Frame, Object, and Vector

  1. The concept of imagination is central to our understanding of both diegetic music and the music we hear during the credits. Reference to imagination also allows us to acknowledge important differences between them. Ambiguity is possible and highly interesting, as when diegetic music is employed as a substitute for the title theme proper. However, the functions they fulfil are typically quite distinct: while credits music prepares, coordinates or signals our engaging in imagining, diegetic music is instead an object of that imagining. Metaphorically, credits music is like a frame around a painting, marking it off from the adjacent space, encouraging a certain imaginative appreciation of it, and highlighting its status as representation. Diegetic music, on the other hand, is more like an element inside that very painting, just like the nose of a face in a portrait, a piece of furniture in an interior, or a bush in a landscape. The music played by an on-screen instrumentalist is part of the soundscape of a scene in something like the way the trees outside are part of its landscape.

  2. External, or “nondiegetic” music—what most people intuitively think of as film music—participates in both roles. It can be both frame and object, sometimes simultaneously. Like credits music, and like the muzak we incessantly hear in stores, bars, shopping malls, it reminds us where we are and what we are there for, especially when it plays profusely as in certain Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, or most contemporary Hindi films. When this happens, nondiegetic music provides an acoustical frame through (and not just before and after) the film, thus bridging the gap between the beginning and end credits.

  3. At the same time, nondiegetic music may also point to elements inside the story world.18 As many will recall, the shark’s approach during the first attack in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is conveyed through the combined effect of a camera movement below sea level and nondiegetic music in the soundtrack. This example is quite typical, as nondiegetic music—unlike diegetic music—never points to itself as music but rather stands for something else within the story world. The Jaws example is also typical of what nondiegetic music most commonly stands for: processes or events, both mental and physical (like the approaching of an unseen character, the foreshadowing of a future deed, a shift in a character’s mood, the flashing of an idea, etc.). Finally, the example is typical in that the effect is achieved in collaboration with other components of the film (in this case, a camera movement) and its success is contingent on at least a minimal knowledge of the story’s events and circumstances.19

  4. This does not exhaust our overview of the manifold roles played by nondiegetic music. We still need to consider what we all sometimes superficially refer to as “setting the tone” or “the mood” of a scene. In these cases music acts like a vector: it directs our attention toward a certain element or a particularly meaningful aspect of a scene, guiding us to a certain understanding and a certain emotional response to it.20 Nondiegetic music passes through our mind, as it were, before we process the content of the images and the words of the characters, filtering everything we see and hear, think and feel. We, the spectators, adapt to the “slant” thereby produced just as we naturally adapt to the point of view suggested by the camera. This parallels the shaping of our attention and emotional responses achieved through camera position and angle, framing and composition, and, of course, acting.21 Nondiegetic music also contributes to indicating how the scene relates to that which precedes and that which follows—spatially, temporally, and thematically—integrating what is done through editing (sometimes reinforcing it, sometimes working against it). We may refer to this as its syntactic function.

    The “Inaudible” Orchestra

  5. As is the case with diegetic music, the actual provenance of nondiegetic music (the recording sessions, and the manipulation it undergoes during a film’s production process) goes unnoticed during a narrative film. The fact that this mass of potentially distracting information rarely comes to our attention might seem a deliberate attempt to efface cinema’s sound technology. The actual source of the music is “effaced” not only to the eyes but also to the ears of the spectators. During a film the orchestra may well be invisible or ghost-like (as in operatic practice since Wagner). However, we might just as well say that it is “inaudible” as an orchestra. Think of how film music is orchestrated and recorded. Normally, the acoustics of the music are homogeneous across an entire film. Volume is constant. Reverberation is usually absent. Moreover, in many cases the orchestration is such that no soloists or instrumental groups can be easily discerned. “My second rule [concerning the use of music],” says director François Truffaut, “is to avoid instruments that are too easy to identify or visualise, like the piano or the harp” (Chion 389). We may or may not disagree with Truffaut on this point, but it is hard to deny that any combination of these features is instrumental in diverting our attention from the performing and recording aspects of the music heard.

  6. A number of editing techniques also work to “efface” the presence of the music. This is particularly true with respect to the in- and out-points of the music cues (which are all but noticeable in most conventional narrative films). I am thinking of what is called sneaking in, the cueing in of music at low volume underneath dialogue; or of the overlap, i.e. the cutting of nondiegetic music during an overlap with diegetic sound. These scoring practices are common not only within Hollywood, but they also respond to needs and preferences spread across many different filmmaking traditions. Bertolucci’s film, The Conformist(1970), for instance, features a classic case of sound overlap right after the end of the credits. As soon as the title theme ends, a new music cue abruptly takes over. Its obsessive repetitiveness and extreme timbre point effectively to the state of psychological breakdown suffered by the protagonist. But the music also posed a problem: how and when to make the cut, without calling attention to it? The solution found was a most traditional overlap: the music stops as a train of the Parisian métro enters the frame. The train produces a loud noise and thus “covers” the cut in the soundtrack.

  7. Hollywood composers have openly referred to the use of devices such as the overlap in terms of effacement.22 Efficacy of recording, compositional and editing practices notwithstanding, the role of the spectator in minimizing the obtrusiveness of the sound apparatus can hardly be underestimated. Representation demands that attention to the technical apparatus and the network of efficient causes giving rise to a sound be strongly attenuated. Interest in representation, as a broadly anthropological fact, is an interest in appearances to begin with, not in the physical or causal processes giving rise to the stimuli that form the ground of those appearances. It is in the spectator’s own interest that the music heard during a film be translated as effectively and continuously as possible into an incitement to imagine, or an attribute of an imaginary world, or a filter better to understand and fully respond to what happens in that world. This is a state of affairs reminiscent of the economy of language comprehension. During a conversation, language conveys semantic, affective, or pragmatic content taking up the whole of our attention. As a result, attention to speech as the product of a physiological apparatus or as a string of mere phonemes is considerably reduced, as if continuously deferred, despite the fact that the “apparatus,” i.e. the speaker, may be sitting in front of her interlocutor.

  8. To the extent that the most common composing and editing conventions enhance continuous and single-minded participation in the narrative, then, they reflect concerns as old as representation itself. However, given the seemingly inexhaustible interest in representation across cultures and the propensity for imaginary absorption into a narrative, the question arises whether Hollywood filmmakers overestimated the disruptive power that the visible or audible traces of their work might have on the spectator.23 The degree of discretion and strategic placement of the music cues is so much in excess of the minimal conditions for following a narrative that it must be interpreted as a function of style (and not as an inevitable development dictated by the nature of human perception or cinematic representation). But why this style and not others?

  9. Claudia Gorbman has come close to an answer through a reference to the alleged “displeasure” produced by one’s awareness of cinema’s technological mediation. After discussing how music wards off the “displeasure of uncertain signification” by anchoring a potentially ambiguous image in meaning, Gorbman goes on to say:
  10. A second kind of displeasure that music helps to ward off is the spectator’s potential recognition of the technological basis of filmic articulation. Gaps, cuts, the frame itself, silences in the soundtrack—any reminders of cinema’s materiality which jeopardise the formation of subjectivity—the process whereby the viewer identifies as subject of filmic discourse—are smoothed over, or “spirited away” (recall Eisler and Adorno’s view of music as magical antidote to the picture”) by the carefully regulated operations of film music. (58)
    A summary of “subject positioning” that Gorbman refers to and the debate that has developed around it lies beyond the scope of this essay.24 Suffice it to say that with their emphasis on cuts, gaps, or the frame as “disruptive” of the diegetic illusion “subject positioning,” theorists give—in my opinion—too much weight to the film as an already constituted object at the expense of the film as reconstituted by the spectator’s mind. I hope this crucial difference will emerge more clearly in the remainder of my discussion.

  11. Gorbman’s passage would seem to contain an implicit answer to the question: “Why this style?” For if one of the main functions of film music is to “smooth over” cuts in the image track, gaps, silences, the effect of the frame, and so on, then by the same token music must also “efface itself,” as it were, “smoothing over” its own cuts, gaps, and silences. Hence the particular style of scoring we normally associate with mainstream narrative cinema. It may well be true that producers self-consciously effaced all traces of the recording, mixing, and playback process for the sake of unity and cohesion. However, the question remains whether their choice was dictated by what they deemed necessary or, rather, by stylistic preferences. If we were to conclude that the effect of widespread soundtrack practices is the impression of unity, cohesion and absence of any technological mediation, we would be implying that such practices are indeed necessary to create this impression to begin with.

  12. A moment’s reflection tells us that this is simply not the case. The spectator can “smooth over” her viewing experience by restructuring it mentally as more continuous and homogeneous than it appears externally (either during the film or retrospectively, or both). She can appreciate a representation as unitary and coherent even when the apparatus is flaunted or even defective. After all, isn’t the frame of a painting fully visible without disturbing the one-ness and coherence of what one is contemplating? The unity, coherence, and “smoothness” of the contemplated object exist only in the beholder’s imagination—if at all—and are as much the result of her skill, interest, and level of attention as the external facets of the work. Correspondingly, a spectator can form the impression of harmony and integration between music and narrative under a variety of circumstances. When traces of the recording process do survive in the finished product, she can marginalize them. She can learn not to pay attention to them through habituation, just as when playing an old record one increasingly learns to ignore the sound of the scratches.

  13. By the same token, ensuring that no attention be given to the performing apparatus per se need not involve the apparatus being “invisible” or “absent”. The existence of many theatrical traditions in which little is done to efface the musicians or their instruments proves that, pace Wagner, music can continuously and effectively serve the need of representation even when a musical ensemble is fully visible and the production process flaunted. Take opera performance practices before Wagner. Or take Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Puppet Master again. True, the musicians are normally behind the small wooden theatre, but they care little if someone sees them out of the corner of her eye.25

  14. The use of music in such forms of representation as theater, marionettes, ballet, or opera is contingent on the idea that the spectator will form the impression of at least some degree of cohesion and mutual implication between music and the other components of the work.26 This is also true of many films whose scores differ markedly from the scores of the so-called classical period of Hollywood cinema. What is so peculiar to the latter is not the impression of cohesion and absence of mediation they produce but, rather, the fact that cohesion and absence of mediation are inscribed onto the soundtrack itself before the spectator can produce them.

  15. What does this entail? There is something greatly satisfying about the subtle, carefully timed and highly functional scores of such films as Otto Preminger’s Laura (1941), Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) (music by David Raksin, Franz Waxman, and Bernard Hermann, respectively). Even less celebrated films display a complex interplay of music and narrative and a rich array of effects. This is because Hollywood scoring practices have resulted in a tradition of matching music to images. Such devices as the overlap, the sneaking in, or the use of a title theme marking the genre of the film—to make three examples—are the expression of this tradition and contribute to a “language” of their own as rich as any other.

  16. On the other hand, they also represent a style whose goal seems to reduce to a minimum the cooperation of the audience, as if the spectator had to be “spoon-fed,” so to speak, in order to weld music to narrative. To be sure, the obsessive need to efface the in- and out-points of the music cues eventually became (and still is) a sign of compliance with a crystallized style. However, it must have originated from the fear that the spectator might be incapable of transcending his awareness of the material processes at work in making the representation possible. In less fastidiously constructed forms of spectacle, the spectator’s relative lack of attention to the production process is also the result of the intensity of his imaginary involvement with what is being represented, not only the facets of the work or the circumstances of reception themselves. Focus on the represented content as well as its foil, momentary disregard for the apparatus, emerge out of negotiations and adjustments taking place between the spectator and the work (or performance). Habituation sometimes makes these adjustments unnecessary.

  17. Not so in Hollywood mainstream cinema: instead of relying solely on the audience’s capacity to concentrate on the narrative, Hollywood filmmakers have deemed it necessary to cleanse their soundtracks systematically of any signs of intervention. By the same token, experimentation is discouraged, lest the spectator be “distracted.” This implies the simplistic idea that the material facets of the text alone are responsible for the cohesion and unity between music and narrative experienced by the spectator, irrespective of his capacity to construct that cohesion through imagining. Inscribed in many a Hollywood score is the derogatory view of an unimaginative, inattentive, listening subject, easily distracted by either the apparatus or any deviation from the norm, or both. Anxiety over unity and cohesion, then, is not a function of representation tout court. Rather, it is a function of a certain view of the listening experience at the cinema and, indirectly, the spectator’s mind.