Sound and Music

Audio in Contemporary Culture

Of Shivers and Crystals: Musical Moments in Film

By Phil Powrie

Confucius reportedly said in The Book of Rites that music produces a kind of pleasure that human nature cannot do without.

Music in a film can affect us is the same way that it might affect us when we are listening to it without a visual track, in a concert hall or on record. The pleasure that we gain can be various. It can be low-key, a sense of belonging to a cultural community, say; it can be what we could call mid-key, the pleasure gained from appreciating its structural and modal complexities. And it can also be high-key; it can cause what psychologists call ‘frissons’ or shivers, bodily reactions that momentarily overwhelm us, generating extremes of pleasure often paradoxically felt as pain. It is so intense that it might make you want to see the sequence or the film again, to repeat the high point, to seek its significance, and also to listen time and again to the music, to repeat the pleasure of sound moulding your feelings.

Whereas film scholars have explored the way that music functions in films in considerable detail, particularly since the 1980s, and others such as Laura U. Marks and Vivian Sobchak have for some time explored the haptic in film, following the work of Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, there has in general in film studies not been a sustained attempt to unravel the complexities of extreme haptic effects generated by or connected with music. This is perhaps because, to echo Claudia Gorbman’s well-known 1987 book, music in film is generally supposed to be ‘unheard’, the background to the all-important visual track.

So what on earth do you about a combination of image and music that rips you apart?

I sometimes wonder whether for academics there is something inherently suspicious about extreme pleasure that invades the body. Sobchak addressed this issue in work done at the turn of the millennium and published online in Senses of Cinema, later collected in her book Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004). She contrasts the strong and often emotive descriptions of affects resulting from film viewings that you might find in the popular press and the way that academics might ‘seem either embarrassed or bemused by bodies that often act wantonly and crudely at the movies’. Focusing largely on the visual, her work nonetheless helps us to consider the soundtrack.

I would argue that there is nothing to be ashamed of in the shivers delivered by extreme musical pleasures. Suspicious though we may be of extremes, and their ability to escape rationality, for all sorts of reasons we have a duty to explore them, be they musical or not. That work has now started, for example with Amy Herzog’s excellent Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), which I recall in the title to this piece, or with Lisa Coulthard’s work addressing the intersection between music and sound.

Important though their work is, these scholars do not attend to the musical moment that can seize you and deliver you into an almost epiphanic moment of extreme affect in which pleasure and pain commingle. This is something that I have tried to address in a recent book on what I have called, following Deleuze, the ‘crystal-song’. Much like his crystal-image, the crystal-song is the moment when music – it can be orchestral music as well as stricto sensu a ‘song’ – works with what we see to provoke shivers. Those shivers in my view occur when the narrative collapses on itself at the same time as it expands outwards, imploding and exploding at the same moment, layering temporality and effecting critical moments of change in the film.

The catch, of course, is that the combination of the music and the visual track might deliver a moment of extreme affect for me, but not for you. It is almost inevitably ‘personal’, and arguably not susceptible to rational analysis. It is hardly a reason not to investigate it though. The musical moments I am interested in impel me to argue that pleasure is too essential in all senses of the word to be left to the whims of individual specificities. They impel me to convince you that these moments of musical pleasure can be thought through and can illuminate. They impel me, finally, to affirm that, amongst other things, they make life worth living, that they can lead both to the examined life and to a life of superlative intensities.

Like Confucius, I cannot do without this kind of music, even if I have to admit somewhat ruefully that he probably wouldn’t have approved of this kind of pleasure.


Phil Powrie, September 2017


© Springer Phil Powrie is Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Surrey, UK.  He has published widely on French cinema and is the Chief General Editor of the journal Studies in French Cinema.  His book Music in Contemporary French Cinema is available now.

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