Formulating a ‘cinematic listener’ for John Zorn’s file card compositions


  • Maurice Windleburn


In a 1995 interview, contemporary American composer John Zorn stated: ‘I got involved in music because of film […] There’s a lot of film elements in my music’ (Duckworth, 1995, p. 451). Scholars and critics have since widely noted these cinematic elements, with emphasis being placed on Zorn’s genre of so-called ‘file card compositions’. Whilst these studies have primarily concentrated on how the arrangement of sound blocks – the disjointed segments of Zorn’s compositions – can be compared to cinematic montage, this article instead focusses on how sound blocks suggest the visual aspects of cinema.

To delve deeper into the visuo-cinematic qualities of Zorn’s file card compositions, an idealised cinematic listener will be constructed, aided by various psychological, semiotic, philosophical and film theories. I will suggest that a listener occupying a hypnogogic state projects moving images, akin to those of cinema, onto what Bernard Lewin first called a ‘dream screen’. These projections occur due to intertextual associations made between file card compositions and the artistic figures to whom they are dedicated. These images combine with the sounds that brought them into being to form an audio-visual diegesis, which can be considered a type of half-imagined film. The cinematic listener then actively draws out of this diegesis a narrative, via the semi-conscious process Boris Eikhenbaum called ‘inner speech’. I will conclude by giving some broader justification for the methodology that brought this cinematic listener into being and suggest how the cinematic listener may be further utilised to provide musical analyses for file card works.


Albright, D. (2014). Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Albright, D. (2000) Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Baudry, J.-L. (1980). Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus. In: Cha, T. H. K. (Ed.), Apparatus: Cinematographic Apparatus: Selected Writings. New York: Tanam Press.

Bergson, H. (1912). Creative Evolution. London: Macmillan Press.

Bigazzi, G. (Ed.). (1998). John Zorn: Sonora Itinerari Oltre Il Suono. Milan: Auditorium.

Brackett, J. (2008). John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Chion, M. (1994). Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chion, M. (1999). The Voice in Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cook, N. (2006). Uncanny Moments: Juxtaposition and the Collage Principle in Music. In: Almén, B. & Pearsall, E. (Eds.), Approaches to Meaning in Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cook, N. (2007). The Domestic Gesamtkunstwerk or Record Sleeves and Reception. Music, Performance, Meaning: Selected Essays. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Copjec, J. (2015). Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. London: Verso.

Duckworth, W. (1995). Talking Music: Conversations with Five Generations of American Experimental Composers. New York: Schirmer Books.

Eberwein, R. T. (1984). Film & the Dream Screen: A Sleep and Forgetting. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Eco, U. (1979). A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Eikhenbaum, B. (1974). Problems of Film Stylistics. Screen, 15, 7-34.

Eisenstein, S. (1949). Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Gagne, C. (1993). Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers. London: The Scarecrow Press.

Geiger, J., & Littau, K. (Eds.). (2013). Cinematicity in Media History. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. London: Pelican Books.

Heuermann, C. (Director). (2004). A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky: 12 Stories About John Zorn. Tzadik.

Hjelmslev, L. (1961). Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Iser, W. (1974). The Implied Reader. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Juvan, M. (2008). History and Poetics of Intertextuality. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1980). Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Levaco, R. (1974). Eikhenbaum, Inner Speech and Film Stylistics. Screen, 15, 47-58.

Levi, P. (2012). Cinema by Other Means. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewin, B. (1946). Sleep, the Mouth and the Dream Screen. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 15, 419-443.

Mavromatis, A. (1987). Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness between Wakefulness and Sleep. London: Routledge & Keagan Paul.

McGinn, C. (2004). Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Metz, C. (1974). Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press.

Metz, C. (1980). The Fiction Film and Its Spectator: A Metapsychological Study. In: Cha, T. H. K. (Ed.), Apparatus: Cinematographic Apparatus: Selected Writings. New York: Tanam Press.

Metz, C. (1982). Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier. London: Macmillan Press.

Miklitsch, R. (2011). Siren City: Sound and Source Music in Classic American Film Noir. London: Rutgers University Press.

Monelle, R. (1992). Linguistics and Semiotics in Music. London: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Morin, E. (2005). The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nancy, J.-L. (2007). Listening. New York: Fordham University Press.

Nattiez, J.-J. (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Oudart, J.-P. (1978). Cinema and Suture. Screen, 18, 35-47.

Service, T. A. (2004). Playing a New Game of Analysis: Performance, Postmodernism, and the Music of John Zorn (PhD). University of Southampton, Southampton.

Schaeffer, P. (2017). Treatise on Musical Objects: An Essay Across Disciplines. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Smalley, D. (1996). The Listening Imagination: Listening in the Electroacoustic Era. Contemporary Music Review, 13, 77-107.

Stam, R., Burgoyne, R., & Flitterman-Lewis, S. (Eds.). (1992). New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge.

Stokes, D., & Biggs, S. (2014). The Dominance of the Visual. In: Matthen, M., Stokes, D., & Biggs, S. (Eds.), Perception and Its Modalities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tarasti, E. (2002). Signs of Music: A Guide to Musical Semiotics. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Walton, K. L. (1990). Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. London: Harvard University Press.

Žižek, S. (2001). The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieślowski Between Theory and Post- Theory. London: British Film Institute.

Zorn, J. (1987). Spillane (Liner Notes). New York: Elektra Nonesuch.

Zorn, J. (1999). Godard/Spillane (Liner Notes). New York: Tzadik.

Zorn, J. (2000). Treatment for a Film in Fifteen Scenes. In: Zorn, J. (Ed.), Arcana: Musicians on Music. New York: Hips Road.




How to Cite

Windleburn, M. (2019). Formulating a ‘cinematic listener’ for John Zorn’s file card compositions. SoundEffects - An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience, 8(1), 140–156. Retrieved from