Concerning the Iconic Signification of Music in Cinema

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    The question this chapter addresses is exemplified by the work of the Cuban documentarist Santiago Alvarez. An example is Cerro Pelado, where a ‘Training Centre for Cuban Counter-revolutionaries’ in Puerto Rico is juxtaposed with Rossini’s William Tell Overture, a piece widely recognized as the theme tune for the US TV series The Lone Ranger, whereby the counter-revolutionaries are instantly portrayed as ersatz cowboys who model themselves on the myths of North American culture. Music here is a subtle and polysemic signifier of extra-musical associations whose semiotic mode is iconic. This is not the way that music is generally thought to work in the cinema.
    The chapter explores the context and ramifications of such examples in the light of Michel Chion’s work on the soundtrack, Jacques Derrida’s concept of the supplement, and above all Umberto Eco’s concept of the musical icon, in order to demonstrate how musical iconicity has always been a feature of music in the cinema from the earliest silent days; because on the one hand, music is always already culturally codified, and on the other, it can always be shifted into a new context which foregrounds extra-musical meanings. But the musical icon is also at play in conventional film music, as evinced here by the classic example of Casablanca.
    The chapter argues that which associations come into play in the act of viewing depend on the viewer, because music bridges two different domains. On the one hand, the viewer approaches the film through their habitus, the cultural location which is shaped by social origins, education, predilections and so forth, and with their own personal history, in which a piece of music may invoke private memories. Both of them feed the imagination of the viewer who watches the film. But however much music is culturally coded, imagination is always free to make new associations, and create new relationships between personal perception and the socialized symbols of music which inhabit the film soundtrack.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Sound and Imagination, Volume 1
    EditorsMark Grimshaw-Aagaard, Mads Walther-Hansen, Martin Knakkergaard
    PublisherOxford University Press
    ISBN (Print)9780190460167
    Publication statusPublished - 10 Oct 2019


    • Music
    • Cinema

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