A film score and an orchestral work by Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead.
by Alex Ross February 4, 2008
The movie opens with a shot of dry, bare Western hills. Then we see a man prospecting for silver at the bottom of a shaft. He blasts the hole deeper with dynamite, falls and breaks his leg, and, with a titanic struggle, draws himself back up. Finally, we see him lying on the floor of an assay office, his leg in a splint, signing for the earnings that will enable him to drill for oil. The sequence is almost entirely wordless, but it is framed by music, much of it dense and dissonant. At the very beginning, you hear a chord of twelve notes played by a smoldering mass of string instruments. After seven measures, the strings begin sliding along various trajectories toward the note F-sharp. This music comes from a Greenwood piece called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” and, although it wasn’t composed for the film, it supplies a precise metaphor for the central character. The coalescence of a wide range of notes into a monomaniacal unison may tell us most of what we need to know about the crushed soul of the future tycoon Daniel Plainview.
As Plainview signs his name, another monster chord blossoms, in the violins and violas. This one is superimposed on C-major harmony in the bass, resulting in a less abrasive, more dreamlike atmosphere. The cellos play staggered glissandos—crying, sighing downward slides. Disembodied major triads rise through the harmonic haze, like mirages on the barren terrain outside Plainview’s shaft. The music is at once terrifying and enrapturing, alien and intimate.
As the movie goes on, Greenwood writes rugged open-interval motifs, which evoke the vastness of the land; mechanically churning Bartókian ostinatos, announcing the arrival of Plainview’s crew; primitivist drumming to propel an apocalyptic scene in which a derrick catches fire; and long-limbed, sadly ecstatic, Messiaen-like melodies to suggest the emotional isolation of Plainview’s ill-fated son. It’s hard to think of a recent Hollywood production in which music plays such an active role. (Unfortunately, Greenwood was judged ineligible for an Academy Award nomination, because the soundtrack contains too much preëxisting music.) When, in the closing scenes, Plainview evolves into an obscenely wealthy ghoul, Greenwood’s score retreats toward silence. In its stead, after a bloody final shot, the robust finale of Brahms’s Violin Concerto ironically fills the air: it sounds more like a radio blaring in an empty house than like music played for human beings.
Until now, Greenwood, a thirty-six-year-old native of Oxford, England, has been known as the lead guitarist of the rock band Radiohead. But he shouldn’t be mistaken for one of those rock stars, like Paul McCartney, who get by in the classical realm with a little help from their musically literate friends. Greenwood is better understood as a composer who has crossed over into rock. Trained as a violist, he worked seriously at writing music in his youth, and had just embarked on studies at Oxford Brookes University when, in 1991, Radiohead was signed by the EMI record label. He dropped out of college to join the band on tour. Within a few years, Radiohead had become a creative colossus, and Greenwood’s skill at orchestration and his mastery of unusual instruments—he is one of the few living adepts of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic-music device—have augmented the band’s maguslike aura.
Greenwood has resumed composing in the past few years, although his output is so far small: a score for the documentary “Bodysong,” with expert and soulful writing for string quartet; “smear,” an edgy, eerie piece for instruments and electronics; and “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” whose title alludes to a type of shortwave radio and, by extension, to the white noise one hears as one twists the dial. Greenwood’s sources of inspiration are easily identified. He has worshipped Olivier Messiaen since his teens, and during his university stint he encountered the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose assaultive avant-garde creations of the nineteen-sixties—notably the “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”—inspired the glissandos of “There Will Be Blood.” If Greenwood had stayed on the academic route, he would eventually have discovered that Penderecki’s early works were considered dated. Penderecki himself later turned away from them and adopted a neo-Romantic style. In the separate universe of Radiohead, Greenwood has pursued his enthusiasms without becoming distracted by musical politics, and has emerged with a fascinating synthesis of twentieth-century sounds—avant-garde Romanticism, you could call it.
“Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” an eighteen-minute work for thirty-four strings, is Greenwood’s most ambitious score to date. Although the composer has made self-effacing comments in interviews about his reluctance to tackle longer forms, he hardly comes off as a neophyte; the piece possesses a solid architectural shape, with slow-moving, darkly meditative passages framing a kinetic, rock-tinged midsection. The writing for strings is idiomatic and inventive; at one point, Greenwood devises a buzzing barrage of “Bartók pizzicato”—sharply plucked sounds from violins cradled like ukuleles. The one structurally shaky moment comes in the transition back to the opening material; the switch feels abrupt, as if a tempo-changing gesture has gone missing.
The original article is here.