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.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007).

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.

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Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

My mother taught me to read prior to kindergarten. The nuns at St. Athanasius considered this a problem, as i would be bored and get into trouble. they offered piano or French lessons at $15 a week as an ultimatum. I remember my first piano lesson, and reading music made immediate sense; a connection was made and i never looked back.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

I most admire some of the greats from the past: Rachmaninoff, Schnabel, Gould. i am also inspired by string instruments in their capacity for true expression. with that in mind, i presently gain most inspiration from the kids who play on From the Top, and my colleague, Matt Haimovitz.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Dealing with adverse reactions to my crossing genre lines in my choice of repertoire, mostly from Neanderthals of the Classical music industry.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Knowing when to lead and when to follow, reacting and interacting in the moment.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

My upcoming Liszt recording of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and other Liszt arrangements; my Stravinsky record; both of my Radiohead CDs.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

Hard to choose, but Mechanics Hall in Worcester is a great recording venue, ditto the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Upper Manhattan; Meyerson Hall in Dallas.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Jordi Savall, Sir James Galway, Bernard Herrmann, Danny Elfman, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Matt Haimovitz

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Listening: my teacher, Russell Sherman in numerous recitals
Performing: collaborating with Matt, Sir James

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

Rachmaninoff and Ravel are two favourites to perform, also Shostakovich.
I listen to The Bad Plus, Bill Evans, Elliott Smith

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

That one’s own creation of the present moment in music is most important, not submitting to some foregone conclusion as to what’s appropriate.

What are you working on at the moment?

Goldberg Variations, Rachmaninoff Concerto #1

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Costa Rica

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Spending all day with my cats

What is your most treasured possession?

Elliott, my Tonkinese cat

What do you enjoy doing most?

Reading

Christopher O’Riley appears with Lara Downes in The Artist Sessions on 29th May, at the historic Yoshi’s SF, with a performance of his new Oxingale Records BluRay/CD O’Riley’s Liszt.

Christopher O’Riley is an American classical pianist and public radio show host. He is the host of the weekly National Public Radio program From the Top. O’Riley is also known for his piano arrangements of songs by alternative artists, including alternative rock band Radiohead.

Christopher O’Riley studied with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory of Music. Christopher O’Riley splits his time between Los Angeles and rural Ohio. His radio and tv show can be found on-line at www.fromthetop.org. His personal website (including a full biography) is at www.christopheroriley.com.