GREENWOOD There Will Be Blood • Robert Zeigler, cond; Emperor Str Qrt; Martin Burgess (vn); Caroline Dale (vc); Michael Dussek (pn); BBC SO • NONESUCH 369020 (33:02)
Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971) is the lead guitarist of Radiohead, a band that may be unfamiliar to some readers of Fanfare, but that I promise you is very familiar to a huge swath of the rest of the listening public. Many see it as theRead more contemporary successor to the Beatles, producing a rock-based music that still projects great artistic ambition (if anything, it’s a bit “artier” than the Liverpudlians, at least in its tone). The group also made headlines at the end of 2007, when it released the album “In Rainbows” as a pay-what-you-wish Internet download. I was too distracted at the time to make my bid, and have now branded myself forever as a behind-the-curve boomer by picking up the general release at the Starbucks counter (for what it’s worth, on first listening it’s a great album, but “OK Computer” remains my favorite).
There seems to be something of a British tradition now of rockers turning classical. Sir Paul is certainly the most notable example, but Elvis Costello is probably even more deeply engaged with classical practice in his recent ballet Il sogno. And such as Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Robert Fripp have incorporated more abstract, experimental, and formally ambitious elements into their albums throughout their careers. Greenwood has perhaps gone a step further than any of them, having been made a composer-in-residence with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. While this might smack of cynical co-optation on the part of orchestra management, the evidence from this disc is that in fact it’s a canny move: Greenwood has real chops as a “concert composer.” It’s also an interesting paradox that he is the only member of Radiohead to have received classical instrumental instruction (on viola), yet also the only one not to go to university.
There Will Be Blood is a score for the film by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on Sinclair Lewis’s Oil! and starring Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance that won him an Oscar. The music consists of 11 short pieces, and as is usually the case with soundtracks, there’s not a lot of connection between them. Rather, they are descriptive and sonically “iconic” in either a characteristic sound or motive. But what distinguishes this music is the fact that Greenwood doesn’t settle for superficial sonic markers. Instead, all of these cues are elaborately conceived and developed, so that they stand as bagatelles in their own right. Not surprising considering his rock credentials, Greenwood has a very sophisticated rhythmic sense, which manifests immediately in two cuts, “Future Markets” and “Proven Lands.” It’s not just compelling grooves, though, that drive the music; Greenwood creates layers and syncopations that fit together jigsaw-like. There’s also good orchestration. The latter, using strings alone like all those tracks featuring the BBC SO—has a great col legno ostinato embedded at its core.
There’s a wide range of stylistic interests at work here. “Eat Him by His Own Light” is a well-made neo-Messiaen piano trio. “Henry Plainview” is perhaps the most original piece on the collection. It uses a texture of subdivided, sliding strings, but working within tonal harmonies. The result is a little bit like Copland arranged by Xenakis. The concluding “Prospectors Quartet” is the piece where the harmonies resemble the most what one associates with Radiohead, but it sounds so natural to its string quartet medium that one has to pause a moment to hear the connection.
I don’t want to overdo this, but this is a wonderful soundtrack, one of the most interesting I’ve heard in ages. (A lot is much too reverberant for my taste, but I suspect that comes from the film’s post-production demands. Also its duration is quite short, and I hope there’s some discount in its price as a result.) Greenwood is a composer who has a gift for film, but doesn’t write down to the public for fear they won’t “get it.” He does go his own way, following what excites him. Actually this is not a surprise, because that description also fits Radiohead’s music to a T.
After I began writing this review, I was able to see the film. Alert to all listeners: see it! It’s epic, shocking, and magnificently written, shot, and acted by all concerned. And Greenwood’s score, in context, is one of the most original I’ve heard in years. What a wonderful irony that the most “classical” film score of the year (in the sense of substance, not the mere imitation of a style) should come from a rock musician! I have read in Alex Ross’s New Yorker column that because the score includes a previous piece of Greenwood’s, it was disqualified from Oscar consideration. To which I can only say, “highway robbery.” My companion commented how she had never before seen a film where such long stretches of a film had the music “foregrounded,” and she’s right. The score is a critical character in the film, and often substitutes for any dialogue. Yes, we’ve had this sort of thing for a few decades with the “music video montage” sequence, but this feels completely different. My initial enthusiasm has only increased.