The Southbank Centre’s ‘Film Scores Live’ season is proof that a live orchestra can be just as, if not more, intense and immersive as hi-fi surround-sound.
Recalling the silent film era where a movie’s soundtrack was provided by a cinema’s in-house pianist or orchestra, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) was accompanied by the London Contemporary Orchestra’s performance of Jonny Greenwood’s exquisitely dissonant score in the first of nine screenings at the Royal Festival Hall.
‘There Will Be Blood Live’ deservedly elevated Greenwood’s soundtrack from supporting role to leading player. You might expect such veneration would distract from Anderson’s portrayal of remorseless oil baron, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Yet the formidable resonance of a fifty-strong orchestra – including a sheepish Jonny Greenwood safely tucked away on the ondes Martenot, obscured by his trademark fringe – only served to enhance the dramatic and cinematic experience.
Performing the score alongside There Will Be Blood emphasised Anderson’s reliance on music to maintain intrigue and emotional intensity over the course of a three-hour-long, slow-paced historical drama with extreme long-shots and frequent lulls in dialogue.
Though sparse, the score picks its moments very well, augmenting the most affecting and climactic scenes. The droning glissandos of the arresting, dialogue-free opening instil a suitably unsettling atmosphere that remains with you throughout. During the memorable oil-well explosion, frenetically plucked strings and driving bow-beating, almost hip-hop-like grooves capture Daniel Plainview’s insatiable capitalist nature as his feverish excitement at the wealth of black gold beneath his feet overrides all concern for his recently deafened adopted son.
When Daniel discovers the man purporting to be his brother is a fraud, dissonant high-pitched violins pierce the natural background sounds of lapping waves and flickering campfires, buzzing ominously to a crescendo as he brutally murders the imposter. The lingering sense of unease is only broken once the credits roll and Brahms’ peppy ‘Violin Concerto in D major’ unexpectedly counterpoints the previous bombardment of contemporary discordance.
If it wasn’t already clear from the sublime flourishes that close ‘Glass Eyes’ from Radiohead’s most recent album, the string-heavy A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) – another collaboration with the LCO – Jonny Greenwood certainly knows his way around a cello. Cello also features heavily here in an outstanding polyphonic composition and Arvo Pärt’s ‘Fratres For Cello and Piano’.
At times the music is so strident and impactful that it actually overpowers the film. This is not only because the score’s immense emotive capacity is often more affecting than the drama portrayed on screen. On a couple of occasions the surge of the orchestra muffled the dialogue, though this is an inevitable consequence of live soundtracking and the Festival Hall’s sound engineers should otherwise be commended for equalising over fifty musicians as well as a movie.
Overall the performance is testament to the depth of Greenwood’s score and the LCO’s repertoire; as comfortable with contemporary Penderecki-esque atonality, clacking percussive polyrhythms and the more traditional romanticism of Brahms. Radiohead’s genius guitarist and Paul Thomas Anderson announced only last week a new film collaboration again starring Daniel Day Lewis. Let’s hope Anderson ups his game – though a masterclass in acting and cinematography, There Will Be Blood would be far less evocative without its truly great modern score.
There are eight further screenings as part of the Southbank Centre’s ‘Film Scores Live’ season. The next screening is on Valentine’s Day with the London Philharmonic Orchestra scoring the classic romance ‘Brief Encounter’. For more information on ‘Film Scores Live’ which also includes Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger’ and ‘Psycho, visit Southbank Centre’s website. Ticket prices vary but often start at £15 or £20.