These are flush times artistically for film music, with epic scores back in vogue and newer voices only growing in authority. What’s more, composers sympathetic to the unconventional seem to be thriving, and not all of them are primarily film scorers.
Take Jonny Greenwood, best known as Radiohead’s lead guitarist. His first feature-film score, for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” is a darkly haunting orchestral tapestry willfully indebted to some of the great composers of the 20th century — it owes nothing to the music that made him and his bandmates famous.
The project came to the rocker unexpectedly. “PTA just attacked me with his daunting enthusiasm and a kind of mad certainty that I’d do OK,” recalls Greenwood of the filmmaker’s determination. “I met him when we were recording our previous record.”
Too overwhelmed to be unnerved by the gig — “I tried not to think about it too much” — Greenwood says he had it “pretty easy,” writing more music than was required and then letting Anderson choose what worked.
“If it had to be done to a click track, I really would have felt out of my depth,” insists the tyro scorer. “Instead, it was more often about writing whole pieces of music and hoping they’d work for PTA.”
For inspiration, the guitarist relied heavily on deceased French masters. “The music is almost all in a mode that (Olivier) Messiaen used,” says Greenwood. He also cites Debussy and Ravel in this regard: “French 20th-century music has real magic to it.”
The biggest challenge turned out to be the orchestration. “We were limited to instruments contemporary to the turn of the last century,” Greenwood reveals, “so it was about having standard instruments going ‘wrong’ in various ways. For one track, we detuned the whole orchestra so their strings were all slack and rattly, which made a nice contrast to the sweeter, chamber stuff elsewhere in the film.”
An equally unconventional participant in this year’s score sweepstakes is Osvaldo Golijov, who wrote the music to “Youth Without Youth,” Francis Ford Coppola’s first film in a decade. A highly respected classical composer born in Argentina and now living in the U.S., Golijov is best known for music that incorporates various traditions. His lush score robustly embraces Mahler, Gypsy melody and Middle Eastern sonorities.
Originally in discussions to score Coppola’s now-shelved “Megalopolis” project, Golijov undertook “Youth” because it involved “working with a great genius” in material he found appealing. “It’s such a Borges-like story, I felt instantly attracted to it,” he says.
Rooted in late-Romantic, harmonically ambiguous territory, the score also is notable for what it eschews. “No winds or brass were used, and that gives a personality to the soundtrack,” Golijov notes. “Everything weird-sounding was generated by the orchestra. There is nothing electronically generated.”
Even the mechanical piano sound and the prominently featured clocks were rendered organically. “They were recorded and then processed,” the composer says. “Everything was generated by something you have to touch or push, not from algorithms.”
If a ticking clock is the most unanticipated sound to emerge from Golijov’s score, then a typewriter claims that distinction in Dario Marianelli’s music for Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s celebrated novel. Not since Leroy Anderson has a composer elevated this clangorous writers tool to such prominence.
Unlike Greenwood and Golijov, Marianelli has largely devoted himself to writing film music. But as his Oscar-nommed score to last year’s “Pride & Prejudice” already proved, he is among the most original film composers of his generation.
In “Atonement,” the typewriter serves double duty, as a musical embodiment of the film’s central character and as a postmodernist device — a virtual commentary not just on the film’s action, but also on our observation of it.
“The typewriter breaks boundaries,” says Marianelli. “Breaking boundaries within the world the characters experience and the world viewers experience brought the idea of having sounds from within the frame spilling into the score, and vice versa, having sounds from the score entering the film.”
Marianelli goes beyond the typewriter to achieve this effect. “The harmonica is played in frame and then becomes part of the score,” he notes, “and you will notice that a choir gets absorbed by a music cue, as does an organ. It’s a systematic attempt to blur that boundary, to plant the seed that the level of fiction you’re watching has more to it than meets the eye, or the ear.”
Not that the score to “Atonement” is all head games. Old-fashioned love themes a la “Brief Encounter” and the like also figure into Marianelli’s distinctive sound world.
“One thing I was hoping to achieve was to make you cry,” he says, explaining the repeated use of a simple but powerful theme. “If you get it right, by the time you get to the end of the film, it can make you weep. That was my main objective — that you should be quite devastated at the end of this film.”