Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-Existing Music in Film

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-Existing Music in Film

Article excerpt

Phil Powrie and Robynn Stilwell, eds., Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 205pp.

review by Alexander Binns

The idea of neglect, a feeling - perhaps self-consciously invoked - that the discipline has been passed by in terms of serious critical enquiry, has played its part in determining how new scholarship justifies its examination of film music. Moreover, in spite of a significant increase in work on music in film, claims of neglect still persist, forming a kind of critical trope. At first, this apparently (though spuriously) took the form of a general absence of studies on film music at all, followed by an absence in considering the music's effect on the spectator. This was countered by film musicology's voracious appetite for critical theory, emerging from the literary theorists who were contemporary film musicology's most significant early exponents but whose consideration tended to focus on the orchestral underscore. In the process, this approach glossed over or even avoided ideological distinctions caused by the different ways that music was deployed in film, such as that between the specially-composed score and one made up of pre-existing music. The disparate ideological qualities that this variety of music subtends to film is the territory of Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Films, edited by Phil Powrie and Robynn Stilwell and published by Ashgate in 2006. Changing Tunes is divided into two broad parts - 'pre-existing classical film scores' and 'popular music and film' respectively - each of which is further partitioned into areas that deal, usually thematically, with film music, all united under the idea of 'pre-existence'.

To explore the sets of claims that the chapters each in their own way propose, Stilwell and Powrie suggest that the myriad types of music used in cinema should be accompanied by an equally plural set of investigative frameworks. In this respect, Changing Tunes clearly has transformative ambitions in that it stakes out not only what film musicology represented in the past, but also the deeds and legacy of that original assumption. In particular, the editors identify what they seem to regard as a displacement of Theory in favour of a constellation of theories drawn from varying fields of criticism that aim to decentre the focus of the critical model used and to promote instead that which is being elucidated.1 This '"small-scale" theorizing', we are told, 'has been much more productive, flexible, and enlightening' (xiv). Part of the problem with a sense of totalizing theories, as Powrie and Stilwell see it, was the brutality of such theories' lack of subtle concern for local detail. This obviated the need for them to engage in a localized critique, which, the editors believe, is so useful when considering a particular scene in a film. Moreover, the editors also feel that Grand Theory fails to recognize the need to vary its analytical methods and precepts to cope with different narrative agencies (film, music, photography, for example). These are not new claims, however. David Bordwell's similarly mobilized attack on Grand Theory, proposed some years ago, suggests that in many ways this is, in fact, now an accepted methodology.

The various contributors' essays do adopt a wide range of critical approaches in service to the individual territories of discussion, but this prompts a further question: if these territories are critically unstable and not comfortably organized by aggressive theoretical posturing, why does the critical focus of Changing Tunes seek to map out the territory of socalled pre-existing music so clearly? The answer, it would seem, is because this type of music has been much more widespread than is commonly suggested, and also that its particular field of operation opens up a richer way of considering more recent cinema especially.

More specifically, and as the title very clearly suggests, this book is concerned with how music that is not specially composed for a film affects an audience's response, and how these responses differ from those to specially-composed soundtracks, for there is a stated difference between the two 'modes' of film score here. …

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