by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Feb. 4, 2008.
There may be no scarcer commodity in modern Hollywood than a distinctive and original film score. Most soundtracks lean so heavily on a few preprocessed musical devices—those synthetic swells of strings and cymbals, urging us to swoon in tandem with the cheerleader in love—that when a composer adopts a more personal language the effect is revelatory: an entire dimension of the film experience is liberated from cliché. So it is with Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie “There Will Be Blood,” which has an unearthly, beautiful score by the young English composer Jonny Greenwood. The early scenes show, in painstaking detail, a maverick oilman assembling a network of wells at the turn of the last century. Filmgoers who find themselves falling into a claustrophobic trance during these sequences may be inclined to credit the director, who, indeed, has forged some indelible images. But, as Orson Welles once said of Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to “Citizen Kane,” the music does fifty per cent of the work.
The movie opens with a shot of dry, bare Western hills. Then we see a man prospecting for silver at the bottom of a shaft. He blasts the hole deeper with dynamite, falls and breaks his leg, and, with a titanic struggle, draws himself back up. Finally, we see him lying on the floor of an assay office, his leg in a splint, signing for the earnings that will enable him to drill for oil. The sequence is almost entirely wordless, but it is framed by music, much of it dense and dissonant. At the very beginning, you hear a chord of twelve notes played by a smoldering mass of string instruments. After seven measures, the strings begin sliding along various trajectories toward the note F-sharp. This music comes from a Greenwood piece called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” and, although it wasn’t composed for the film, it supplies a precise metaphor for the central character. The coalescence of a wide range of notes into a monomaniacal unison may tell us most of what we need to know about the crushed soul of the future tycoon Daniel Plainview.
As Plainview signs his name, another monster chord blossoms, in the violins and violas. This one is superimposed on C-major harmony in the bass, resulting in a less abrasive, more dreamlike atmosphere. The cellos play staggered glissandos—crying, sighing downward slides. Disembodied major triads rise through the harmonic haze, like mirages on the barren terrain outside Plainview’s shaft. The music is at once terrifying and enrapturing, alien and intimate.
As the movie goes on, Greenwood writes rugged open-interval motifs, which evoke the vastness of the land; mechanically churning Bartókian ostinatos, announcing the arrival of Plainview’s crew; primitivist drumming to propel an apocalyptic scene in which a derrick catches fire; and long-limbed, sadly ecstatic, Messiaen-like melodies to suggest the emotional isolation of Plainview’s ill-fated son. It’s hard to think of a recent Hollywood production in which music plays such an active role. (Unfortunately, Greenwood was judged ineligible for an Academy Award nomination, because the soundtrack contains too much preëxisting music.) When, in the closing scenes, Plainview evolves into an obscenely wealthy ghoul, Greenwood’s score retreats toward silence. In its stead, after a bloody final shot, the robust finale of Brahms’s Violin Concerto ironically fills the air: it sounds more like a radio blaring in an empty house than like music played for human beings.
Until now, Greenwood, a thirty-six-year-old native of Oxford, England, has been known as the lead guitarist of the rock band Radiohead. But he shouldn’t be mistaken for one of those rock stars, like Paul McCartney, who get by in the classical realm with a little help from their musically literate friends. Greenwood is better understood as a composer who has crossed over into rock. Trained as a violist, he worked seriously at writing music in his youth, and had just embarked on studies at Oxford Brookes University when, in 1991, Radiohead was signed by the EMI record label. He dropped out of college to join the band on tour. Within a few years, Radiohead had become a creative colossus, and Greenwood’s skill at orchestration and his mastery of unusual instruments—he is one of the few living adepts of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic-music device—have augmented the band’s maguslike aura.
Greenwood has resumed composing in the past few years, although his output is so far small: a score for the documentary “Bodysong,” with expert and soulful writing for string quartet; “smear,” an edgy, eerie piece for instruments and electronics; and “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” whose title alludes to a type of shortwave radio and, by extension, to the white noise one hears as one twists the dial. Greenwood’s sources of inspiration are easily identified. He has worshipped Olivier Messiaen since his teens, and during his university stint he encountered the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose assaultive avant-garde creations of the nineteen-sixties—notably the “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”—inspired the glissandos of “There Will Be Blood.” If Greenwood had stayed on the academic route, he would eventually have discovered that Penderecki’s early works were considered dated. Penderecki himself later turned away from them and adopted a neo-Romantic style. In the separate universe of Radiohead, Greenwood has pursued his enthusiasms without becoming distracted by musical politics, and has emerged with a fascinating synthesis of twentieth-century sounds—avant-garde Romanticism, you could call it.
“Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” an eighteen-minute work for thirty-four strings, is Greenwood’s most ambitious score to date. Although the composer has made self-effacing comments in interviews about his reluctance to tackle longer forms, he hardly comes off as a neophyte; the piece possesses a solid architectural shape, with slow-moving, darkly meditative passages framing a kinetic, rock-tinged midsection. The writing for strings is idiomatic and inventive; at one point, Greenwood devises a buzzing barrage of “Bartók pizzicato”—sharply plucked sounds from violins cradled like ukuleles. The one structurally shaky moment comes in the transition back to the opening material; the switch feels abrupt, as if a tempo-changing gesture has gone missing.
“Popcorn” recently had its American première at Wordless Music, the vital New York concert series that has brought together artists from the classical and pop worlds. Brad Lubman led an ad-hoc orchestra in a program that also included Gavin Bryars’s “The Sinking of the Titanic” and John Adams’s “Christian Zeal and Activity.” Unfortunately, amplification robbed the strings of some of their natural beauty, and a highly reverberant acoustic—the venue was the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, near Columbus Circle—rendered many details indistinct. Still, Lubman and his first-rate players made a persuasive case for Greenwood’s score, revelling in its rich sonorities.
Despite the high-tech title, “Popcorn” has an elegiac air, as if the radio’s white noise were carrying messages from a disintegrating world. That mood of loss may explain why the work has such a powerful effect in “There Will Be Blood,” which, beyond the melodrama of Daniel Plainview’s external rise and internal collapse, shows a primeval American landscape on the brink of violent transformation. English composers from Elgar and Vaughan Williams onward have lingered lovingly over musical depictions of pastoral hills and fields, implicitly resisting the march of progress. Greenwood, too, writes the music of an injured Earth; if the smeared string glissandos on the soundtrack suggest liquid welling up from underground, the accompanying dissonances communicate a kind of interior, inanimate pain. The cellos cry out most wrenchingly when Plainview scratches his name on a claim, preparing to bleed the land.