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.


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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