Miles Davis’s Music for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958): Improvisation, Realism and Ideology

Perchard, Tom. 2012. 'Miles Davis’s Music for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958): Improvisation, Realism and Ideology'. In: Perspectives on Musical Improvisation. University of Oxford. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Of all the documents of jazz in post-war France, Louis Malle’s 1958 film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (or Lift to the Scaffold), with its soundtrack by Miles Davis, seems to loom largest in the popular imagination of the 21st-century. Ascenseur was the first and probably best of a rash of late-50s French suspense films to make use of jazz. The relative novelty of the soundtrack’s creative method, and the unusually strong presence and identity of the music it produced, was a focal point in the film’s promotional materials and its critical reception; indeed, the story of the soundtrack recording session remains central to both popular and specialist discussions of the film. These accounts, largely unchanged since the late-1950s, betray a durable and widespread fascination with an idea of jazz improvisation’s immediacy, and the ability of such a method to translate – in a manner somehow more penetrating than conventional scoring would allow – characters’ internal psychological activity into sound. So having examined the ways that Ascenseur’s construction of music and image is designed, I will read the long reception of Davis’s music in light of André Bazin’s contemporary and highly influential realist film theory, and of later film theorists for whom such realist ‘immediacy’ was understood to enact reactionary ideology of various kinds. The paper seeks to answer two main questions: how have those contributing to Ascenseur’s critical reception described and mythologized the act of jazz improvisation? And what kinds of aesthetic and ‘ideological’ work has been done by these accounts?

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Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

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11 September 2012Completed

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University of Oxford

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Date Deposited:

26 Mar 2013 07:47

Last Modified:

30 Jun 2017 10:00


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