The importance of silence within music is priceless. If that seems a strange thing to be saying after a concert, it was driven home by this unique opportunity to watch the Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood in the context of a live performance of its score, as part of David Byrne‘s Meltdown.
It was this film, released in 2007, that served notice of the credentials of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood as a soundtrack composer. He was already gaining a burgeoning reputation within contemporary classical music for Popcorn Superhet Receiver, his first large scale orchestral work, but There Will Be Blood began a fruitful musical relationship with Anderson that has extended to two more films to date, The Master and Inherent Vice.
Yet one of the most striking features of this film showing was the long periods of silence, where Greenwood and Anderson had opted against music. It is almost 15 minutes before there is any meaningful speech in There Will Be Blood, and this time is very carefully managed, the music limited to percussion – the chips of a pick, the rumbling of the earth and the cry of a baby. Gradually the music makes itself known in unsettling discords, all the while working its way around to the main theme.
This is one of the most distinctive parts of film soundtrack writing this century, a tune with an upward curve that in an instant evokes the vast Californian plains over which the film takes place. Once heard, it casts a spell over the rest of the picture, offering an escape from the greed and oppression that ultimately does not materialise.
The London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Brunt, were superb in their evocation of the picture, shading their contributions carefully as the film progressed. The balance here ensured Greenwood’s own contribution, on the ondes martenot, could be clearly heard. The unusual instrument added an eerie lacy effect to the top of the texture.
As well as Greenwood’s evocative score, with its echoes of Bartók, Lutoslawski and Xenakis, we heard Arvo Pärt’s extraordinary Fratres, coming at the point in the film where Daniel Day Lewis’ adopted son, known as H.W., loses his hearing. Cellist Oliver Coates deserves credit for mastering the threadbare arpeggios. We also heard the finale of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, its happy bluster somehow enforced on us and totally inappropriate, especially at the end of the horrible bowling alley scene with which the film ends. The violin part, well played by Galya Bisengalieva, had an exaggerated exuberance that if anything enhanced the horror we had just taken in.
With the Royal Festival Hall effectively turned into the National Film Theatre for the night, this was an effective and moving experience, the audience often reduced to the same levels of silence as the film. Yet the sparing use of music ensured Greenwood’s score, when it was heard, was all the more memorable, painting as it does the story of greed and obsession blighting the lives of innocent men.