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Listening to the French New Wave

The Film Music and Composers of Postwar French Art Cinema


Orlene Denice McMahon

As perhaps the most studied film movement in cinematic history, the French New Wave has been analysed and criticised, romanticised and mythologised, raising the question of whether it is possible to write anything new about this period. Yet there are still gaps in the scholarship, and the study of music in New Wave films is one of the most striking.
Listening to the French New Wave offers the first detailed study of the music and composers of French New Wave cinema, arguing for the need to re-hear and thus reassess this important period in film history. Combining an ethnographic approach with textual and score-based analysis, the author challenges the idea of the New Wave as revolutionary in all its facets by revealing traditional approaches to music in many canonical New Wave films. However, musical innovation does have its place in the New Wave, particularly in the films of the marginalised Left Bank group. The author ultimately brings to light those few collaborations that engaged with the ideology of adopting contemporary music practices for a contemporary medium.
Drawing on archival material and interviews with New Wave composers, this book re-tells the story of the French New Wave from the perspective of its music.
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For making the past few years spent between Cambridge and Paris the most culturally and academically rewarding of my life, I have many people to thank.

For supporting my research since its embryonic stages, I am indebted to the National University of Ireland, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Robert Gardiner Memorial Trust, the Cambridge European Trust, the Faculty of Music at Cambridge, and Gonville & Caius College.

Other debts are harder to quantify: I would like to thank Emma Wilson, Isabelle McNeill, Jeremy Thurlow, Jenny Chamarette, Holly Rogers, Nicholas Cook, and Annette Davison, all of whom provided thought-provoking discussion and vital feedback on my work at important stages during my research. In Paris, Stéphane Lerouge, Antoine de Baecque, Michel Chion, Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb, and Samuel Petit (BiFi) were invaluable fountains of knowledge on the French New Wave. Indeed, without Stéphane Lerouge, I may never have met the composers who are so integral to this study. For their enthusiasm and willingness to share their stories, I am forever indebted to Antoine Duhamel, Pierre Jansen, Jean-Claude Eloy, and Michel Legrand. Likewise, my thanks go to Colette Delerue and Nicolas Viel (Pierre Barbaud Association) for allowing me to access their private archives.

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