We all knew the tall, mop-headed dude in the Astro Boy T-shirt was a hell of a guitar player.
But the first major hint of Jonny Greenwood’s orchestrating genius came on Kid A’s “How to Disappear Completely”: Strings swoop out of time and out of tune, swallowing the band in thick dissonance reminiscent of polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Greenwood’s been on a roll ever since, composing the experimental soundtrack to the 2003 film Bodysong and landing the BBC Composer in Residence spot in 2004. Oh, and that Radiohead thing is still happening, too.
His newest classical work is for the P.T. Anderson film There Will Be Blood, and for a film set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s a decidedly 21st-century score.
Eschewing the mainstream Hollywood orchestra sound (everything’s cut except for strings, piano, and the occasional ondes Martenot), Greenwood stacks chords like cordwood, creating dense layers that shimmer one minute and bludgeon the next. This is lean, mean, uncompromising stuff, and even the prettier moments, such as “Prospectors Arrive,” seem to hide dark intentions.
It doesn’t get much darker than “Henry Plainview,” an excerpt from Greenwood’s white-noise-inspired “Popcorn Superhet Receiver.” Thirty-six string players sustain long notes, bending pitches at random. Chords and melodies occasionally seem to rise from the chaos, only to shift into static again. Or maybe we’re just hearing things. Greenwood revels in the uncertainty of it all; his music is built to cause accidents and we’re just the crash-test dummies.
If that Radiohead thing ever goes south, Greenwood has a long career ahead of him scoring nightmares — or, at the very least, being one of the preeminent voices in the modern classical music world. For now, though, there will bemultiple listens.