- Above and Beyond or Betwixt and Between?
Even film music scholars desensitised to advertising hyperbole by the shock and awe tactics of cinematic marketing must have found the promotional claims made in advance of the publication of Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema a tad bold. The copy on the University of California Press’s website for this collection makes a series of statements surely designed to raise eyebrows, and perhaps even ire. Cue fanfare:
This groundbreaking collection by the most distinguished musicologists and film scholars in their fields gives long overdue recognition to music as equal to the image in shaping the experience of film. Refuting the familiar idea that music serves as an unnoticed prop for narrative, these essays demonstrate that music is a fully imagined and active power in the worlds of film. Even where films do give it a supporting role – and many do much more – music makes an independent contribution. Drawing on recent advances in musicology and cinema studies, Beyond the Soundtrack interprets the cinematic representation of music with unprecedented richness. The authors cover a broad range of narrative films, from the “silent” era (not so silent) to the present. Once we think beyond the soundtrack, this volume shows, there is no unheard music in cinema.(University of California Press website 2007)
‘At long last’, the deep-throated voiceover artist would growl in the Hollywood trailer for this book, ‘a group of the most distinguished musicologists and film scholars’ (as opposed, presumably, to those grubbing about in the subdiscipline of film musicology to date) ‘has broken new ground by refuting the idea that music goes unnoticed in film’ (an issue apparently never before problematised in the literature) ‘and by drawing on recent advances in cinema studies and musicology’ (but not film music [End Page 215] studies) ‘the result is unprecedented richness’ (in comparison to the impoverished offerings thus far on this topic). One would not wish to imply, of course, that this copy came from the keyboards of Goldmark, Kramer and Leppert, although the rhetoric of their book’s introduction may have fanned the copywriter’s flames. Therein, earlier work in ‘the film music literature’ is described as being ‘solid’ but ‘marginal’ and as having ‘tended to accept without serious challenge the status hierarchy that puts music on the bottom and treats film as above all a visual medium’ (2). One cannot help wondering what some of the contributors to this very book (not least the one who penned the pointedly-entitled L’audio-vision back in 1990) might have had to say about that, or the notion that work on the topic over the previous twenty years (the period since the publication of another contributor’s groundbreaking study, Unheard Melodies) has merely been ‘winking an eye at the presence of music in cinema’, or the fact that ‘film is also a musical medium’ (3).
This would indeed be unequivocally ground-breaking work if no one had thought to question such matters before, or if scholars had uttered such thoughts, but without any kind of intellectual refinement. Even a passing acquaintance with recent, and to an extent revisionist, publications in the field of screen music and sound studies reveals, though, that this is not the case. One need only consider the James Buhler, Caryl Flinn and David Neumeyer edited collection Music and Cinema (2000), Anahid Kassabian’s Hearing Film (2001), Annette Davison’s Hollywood Theory, Non-Hollywood Practice (2004), Steve Lannin’s edited collection Pop Fiction: The Song in Cinema (2005), the Phil Powrie and Robynn J. Stilwell edited volume Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-Existing Music in Film (2006), or the manifestos of new journals like the present one or the School of Sound’s house publication, to realise that a good deal of fresh spade work has been done. A significant area of Beyond the Soundtrack’s ‘new’ ground, in other words, has already been broken. The book’s value – and let there be no doubt, in spite...