What makes a great film? A powerful narrative, engaging acting, imaginative direction and cinematography. All of the above – but also a compelling score. The popular of film music is reiterated by stations such as ClassicFM which regularly broadcast excerpts from the soundtracks of, for example, Lord of the Rings (Howard Shore), The Mission (Ennio Morricone), The Hours (Philip Glass) and more, and certain composers of film scores enjoy near-legendary status in the world of film and music: in addition to those mentioned above, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, James Horner, John Barry, Alexandre Desplat, Yann Tiersen.
Good music can really make a film (and bad music can really harm a film) and is a very powerful tool. Music can be used to set the mood and move on, or delay, and inform the action. Some film scores enjoy iconic status: Brief Encounter uses Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, and the rich romanticism and pathos of this music truly enhances the narrative. Last year, I went to a screening of Brief Encounter with a live performance of the score with pianist Leon McCawley. In addition to reminding me what a great classic film this is, to hear (and see) the music live added something really special to the narrative and highlighted aspects of the film which I had previously overlooked when viewing at home on a winter’s afternoon (usually in that post-Christmas slump time).
This month, as part of the Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre (this year curated by David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame), another film received the live score treatment. And it was a complete contrast to the small-town restrained English romance of Brief Encounter. There Will Be Blood is the powerful and disturbing story of the rise of unscrupulous oil man Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis at his most intense and brooding. The score was performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Brunt, with Jonny Greenwood on the ondes Martenot.
The film score was created from music composed by Greenwood, who is perhaps best known for being a member of the rock group Radiohead. He is also an acclaimed composer of film scores (and has also been outspoken on the formal presentation of classical music – read more here), including Norwegian Wood (2010), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and The Master (2012). But his score for There Will Be Blood really defines Greenwood’s film music. In fact, the director Paul Thomas Anderson was initially inspired after hearing Greenwood’s piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver, written as part of his fruitful residency with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the film opens to this music, a full 12 minutes of nothing but music and action.
Greenwood’s music glides, shimmers and pulsates. It is sparse and sinewy, strings tremble and stutter urgently, there are unsettling glissandi (which Greenwood calls “smears”) and strange orchestral “white noise”. The music expresses both the vast landscape of California, the setting for the action of the film, and also the inner turmoil and psychosis of the protagonist Daniel Plainview. There are distinct echoes of Messiaen in Greenwood’s writing, in particular in his harmonies (also found in the opening of Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’), and Arvo Pärt too, and the film soundtrack includes Part’s Fratres for piano and cello (performed on this occasion by Katherine Tinker and Oliver Coates respectively). The live score offered new nuances on the film, at times heightening and magnifying the action, in particular when the orchestra produced a wall of sound that loomed up to bookend short and intense periods of action that take place in the otherwise desolate landscape. Taken as a whole, it was an incredibly powerful and absorbing evening’s viewing and listening, very enthusiastically received by the audience, who also sat in appreciative silence as the orchestra played out the film’s credits to the final movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto (with Galya Bisengalieva as soloist). As “immersive experiences” go, I’d say this was right up there.