- Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound
In an essay in Buhler, Flinn and Neumeyer’s Music and Cinema (2000), Rick Altman argues, in response to Chion’s provocative observation that ‘there is no soundtrack’ (in other words, no discrete functional sonic equivalent to the film frame), that ‘film sound – taken as a single complex unit rather than three or more separate components – cannot be understood without analyzing relationships among soundtrack components’ (2000: 341). Altman and his collaborators propose the concept of mise-en-bande as an analogue for cinematic mise-en-scène, and describe a simple notational system that could illustrate some of the interactions of the various sound stems. That a collection on film music should have contained such an essay seemed to be indicative of the increasing inclusivity of film music studies at the time, a characteristic that was equally demonstrated by many of the papers delivered at the London conference Sound, Music and the Moving Image in September 2007.
Arguably this shows the willingness of at least some musicologists and music historians to negotiate with the technical aspects of film sound in a way that has perhaps been less common for film sound theorists to deal with music-theoretical issues. Of course, the metalanguage of music theory – albeit a metalanguage that is, as David Brackett has remarked, ideologically and aesthetically loaded (1995:19) – continues to prove a considerable barrier to the non-musicologically trained academic in providing as technically sophisticated a commentary on the musical components of Altman’s mise-en-bande as the other sonic elements.
Eight years further on from Music and Cinema, this collection of essays promises in its pun of ‘lowering the boom’ a penetrating critique of the theory and historiography of film sound – all of its elements – potentially giving the knockout blow that will stimulate a paradigm shift in this inherently cross-disciplinary domain.1 In their introduction, Beck and Grajeda note that, while the discipline of sound studies has self-evidently ‘arrived’, ‘the challenge, nonetheless, remains for these disparate fields [End Page 117] pursuing the theory and history of sound not only to cohere around their object of study but also to articulate cross-disciplinary methodologies and analytical approaches’ (2).
Lowering the Boom includes eighteen essays divided across five broad thematic areas, each with three or four chapters: ‘Theorizing Sound’, ‘Historicizing Sound’, ‘Sound and Genre’, ‘Film Sound and Cultural Studies’, and ‘Case Studies of Film Sound’. Among the authors are well-established scholars such as the editors themselves, Anahid Kassabian, John Belton, James Lastra and Paul Théberge, as well as some less familiar names. Chion and Altman, the two senior figures of soundtrack study, cast their shadows strongly on the volume, and though neither are contributors their work is widely referenced by many of the authors. Despite the consideration of such films or issues as Robert Bresson’s Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes, Abbas Kiarostami’s Nema-ye Nazdik, Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, Czech film of the late twenties and early thirties, and Norwegian television, a major focus of this collection is the analysis of the practices in the film industry of the USA.
The first section of the book is devoted to theorising sound. John Belton’s ‘The Phenomenology of Film Sound: Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped’ is one of the strongest and most compelling of the essays for this reader. Placing Bresson’s approach in a phenomenological frame that draws on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s definition of the term, Belton subtly and sensitively demonstrates that by reducing picture and sound to their most elemental, Bresson ‘lays bare the soul that lies beneath the visible surface of phenomenal reality’. It is only in his consideration of Bresson’s use of the Kyrie from Mozart’s C Minor Mass K427 that Belton leaves me slightly disappointed because of its relative lack of depth (even allowing for the phenomenological premise) compared to the rest of his discussion.
Adopting Edward T. Hall’s concept of...