Radiohead’s sonic wizard mines his favorite composers to get to the heart of P.T. Anderson’s brilliant oil epic.
As the lead guitar player in Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood has brilliantly straddled the line between noise and accessibility. His mixture of effects, unconventional phrasing, and pure ballsy shreditude created classic solos in “Paranoid Android”, “Just”, and “There There”. His role in the band has always been as its mad sonic scientist, twiddling a processed radio or playing a keyboard and a glockenspiel simultaneously. In Rainbows saw his orchestration chops coming to the fore, providing beautiful string arrangements for “Faust Arp” and “Nude”.
Still, it was a bold step for Paul Thomas Anderson to ask Greenwood to write the music for There Will Be Blood. The British musician had the task of composing for a stunningly unique, yet clearly American portrait of oil prospector Daniel Plainview (played by the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis) and his quest for wealth, coldly exploiting the local population all the while. Yet Greenwood not only succeeds, but deserves a good deal of credit for the triumph of the film as a whole.
Greenwood’s work thus far as an independent composer has been limited, though certainly varied. His first film work on Bodysong was a mix of ambient electronica, free jazz, and a string quartet, creating a decidedly esoteric, though intriguing soundtrack to that film’s collage of the universal experiences of life. In 2004, he became composer-in-residence at the BBC, enabling him to explore his love of 20th century classical music. Works such as “smear” and “Popcorn Superhet Reciever” incorporate two of his primary influences, Olivier Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki, and are sure to puzzle fans of Radiohead’s more accessible work.
There Will Be Blood is as mature a work as Greenwood has ever been involved with, honing in the eclecticism of Bodysong down to a survey of modern composers. Most reviews of the film that mention the score focus on the wash of strings that welcome us into the cruel world of Daniel Plainview, a dreadful sound not unlike an air raid siren. Though this track, entitled “Henry Plainview”, is the most jarring in the context of the film, it is also the most nakedly imitative, an homage to Penderecki’s works, such as “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” (used to great effect in Children of Men). Greenwood’s works for the BBC have already demonstrated his ability to recreate this style.
More impressive are the opening three selections, which provide thematic material for the rest of the album. “Open Spaces” contains the same rising quality of Ravel’s string quartets, though the presence of the Ondes Martenot (a keyboard with a sliding mechanism, similar in sound to the Theremin) adds an anachronistic touch. The daunting, chugging “Future Markets” is not only the most rollicking piece, but also demonstrates Greenwood’s facility with string orchestration. From intricate pizzicato plucking to the riff-like ostinato (fancy word for bass-line), it would be surprising if he had not composed this on a guitar. “Prospectors Arrive” is a piano-laden composition in the vein of Erik Satie or Debussy, and settles the album down to a sustained mood. Greenwood echoes these three selections throughout the soundtrack, though there are some outliers, like the entirely percussive “Proven Lands”.
On its own, this music is impressive coming from Greenwood, but as a film score, it is immensely effective, similar in its influence on the film images to Bernard Herrmann’s monumental Psycho score. P.T. Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis are a tandem attack potent enough to carry a film on their own, but as Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love have shown, Anderson is a director clearly aware of the power of music. Greenwood’s score goes a long way in transforming the film from a period piece to a timeless fable of deceit. As a survey of 20th century classical styles, it provides the turn of the century with a sense of retrospection, as if the music alone knows that the tides of modernism and mechanization will sweep across the barren Texas landscape. The score mirrors Daniel Plainview’s ostensibly polite, though unfailingly cold nature as it steps from bleak to beauty in an instant.