REVIEW: "There Will Be Blood" Seethes With a Live Score at New York Philharmonic
September 13, 2018
By Brian Taylor
If the New York Philharmonic were to program an evening of music by avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, I suspect it would be a tough sell. The audience would be limited, and probably dwindle in number as the night went along. Yet, intriguingly, Jonny Greenwood’s score for the Oscar-winning film There Will Be Blood, which borrows heavily from Penderecki’s obscure sound palette and non-traditional compositional techniques, attracts a large, ardent audience. The crowd at David Geffen Hall for Wednesday evening’s “The Art of the Score” screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic, with the score performed live by the orchestra, appeared notably younger than a typical Lincoln Center audience. Queues at the lobby bars were longer than ever — beer and whiskey might have been more popular than usual. This was an event drawing from the unique crossover appeal of the composer, as well as the movie’s high esteem among the city’s many film buffs.
Greenwood, lead guitarist of the English rock band Radiohead, much like fellow rock star Trent Reznor, is a serious musician, and has become a respected, innovative film composer. Like many great film composers, Greenwood borrows from the best, and in this case, it’s unashamedly Penderecki, whose music is an essential element of The Exorcist and The Shining soundtracks. Indeed, Greenwood and Penderecki collaborated on a 2012 album featuring both of their compositions. The first notes of There Will Be Blood directly echo Penderecki’s defining masterpiece Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshimawith a grey, static-like cluster involving strings playing a stack of quarter-tones (the notes between the piano keys), sliding en masse toward a searing note in unison, then melting back into the tone cluster.
There Will Be Blood concerns a greedy oil baron (in an acclaimed performance by Daniel Day-Lewis) and his descent into madness, and more broadly, the collision between the American frontier, religion, and capitalism. Greenwood’s slithery, menacing music elevates the multi-layered film’s poetry, at once depicting the opaque, flammable viscosity of the “Texas Tea” seeping up from the ground, and simultaneously, the ominous longterm implications of the oil boom — the dawning of a world economy stemming from the burning of fossil fuels — at the center of the story.
Greenwood also employs the Ondes Martinot, a rarely heard early electronic keyboard instrument, to ethereal effect. Blending its vaguely human-sounding singing tones with the strings lends a haunting quality to the film’s vast cinematic vistas. The score has an unorthodox approach to underscoring the drama. Some cues are curiously repetitive, even hypnotic. At other times, music of other composers is incorporated. Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is excerpted in one scene, and the third movement of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto, performed spectacularly tonight by Michelle Kim, the Philharmonic’s Assistant Concertmaster, accompanies the moment a new oil well begins to churn up its black gold. The end credits (for which the audience is gently asked to remain, out of respect) also feature the Brahms concerto, and with it, Kim’s impressively executed octaves and joyous energy. (The use of this music is wonderfully ironic given the crushingly violent ending of the film.)
The experience of seeing the orchestra perform the score live to the film — increasingly a staple format for classical symphonies — is great fun. Film score as theater. The orchestra is more present than in the movie’s sound audio mix, and it’s interesting to see the conductor begin and end cues. Why does the music enter here, and not there? What is this particular passage intended to make me feel about what I’m seeing at this moment?
On the podium, conductor Hugh Brunt is polished, poised, and precise, neither intruding upon the movie, nor hiding away the labors required to produce music this complex. It is fun to watch the musicians perform the orchestration, as when Greenwood (who is a violist, in addition to guitarist and keyboardist) has the string instruments use their instruments in unusual ways (holding the violins sideways like mandolins, percussive effects), and principal cellist Carter Brey’s extended solo during a tense sequence in the story. But, I occasionally forgot entirely that the orchestra was there at all. And that is, in the spirit of “The Art of the Score,” the highest compliment I can give.
Screening of film There Will Be Blood by the New York Philharmonic, part of the Art of Score series at David Geffen Hall on September 12-13, 2018. Score by Jonny Greenwood. Hugh Brunt, conductor; Michelle Kim, violin soloist. Alec Baldwin, Artistic Advisor.