Austin Film Society Austin, TX


Dr. Veit Erlmann

Endowed Chair of Music History and Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin

Songcatcher— The Science and History of Musical Instruments

A discussion of the science, technology, and history of musical instruments. Part of the 2017 National Evening of Science on Screen

Austin Film Society Austin, TX

Film Synopsis

A musicologist travels to Appalachia and makes the discovery of a lifetime. 

In 1907, Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a professor of musicology, is denied a promotion at the university where she teaches. Disappointed, she impulsively visits her sister (Jane Adams), who runs a struggling rural school in Appalachia. There, she stumbles upon the discovery a lifetime: a treasure trove of ancient Scots-Irish ballads, songs that have been handed down from generation to generation, preserved intact by the seclusion of the mountains. With the goal of securing her promotion, Lily ventures into the most isolated areas of the mountains to collect the songs and finds herself increasingly enchanted—not only by the rugged purity of the music, but also by the raw courage and endurance of the local people as they carve out meaningful lives against the harshest conditions. It is not, however, until she meets Tom (Aidan Quinn)—a handsome, hardened war veteran and talented musician—that she's forced to examine her motivations. Is the "Songcatcher," as Tom insists, no better than the men who exploit the people and extort their land?

About the Speaker

Dr. Veit Erlmann holds the Endowed Chair of Music History. He studied musicology, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy in Berlin and Cologne, where he obtained a PhD in 1978 and did a Habilitation in musicology in 1989 and in anthropology in 1994. He has done fieldwork in Ecuador and in several African countries such as Cameroon, Niger, Ghana, South Africa, and Lesotho. Currently he is doing research in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Dr. Erlmann has been on the faculties of the University of Natal, the University of Chicago, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and the Free University of Berlin. Among his publications are African Stars, Studies in Black South African Performance and Nightsong, and Performance, Power and Practice in South Africa, both published by the University of Chicago Press. His most recent book, Music, Modernity and the Global Imagination published by Oxford University Press, won the Alan P. Merriam Prize for the best English-language monograph in ethnomusicology.