For 2013-14, I am revising my book Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Indiana University Press, 1987) for a new edition. Much has changed since this study first appeared. Most notably, the normalization of popular songs in movies has entirely changed the ways we relate to film stories and characters. The worlds of Tarantino and Scorsese and the Coen Brothers and David Lynch, Jack Black in High Fidelity and many other characters we get to know through their taste in records: movies establish identity, taste and politics through the particular ways characters relate to songs. In the 1980s it made sense to call my book "Unheard Melodies" (a phrase borrowed from poet John Keats) to refer to film music, since most of it was orchestral background music--a kind of ethereal substance that onscreen characters weren't aware of; but in the 21st century, much music is quite emphatically "heard" in our experience of "watching" movies. Many of today's filmmakers not only like to delineate their fictional characters with the help of music, but they also have a different attitude to "background music" itself--they like to show their own musical tastes, to define their auteur universe, through their choices in music.
Moreover, movie genres are changing rapidly, and so is film music, in the digital age. An obvious example is the Hollywood musical. The musical evolved greatly through the 20th century, to be sure--from song-and-dance spectaculars of Busby Berkeley, and Fred Astaire's light romances with tap and ballroom dancing, to the splendidly talented stable of talent at MGM in the 1950s, through the hippie musicals of the 60s and 70s and to the popular animated musicals of the 90s and 00s. But since the 1980s, the music video (as well as digital technology in general) has revolutionized the relation between music and moving images, and YouTube has led to a proliferation of ways the audio and visual can be married--from DIY mashups and parodies, to interactive and crowd-sourced videos, to long-form music videos, to the "songifying" of speech through AutoTune and related technologies. And scholars are only beginning to think and write about the role of music in games.
I am interested in all these rapid permutations in music's relationship to images and narrative. Some of this--the "heardness" of film music, and its rapid evolution among genres and formats, is finding its way into the second edition of Unheard Melodies. This year I am also studying the films of Paul Thomas Anderson--an interest that arose during a course I taught last year at UW Tacoma. I'm preparing a paper on The Master, a film so wonderfully strange and indigestible to me that I keep returning to it--and to the voice of its costar Philip Seymour Hoffman in particular.
Film music has long captivated me because we pay so little attention to it even as it is shaping our emotions, allegiances, identifications and values. Does anyone remember the music that played under the news of the first Gulf War, coverage by CNN that catapulted cable news to a new position of preeminence? (I do. Somewhat fanatically, I recorded some of CNN's reporting every day, and found that the music introducing the news segments about the war began with dark, ominous, low-register stuff as the Allied troops invaded, and segued to triumphant, major key music dominated by trumpet sounds as Iraq's troops retreated.) Music is so powerful: the less we attend to it, the more capable it is of influencing our feelings about moral forces, militarism, nation, gender and other basic categories of the values by which we live.