On Wednesday night, the New York Philharmonic showed There Will Be Blood, the 2007 movie by Paul Thomas Anderson. I think “by” is the right word: the movie is written and directed by him. It is based on the Upton Sinclair novel of the mid-1920s, Oil! The story is about the American West, and, specifically, the Southern California oil boom.
I have said that the Philharmonic “showed” the movie. Yes, they screened the movie in David Geffen Hall, as the orchestra played the score. This was part of the series called “The Art of the Score.” The artistic advisor to the series is Alec Baldwin, the actor, who introduced the evening with brief remarks.
Those were charming remarks, too. When his microphone failed, he banged it against his thigh, amusingly. And he mock-admonished people scurrying to their seats in the front rows: “You’re late.” I’ll have more to say about Baldwin and the Philharmonic audience at the end of my post.
The movie’s score is by Jonny Greenwood, the Englishman who is a star of the rock band Radiohead. I first encountered Greenwood in 2015, in Carnegie Hall.
A piece of his was on a program of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. I was skeptical—a piece by a rocker, played by a classical group that enjoys a reputation for hipness. Also, the piece called for an Indian instrument—a tanpura—and Indian instruments have been faddish in Western classical music for far too long.
But you know what? The piece (Water) turned out to be damn good. I remarked, “Does Radiohead happen to have any other members who compose?”
Not long after, someone sent me a disc of a film score—a Greenwood score, for Inherent Vice. I subsequently wrote,
[Greenwood] is writing to the cinematic needs of the moment, surely. Some of the music is classical-leaning, and some of it is popular-leaning. There is some minimalism here. Some of the music is psychedelic, some of it is gritty. The score is unpredictable, but not self-consciously or obnoxiously so. You keep your ears on the music, in part because you’re not sure what’s coming next.
Greenwood does not cause the music to stand out against the film. He integrates it, or blends it. He accompanies the movie, if you will.
I have bothered to quote this snippet, because it applies to There Will Be Blood. So does something I wrote about the piece from Carnegie Hall: “Greenwood knows how to do a lot with simple musical materials.”
About his score for There Will Be Blood, I might go into considerable detail, but instead I will make one point: Greenwood is composing for the movie, period. He is not trying to show off. He is not making music to be performed in a concert hall. He does not cause the music to stand out against the film. He integrates it, or blends it. He accompanies the movie, if you will. And he does it uncannily.
Tchaikovsky’s ballets, you can hear without dance. The same is true of Prokofiev’s. Of course, their music is all the better with dance—good dance—but it’s plenty good without it, in a concert hall. How about Beethoven’s Egmont, i.e., the incidental music he wrote to that play by Goethe? We know the overture, of course—that’s a stand-alone job. But what about the rest of the music? I imagine it works very well with the play, which I have never seen.
I would not want to hear this score by Greenwood separate from the film. But that’s not the point: in the film, it is marvelously effective.
There is other music incorporated into There Will Be Blood, by which I mean music other than by Greenwood: old American hymns; Fratres, a well-known piece by Arvo Pärt; the Brahms Violin Concerto, employed wackily.
What an impressive talent, Greenwood is. I may have been the last to know it, in 2015, as I sat in Carnegie Hall listening to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, but I certainly know it now.
My final word about Alec Baldwin: In 2014, he was in the news, for negative reasons. There were accusations of “homophobia.” Baldwin had recorded announcements for the Philharmonic, to remind people to turn off their cellphones, etc., and during these announcements, some in the audience were hissing, which was awkward. I wrote about it here. On Wednesday night, I can report, the audience received Baldwin rapturously.
A fickle beast, the public is, and highly suggestible.