Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music

February 26, 2009

Music and the moving image were inseparable long before the arrival of the talkies. From the live accompaniment of yesteryear's picture-house organs to today's finitely constructed electro-acoustic drama scores, the musical aspect of the movie has been essential to both the public's enjoyment and the layering of meaning. Indeed, that music provides an essential narrative layer to the film medium is something that many of us take for granted. Not only does the music employ well-recognised systems to signal film genres - horror, romantic comedy, the western - but it also draws on expected themes to exaggerate emotion and underline the viewer's empathy with characters and plots, often to startling effect.

Who could forget the impact of great scores on otherwise average films? Furthermore, how many times have those great scores brought out new dimensions to what is often an overly obvious narrative? It is a feature of the score of which the finest directors are all too keenly aware, whether employing seemingly obtuse accompanying music to bring out the pathos of emotional cliche (Woody Allen's use of ragtime jazz to score heartbreak), or exaggerating tonal qualities to retell those cliches (Vangelis' saxophone-driven love score for the otherwise cold illogic of Blade Runner).

Yet, despite the understanding that the soundtrack can affect the ways in which we read the action and the cultural signposts, there are surprisingly few attempts at critically engaging with this aspect of film-making. Furthermore, those few scholars who have explored this subject have concentrated largely on either mainstream Hollywood composers and their blockbusting scores or the "musical" genre.

Global Soundtracks, then, is a much-needed text in which Mark Slobin, a professor of music at Wesleyan University, brings together for the first time ethnographic studies of film music around the world, drawing on territories as disparate as Indonesia, Africa, China and the less well-represented populations of America.

The book's essays set out to examine how and why music works as (in Slobin's words) an "invisible narrator" passing cultural information about the society in which the film is set. Throughout the text, the authors offer a combination of case study and comparative analysis.

Particularly revealing is Joseph Getter and R. Balasubrahmaniyan's essay "Tamil Film Music", which offers a study of the industrial and creative systems and approaches employed in the films of that region.

Especially illuminating is the analysis of the music transcript of the film Kandukondain Kandukondain that places musical themes alongside action scenes, revealing in the process the liquid nature of regional cultural music. Here musical director A.R. Rahman uses Western synth-pop beats as well as traditional instrumentation such as the double-reed nagaswaram, each evoking universal meanings in a particular cultural setting.

Also thoroughly insightful are Slobin's own chapters charting the growth and development of the film score, drawing initially on Hollywood pioneer Max Steiner, identified here as the first composer "who largely is credited with making the film score work", before focusing on the scores to what Slobin terms "subcultural films".

It is in this area that Slobin's own work is most useful to both film and music scholars as he unpeels the forms and meanings of the "insiders" who take the camera into their own hands with the firm intention of telling stories about small groups embedded within larger societies.

These, he suggests, include the Yiddish-language films of Jewish Americans and, later, the works of Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latino gays and lesbians and African-Americans. In each case, hybridised music is employed to underscore the group's place as outsider within a dominant culture.

Global Soundtracks is not only a welcome addition to the critical canon of film studies, but is also of great use to scholars of music.

Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music

Edited by Mark Slobin
Wesleyan University Press
416pp
£72.50 and £29.95
ISBN 9780819568816 and 568823
Published 15 September 2008

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