Words by Billy Beale
Many rock stars have had a turn scoring films. Mark Knopfler scored The Princess Bride, Trent Reznor worked on The Social Network and Johnny Marr contributed to his mate Hans Zimmer’s score for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Much like Radiohead in the world of pop music, Jonny Greenwood’s music for There Will Be Blood is distinctive and there is nothing else quite like it.
Performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO), There Will Be Blood: Live is the presentation of both film and score – with Greenwood’s soundtrack played live by the LCO throughout the screening. Touring only four venues in the UK, There Will Be Blood: Live came to the Symphony Hall for one special production.
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is, in his own words “an oil man” and the film follows his rise from a digger with a silver nugget to a prolific oil baron and the rivalry he faces with small town preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Day-Lewis takes the focus from the music to command a scene, his voice gruff yet encouraging as opposed to Dano’s shrill simper.
As the film opens there is a gentle whisper of strings that swell and quickly drop, as more strings rise up to meet them, everything falling in and out of discord more like a sweeping synthesizer pad than acoustic strings. It is a brief and unsettling overture of a motif that recurs throughout the film, often a precursor to some violent accident. The sound effects act as punctuation to the music, minutes of eerie legato dissonance brought to an abrupt stop as something falls down a well; gunshot, explosion, spurt of blood. Music is the tension, the sound or dialogue is the release.
‘Open Spaces’ (as it’s called on the album) is a piece that, in context of the films setting, evokes Morricone and Westerns through a mere three notes. The entire soundtrack manages to sound period-appropriate despite much of it being modern, avant-garde orchestral compositions. ‘Convergence’ is the basis of perhaps the most neo-classical piece of music in the film (an altered version is used in TWBB, the original is included on Greenwood’s Bodysong soundtrack) but it isn’t at all incongruous. It’s a polyphonic percussive cacophony that falls in and out of syncopation with itself almost at random. On screen, Plainview and his workers rush to cap an oil well as an inferno burns through the night. This intense and urgent sequence is perhaps the most memorable part of the evening.
As the credits begin to roll, they are accompanied by the third movement of Brahms’ ‘Violin Concerto in D’, which acts as a sort of victory theme for Plainview besting Eli Sunday (it also appears earlier in the film). It’s an incredibly energetic and technically demanding violin solo, the beauty and delicacy of the performance contrasting the brutal harshness of the film and its final scene. Hours of sparse atonality with occasional oases of melody explode in a rondo.
Unlike a lot of film scores, There Will Be Blood features a mixture of compositions Greenwood had already put out (such as excerpts from his ‘Popcorn Superhet Receiver’), pieces written by Greenwood specifically for the score, plus pieces from Brahms and Arvo Pärt. But like the all-classical soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the music and film are perfectly consonant and feel made for each other, even if they are not.
Birmingham Review has previously discussed the place of film scores in the world of contemporary orchestral music – with opinion pieces from both Sam James and Ed King. Synergy is perhaps why Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood soundtrack is so successful and avoids sounding like a bloated, dull Hans Zimmer-esque cookie-cutter score.
Scores like Inception and Batman v Superman are perfect for those films – dull nonsense that try to seem larger and cleverer than they really are. A swell of brass, staccato strings, a foghorn blow for the trailer edit; it’s the soundtrack du jour for blockbusters. You could talk about all music in reductive terms like this but it would seem less apt if I said it about Star Wars or Danny Elfman’s Batman theme.
But then, these are all supersized, typical Hollywood movies that aren’t really in the same weight class as There Will Be Blood which, although it won Oscars for Best Actor and Cinematography, doesn’t seem to be courting awards with its soundtrack. Its sole purpose is to accompany, inform and emphasise the film.
For more on There Will Be Blood: Live, visit www.lcorchestra.co.uk/will-blood-live-uk-tour
For more on the London Contemporary Orchestra, visit www.lcorchestra.co.uk
For more from both the Town & Symphony Halls. including full event programmes and online ticket sales, visit www.thsh.co.uk