So let’s talk about the music. As you probably know, the score is by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (the musical equivalent of stunt casting) and it’s gotten a lot of press for that reason alone. But Greenwood has serious chops – this is one of the best scores I’ve heard in years. I’m sure it would have gotten an Oscar nomination, if the Academy hadn’t judged the score ineligible (apparently because Greenwood reused sections of a preexisting composition that he’d written for the BBC in 2004). A lot of my fellow film music nerds are pissed off about this, but I don’t particularly care… Greenwood doesn’t need the money, fame, or validation, and the score itself has received plenty of media attention already… Entertainment Weekly, of all places, has a fascinating interview with Greenwood and Anderson about the scoring process. So I figure it’s the Academy’s loss. However, in my heart of hearts, I find myself wishing that they would create an Oscar for the “best use of music in a film,” which could cover things like Greenwood’s score as well as the wonderful things that directors are doing these days with pop music.
A lot of people have pointed out how “avant-garde” the music for There Will Be Blood is. I would tend to disagree. Sure, there are some weird sounds, but it’s generally the kind of stuff that was considered cutting edge in the 1950s. (The techniques are not even all that unusual in the conservative world of film music, although they’re typically found only in horror or sci-fi scores.) In the film’s first cue (#5 on the soundtrack, labeled “Henry Plainview” by Greenwood), a chromatic smear of strings move by glissando into a single note. It’s a chilling effect, but it was probably more chilling in 1953 when Iannis Xenakis wrote Metastaseis, or in Krysztof Penderecki’s 1960 work, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.
The intellectual and ideological background of this musical language is actually pretty fascinating. Xenakis was a communist (during the Nazi occupation and the Greek Civil War, he fought in a left-wing resistance group, and got half his face blown off for his troubles), and one could make the argument that his music is informed by his ideology. Xenakis’ piece is an early example of what he called “stochastic music,” a complicated phrase that basically refers to the psychoacoustic phenomenon by which we process many chaotic sounds into a single predictable sound. When a group of actors on stage say “rutabaga watermelon rutabaga” and we process it as “[crowd noise],” that’s Xenakis’ process in a nutshell. In his own writings, he compared his music to rain falling on a metal roof, the chirping of cicadas, and, significantly, the chanting of political protesters.
As a Pole living behind the Iron Curtain, Penderecki was writing a very different sort of “communist” music. Originally a neutral study in sound called 8’37”, the Threnody was rebranded at the suggestion of a Polish Radio official in order to stick it to the American capitalist pig-dogs who dropped the bomb on Japan. Obviously the new title helped sell the piece, and to a great degree catapulted Penderecki to (relative) stardom. Some people have accused Penderecki of exploiting tragedy for his own gain – others have pointed out that it wasn’t his idea and he wasn’t in any position to argue about it. So although Penderecki’s string techniques sound a lot like Xenakis’, they come from a very different place.
How much of this is present in Greenwood’s score? The film can certainly be read as a critique of capitalism – is the music supposed to put us in a communist frame of mind? If so, are his atmospheric string effects a shout of political protest, a la Xenakis? Or a pure experiment in sound, callously rebranded for anti-capitalist purposes, like Penderecki’s*? My guess is actually neither. The ideological underpinnings of the postwar avant-garde are interesting to think about, but unless you immerse yourself in that world, they aren’t likely to effect how you hear the music. Greenwood’s “avant-garde” effects were likely written because they sound menacing, and significantly, foreign. They take us firmly out of the folksy Americana territory that even the most revisionist of westerns tend to inhabit (while certain other cues, such as “Open Spaces,” which leads off the soundtrack CD, subtly guide us back in). And they make our skin crawl deliciously, both in the theater and later on headphones. That’s all they need to do. (Yes, Virginia, all that business about Xenakis and Penderecki was me wasting your time.)
So let’s forget about the avant-gardeness of the score for a minute. Is there anything else worthwhile about it? Absolutely. The soundtrack album for There Will Be Blood hangs together remarkably well. Assuming for the sake of the argument that Greenwood was trying to write a unified, album length classical work, he was fighting uphill on two counts. One, it’s a film soundtrack, a genre known for fragmentation and discontinuity. Two, he’s a rock star, and most rock-to-classical crossover attempts fail spectacularly at creating a unified large-scale structure. So kudos to Greenwood for that. The “avant-garde” effects aren’t presented as found objects (the way that, for instance that they are in the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”), but rather as musical events with causes and effects. It’s hard enough to do that with a melody in a film score, let alone a bizarre atonal grunt. Also, while there are large stretches of music that sound like expertly recycled Penderecki/Xenakis (and at other times, Bartok, or Ligeti, or Thomas Newman, or what-have-you), there are other parts that sound like – well – Radiohead, but again without destroying that large-scale unity. As excited as I am by the score as a piece of film music, I’m probably more excited by it as a pop-classical crossover work. It is, for my money, the only really successful example of its kind so far. It’ll be interesting to see if the pop music critical establishment embraces it. Pitchfork gave it an 8.1, which is a good sign, but we’ll see how it goes.
One last thing! One of the more Radiohead-ish cues is called “Eat Him By His Own Light.” This is a reference to Moby-Dick, chapter 65: “That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light, as you may say; this seems so outlandish a thing that one must needs go a little into the history and philosophy of it.” Does this point out a similarity between the film and Melville’s novel? Possibly. I guess there are some pretty obvious similarities between whale hunting and drilling for oil. One thing’s for sure: the There Will Be Blood soundtrack is officially my second favorite piece of music that references Moby-Dick.
* This is a false opposition for rhetorical effect, and unfair to both composers. I’m pretty sure Penderecki had a political conscience, I’m DEFINITELY sure that Xenakis was interested in sound for its own sake. But, if I’m not allowed to be unfair for rhetorical effect, how am I supposed to pontificate? How, I ask you?