- Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema
Anatole France once noted: “The good critic is he who narrates the adventures of his soul among masterpieces.” Apparently based on personal experience, the observation was made in the preface to France’s La Vie Littéraire, a four-volume collection of book reviews published between 1888 and 1892. Back then, the motion picture was not much more than a twinkle in the eye of its inventor; it was just a play of light and shadow—a twinkle, indeed—whose illusion of movement resulted from ocular bedazzlement as a viewer stared privately through a peephole at a series of illuminated still images displayed in rapid succession. Forty years would pass before cinema began to take on something resembling its current form, that is, as a publicly exhibited entertainment with prerecorded aural material that included not just spoken dialogue and sound effects but also music. And it would be another half-century before cinematic music would start to attract the attention of critics from all sorts of humanistic fields.
Musicologists nowadays, not surprisingly, focus primarily on film’s original music, that is, on music that was composed specifically for a particular film and whose resonance by and large is contained within the limits of the film soundtrack. But it seems that scholars from such disciplines as philosophy, art history, and comparative literature gravitate almost unanimously to film music that in one way or another had—and often continues to have—a lively career outside the cinema. Often this preexisting music is intrinsic to the onscreen narratives, by implication heard as much by the film’s fictional characters as in reality it is heard by the film’s audience; sometimes it is obviously superimposed on the narrative, intended exclusively for the ears of the audience and in numerous ways serving—in the manner of the typical original-music film score—as accompaniment; [End Page 587] and sometimes, perhaps confounding analysts who desperately seek binary codification, it dances in and out of the narrative or boldly straddles the theoretical boundary line.
No matter what its function, preexisting music in films brings with it not just sonic phenomena but also a heavy load of semiotic baggage that fairly begs to be unpacked by interdisciplinary thinkers. The exercise, of course, defies regulation. How the various signifiers are identified and sorted, and how they are prioritized, depends more on the contents of the critic’s personal store of experience, and on his or her biases, than on any objective criteria. Reports that attempt rigid categorization of signs and symbols tend to be both dull and unconvincing; free-flowing accounts of semiotic unpacking can be enormously stimulating, but often the most richly imaginative of these—perhaps because they contain so much cross-textual referencing and clever wordplay—smack at least a bit of authorial self-indulgence. Occasionally they wear fashionable trappings, but most explorations of preexisting music in film by humanistic scholars these days recall an old-fashioned mode of literary criticism; à la France, they are not so much analyses as documentations of particular souls’ intellectual-aesthetic adventures.
The sixteen essays in this anthology stem from an interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Minnesota in April 2004. Two of them (Rick Altman’s discussion of “themes” in silent film and Daniel Goldmark’s survey of music for silent film cartoons) are historical in content and thus seem out of place here. Another three (Michel Chion’s rhapsody on music’s “non-musical” elements, Philip Brophy’s archly postmodern suggestion that cinematic music does not match imagery but merely coexists with it, and Robynn J. Stilwell’s impressively lucid discussion of the “liminal space” between source music and underscore) are largely theoretical, but in a way that lends resonance to the book as a whole. A few of the contributions are not quite what they purport to be: claiming to write about the work of composer Nino Rota, Richard Dyer actually delivers an...