Alex Ross: On Jonny Greenwood’s Music


Welling Up

A film score and an orchestral work by Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead.

by Alex Ross February 4, 2008

Greenwood, an admired guitarist, trained as a violist. Photograph by Mick Hutson.

There may be no scarcer commodity in modern Hollywood than a distinctive and original film score. Most soundtracks lean so heavily on a few preprocessed musical devices—those synthetic swells of strings and cymbals, urging us to swoon in tandem with the cheerleader in love—that when a composer adopts a more personal language the effect is revelatory: an entire dimension of the film experience is liberated from cliché. So it is with Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie “There Will Be Blood,” which has an unearthly, beautiful score by the young English composer Jonny Greenwood. The early scenes show, in painstaking detail, a maverick oilman assembling a network of wells at the turn of the last century. Filmgoers who find themselves falling into a claustrophobic trance during these sequences may be inclined to credit the director, who, indeed, has forged some indelible images. But, as Orson Welles once said of Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to “Citizen Kane,” the music does fifty per cent of the work.

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. Continue reading

On A Lighter Note: I’m Alan Partridge


Fans of  the BBC’s I’m Alan Partridge (old news to everyone in the UK I know) will appreciate this comment from the latest issue of the New Yorker (a fine publication, in fact, one thing that all 4 members here at Perverse Egalitarianism agree upon) which includes a nice profile of Steve Coogan:

Recently, Coogan pitched the idea of a movie in which Partridge is held hostage at the BBC after a terrorist takeover and tries to work out a peace settlement. “Your position is you want to destroy the West,” Coogan said, launching into Patridge’s imaginary negotiation. “The West’s position is, broadly speaking, they don’t want to be destroyed. Is there a midway between those two positions that could satisfy us both? Rather than suicide bombings, you achieve so much more with a sternly worded letter.”

The Rest Is Noise Officially Out Today


“There seems always to have been a ‘crisis of modern music,’ but by some insane miracle one person finds the way out. The impossibility of it gives me hope. Fast-forwarding through so many music-makers’ creative highs and lows in the company of Alex Ross’s incredibly nourishing book will rekindle anyone’s fire for music.”  — Björk

The Rest Is Noise reads like a sprawling, intense novel, one of utopian dreams, doom, and consolation, with the most extraordinary cast of characters from music and history alike.” — Osvaldo Golijov

I don’t know how many of you have been following Alex Ross and his incredibly informative blog about his upcoming book and everything important in the twentieth century music, but the book officially comes out today, so you can get yourself a copy and finally read it.

 You can read some excerpts here and here, and, of course, you can buy the book itself here!

Table of Contents: Continue reading