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Beyond the Soundtrack. Representing Music in Cinema

by
Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert, Editors
University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007
333 pp., illus. 19 b/w photographs, 2 tables, 5 music examples. Trade,
$60.00, 35.00; paper, $24.95, 14.95
ISBN: 978-0-520-25069-7 ISBN: 978-0-520-25070-3.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
University of Leuven

jan.baetens@arts.kuleuven.be

Beyond the Soundtrack is much more than just another collection of proceedings (in this case of a conference hosted by the University of Minnesota in 2004). Thanks to the innovative claims of the editors’ introduction and the outstanding quality of its various chapters, this volume has everything to become a landmark publication in the (too slowly) growing field of film and music studies.

As convincingly argued by Claudia Gorbman in her seminal study Unheard Melodies, film music is supposed as its best when it goes unnoticed, an observation closely linked with the film industry’s recycling of a specific type of music, the postromantic symphony, a default option in many traditional Hollywood movies that helped bridging the gap between the pre-cinematographic tastes of the audiences and the new forms of cinematographic narrative. This collection exemplarily edited by a team of film scholars and musicologists does, however, not limit itself to update and renew our common frames of reading film music, often reduced to two stereotypical discussions: that, first, of the difference between diegetic (onscreen) and nondiegetic (underscore or pit music), and that, second, of the convergence or divergence between what we see and what we hear (with the infamous ‘mickey-mousing’ or acoustic mimicry in the role of the bad guy and sound-vision contrast in that of the good one). Beyond the Soundtrack achieves, on the contrary, a complete overthrow of these traditional interpretive frames, proposing, and excitingly illustrating, a real Copernican revolution. Far from considering film music as a lucky or unlucky accompaniment of the film’s language, the editors suggest that it is the latter that should be seen as a representation of the former. Film, then, is no longer complete by a score or a soundtrack, it is, on the contrary, a way of embodying a musical experience (this is the reversal the authors of this book call the ‘representation’ of music by film).

The volume is organized following the three dimensions that shape this new approach of film music: 1) meaning: how can film be studied as a way of visualizing music, i.e. a semiotic experience known to be meaningful yet very difficult to conceptualize by verbal means; 2) agency: how does music transform, create, question, contest the global meaning of the cinematographic world?; and 3) identity: does music, which can express almost anything, mean something, or does it merely represent itself, i.e. something that is beyond or beneath meaning in the traditional sense of the word? Most essays in the book obviously cover all three of these dimensions, and it is, therefore, not always easy to understand why this or that particular chapter obeys primarily to this or that aspect of film music. But the merits of each essay make the reader forget almost immediately the overall structure of the book, which is a little artificial, and focuses exclusively on their own specific insights and thought-provoking hypotheses. The 16 texts are without any exception more than worth reading, and most of them respond quite directly to the stakes raised by the editors’ preface. Since it would be unfair to mention or quote this contributor rather than that one, I would like to single out some of the fields of research opened –and deepened, widened, or reinforced– by the essays.

First, the reinterpretation of the relationship between the postromantic symphony and cinema, and the clearly formulated idea that the successful emerging form of narrative cinema can be understood as a transfer or transposition of an existing cultural form shaped by symphonic music and its ideological underpinnings, such as the target-oriented narrative structure, the exteriorization of subject-located impressions, the tension between order and chaos, individual and society, etc. Various articles disclose important historical evidence to foreground this link between film narrative and symphonic music, suggesting how films have been taking the place of an outdated musical experience that was no longer possible in itself.

Second, the critical reappropriation of Adorno’s heritage. Clearly, Adorno is the main theoretical point of reference for most of the contributors to the volume, yet nobody is reading Adorno uncritically. The creative and productive role of popular and commercial music within film is never despised, while the Adorno-Eisler plea for a ‘negative’ relationship between and vision does not function as an unchallengeable dogma –as it occurs more than often in critical readings of film music.

Third –but of course not last– Beyond the Soundtrack manages also to establish a permanent movement of back and forth between the past and the present, between auteur cinema and Hollywood movies, between film and television, high and low, and so on. The book does not fall prey to established divisions in film theory and the healthy acceptance of ‘bad’ film music as well as the clever refusal of any idealization of ‘good’ film music, is paramount to its global achievement.

 

 




Updated 1st December 2007


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