Film Music and the Problem of Disciplinary Identity
By Dr Emilio Audissino
Is film music more 'music' or more 'film'? Who's best equipped to study it? Film scholars or music scholars? Or both? And if so, how? These, I think, are still unresolved questions about this transdisciplinary field of study. Being a film scholar with a strong specialism in film music, I always feel I'm a sort of state-less academic, operating between two worlds neither of which I can stably call home.
Cinema has always intrigued me on the account of the wide range of audiovisual devices it can use to tell stories and create worlds. Amongst the arts, cinema is perhaps the most multidisciplinary: it inherited conventions and tricks from and also directly enlisted the services of literature, theatre, painting, architecture, photography... and music. Of all the film elements, music is one of the most elusive and yet one of the most effective – Claudia Gorbman famously used the term 'unheard melodies' to define film music's unobtrusive and yet powerful role in films.
I started specialising in film music in the early 2000s, in Italy, having already developed my musical education. But at that time, it was film departments that seemed the best places to conduct such study, as music departments tended to consider film music as something not worthy of scholarly attention. Indeed, film music as an academic topic was launched in the late 1980s/early 1990s by Gorbman, Kathryn Kalinak, Caryl Flinn: not music scholars but film scholars. As I progressed in my specialism, gaining a doctorate in Film Studies with a thesis on film music, the situation reversed. Music departments realised that film music could indeed be a serious academic topic. They conquered the field, and film scholars chose to retreat – probably because the academic study of music requires rigorous musical skills that most film scholars don't possess.
At present, the vast majority of research in film music is carried out by music scholars. Film scholars specialising in film music, like me, are seemingly going to become an endangered species on the verge of extinction. A few times I happened to go to film-music conferences where I was the only representative from a film department. On such occasions, I must say I have always been welcomed in an extremely open and friendly way, and I have had and am currently having a number of felicitous and pleasant collaborations with music scholars. But when it comes to find a place for oneself in the academic arena, disciplinary labelling seems still to be a rigid boundary, despite the widely proclaimed value of interdisciplinary research, which seldom finds concrete applications – at least in the Humanities. If a transdisciplinary film/music scholar like me applies to a position in a music department, s/he might be told that they are not interested in such a profile because it comes with a PhD in Film Studies – in spite of a substantial list of publications in the film-music field. And If s/he applies to a position in a film department, her/his profile is likely to be seen as unfit because the research focusses on music. There are film scholars who specialise – almost exclusively – in audience ethnography, social impact of film consumption, gender policies, videogames, videoart... why is it that this type of interdisciplinary work finds an easy home while film music proves so problematic? Isn't music a part of the films too?
I don't blame music departments for having developed an overdue interest for the film-music field – it was high-time they realised that film music is a serious thing. I am disconcerted by the renunciation by film departments and film scholars to handle an element that is so important in films. Film scholars can still give a significant contribution in the film-music field, and they can do so by addressing the issue from their discipline-specific vantage point. Better than music scholars, film scholars can study how film music interacts with the many other cinematic devices within the film – lighting, editing, camerawork, acting, set design... – in terms of stylistic design, formal construction, explicit and implicit meanings, ideological discourses, and so on...
It would take more space that I have here to fully assess and discuss this complex disciplinary status of film music. I tried to do so in my new book Film/Music Analysis: A Film Studies Approach, in which I advocate a new engagement of film scholars in the field and I offer a way to handle film music as a cinematic device. The book reviews the current situations in the academe and the aforementioned difficulties; then it offers a film-studies way to analyse the agency of music in films, blending the neoformalist approach with Gestalt psychology. The approach is exemplified with a gamut of film samples, either in the form of the examination of single scenes or sequences – for example, the opening titles of The Hateful Eight or the musical battle in Casablanca – or the analysis of full films – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I don't delusionally expect that this contribution of mine will change the general biased situation I have described. But I felt the urge to expose this odd state of affairs and demonstrate that film scholars can still have something to say about film music.
Dr Emilio Audissino, September 2017
Dr Emilio Audissino is Honorary Fellow in Film Studies at the University of Southampton, UK, a film historian and film musicologist. He has published widely on the topic of film music and is the author of John Williams's Film Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Return of the Classical Hollywood Music Style (2014). His book Film/Music Analysis will be available soon.