new set of interpretive approaches that account for meaning-events occurring between and across semiotic operations and sensory registers. Drawing from recent work in sound studies and media studies, the dissertation situates various musico-poetic texts within the “first media age.”

The dissertation’s four chapters each present representative texts belonging to different intermedial configurations, ranging from 1891 to 1991, to illustrate the interdisciplinary combinations both technically and imaginatively enabled by new media. These texts include collaborations between William Walton and Edith Sitwell as well as Nicolas Nabokov and Stephen Spender, John Cage’s final opera, volumes by Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes, choreographic arts from Loïe Fuller and Florine Stettheimer, and radio works by Orson Welles and Dylan Thomas. In selecting texts and performances that center modernity’s ubiquitous mechanisms and materials, I have also selected ones by writers, composers, and artists typically considered marginal. Reorienting modernist studies according to things as mundane as the radio or cellophane has the energizing result of pressing against the canonical and historical boundaries of the period.

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