Music

Bryce Dessner / Jonny Greenwood: St. Carolyn by the Sea / There Will Be Blood

St. Carolyn by the Sea / There Will Be Blood is a breathtaking classic for the future. Pop/classical crossovers will never be the same.


Bryce Dessner / Jonny Greenwood

St. Carolyn by the Sea/There Will Be Blood

Label: Deutsche Grammophon
US Release Date: 2014-03-04
UK Release Date: 2014-03-03
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In my review of Kronos Quartet's Bryce Dessner: Aheym last year, I said of the composer/guitarist for the National, "There’s more to come. There’s got to be." I felt that Dessner's collaboration with the Kronos Quartet was more auspicious than stunning. It was also, I believe, one of the first recordings of his classical compositions. But now that we have St. Carolyn by the Sea / There Will Be Blood on Deutsche Grammophon of all labels, I'm worried that Dessner might be peaking early. I have no evidence to suggest that everything from here on out will be inferior. Still, "St. Carolyn by the Sea" and its brethren are terrific pieces of music by any stretch.

Dessner’s work covers a little more than half of this release. But why are they paired with a miniature suite from Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood? That's a question for Copenhagen Philharmonic conductor André de Ridder, who initially had the idea. On the surface, it's not a stretch to see why they are together. Both composers play guitar for critically acclaimed rock bands. Both composers didn't jump into the pool of classical composition after finding success in the rock realm, they were wading around in it long before the National and Radiohead ever took root. And both pieces are indepently stunning. André de Ridder's justifications are more thematic. He believes that both composers have a knack for wide-open frontiers in their sound, something that would give John Cage a bad case of agoraphobia. Anyone who has seen the film There Will Be Blood will agree that Greenwood's writing matched the landscapes perfectly, something that would likely get Aaron Copland to give an approving nod. But as far as Dessner's work goes? Everything is in full bloom.

"St. Carolyn by the Sea" really does bring quite a bit to mind. Speaking for myself, I'm alternately reminded of the dawning swells of "Egmont" followed by the gentle guitar plucking of Partridge and Budd when they journeyed Through the Hill. The harmony goes askew in “Lachrimae” when introductions gives way to conflict. Is it major or minor? Tense or calm? The explosive statements of purpose in the title track are swallowed by this eponymous sea and the halfway mark of “Lachrimae” is comandeered by pulsing activity of the waves. “Raphael” wakes from a coma, looking about, trying to piece together what kind of upheavel brought it this far. As it gets to its feet, you can feel the dizziness, the light-headdedness overcome it with tiny percussion toys and gently-played rapid strings. An electric guitar motif ushers it out of its stupor, gaining momentum with the ensemble along the way. The use of electric guitar in this setting goes by almost undetected. That's how well it blends with the orchestra. It is, by no means, a "so-you-think-you-can-compose-classical-but-really-you're-just-a-rock-guitarist" use of the instrument. It's ornamental, at the most.

Appraising Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood here doesn't seem as necessary. Not because there's not a lot to write about, but because the soundtrack has been available to the general public since late 2007. Everyone knows how it sounds, how it makes them feel, and also what Jonny Greenwood has been capable of since (scoring at least three more movies, one of them being another Paul Thomas Anderson feature). The music is a frightening synthesis of Aaron Copland, Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti that matches the wide-open American west, death, and the chaotic cutthroat world of protagonist/antagonist Daniel Plainview. It was quite a match, though a subjective one, of course (I thought it was perfect while my sister-in-law, the cinephile of the family, found it a tad distracting). The de Ridder/Copenhagen Philharmonic performance does not differ greatly from the sountrack issued on Nonesuch, but there are differences nontheless. For one thing, only six tracks appear, comprising of just 21 minutes of the original music. This leads to the next difference, which is that the rubatos are nice and stretched. André de Ridder doesn't have to worry about fitting the music into scenes for a film. This is especially noticeable on "Open Spaces" where the glissandos are less pronounced and consequently move slower and smoother. Other pieces have the luxury to take their time, like "Future Markets" and "Oil". And with the exception of "Proven Lands", the approach is less violent.

So there you have it. Greenwood's "There Will Be Blood" suite receives a softer focus, playing to the music's elongated strengths. Dessner’s works are a tremendous leap forward for the composer and sets the bar very high for any indie-pop musician who wants to take a stab at classical composition. Combined under André de Ridder's guiding hand and Deutsche Grammophon's professional stamp of integrity, St. Carolyn by the Sea/There Will Be Blood will go down as a modern classic. It can't be anything else.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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