A gun shot. The screech of brakes. Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” Or, Jamie N. Commons’ “Rumble And Sway,” Music and sounds set the mood for every major movie. While Oscars are given to the creators of movie sound effects, little has been studied or written about the importance sound effects and music play to the success of popular movies. Matthew McDonald, associate professor of music is aiming to call attention to this important component of film by studying the eclectic genre of movies directed and produced by Ethan and Joel Coen popularly known as the Coen brothers. The brothers produced more than 15 films such as; No Country for Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, and True Grit.
McDonald is researching what we “hear and see” in the Coen brothers’ movies for his book, Listening to the Void: Music and Sound in the Films of the Coen Brothers. McDonald said “The Coen brothers’ films express a distinct worldview: we live in a godless universe where things don’t happen for a reason – they just happen.” He said, “My book explores everything we hear in the Coens’ films – music, sound effects, and speech – and how these elements work together to support this worldview and, at times, to push against.”
The book will be an analysis of all the Coen brothers’ films, including some of their lesser-known work, such as short films and commercials. Topics include music and characterization, music as an expression of difference, musical style, music and irony, voice-over narration, vocal quality and regional or foreign accents, characters repeating themselves and one another, elocution, recurring bodily sounds, sound and setting, the sound track and large-scale filmic form. McDonald will analyze the Coen’s films using conceptual frameworks developed from film musicology, media studies, narratology, and music theory.
McDonald’s book will be the first book about music and sound in the Coen brothers’ films. He said this is “…a mostly uncharted scholarly topic. The book belongs to a relatively new scholarly genre, studies of the ‘sonic style’ of a particular filmmaker, as opposed to more traditional studies of film music by particular composers.”
McDonald said the book has the potential to appeal to both scholars of music and film and the much broader audience of Coen brothers’ fans. “I hope to achieve a delicate balance between scholarly rigor and accessibility.”
This semester, McDonald is teaching an honors seminar on the Coen Brothers’ films.