Marked by a certain charged starkness and by an utterly terrifying absurdity, Greenwood’s score to There Will Be Blood is ushered in with trademark twangs and plucks which register as the pulse of the film itself. In “Open Spaces” an ominous nearly-lush melodic darkness is interrupted by a hopeful, yet doomed juxtaposition which eventually melts into the pathos of the heralding rush. The call and response of tragedy and exuberance is a theme of the film as well as the score, and as the response-side of “Open Spaces” frays into echoes and warbles and tremors, it manifests a prefiguring of the operation of the entire film: humor does not simply accent a descent into terror, humor is itself the terror into which we descend lead by the acrobatic madness of Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview.
Where else do we see this mania? It begins the movie in Greenwood’s “Future Markets” which commences like the background music to a madly anticipatory tip-toe, continually frustrated and then reborn anew with fresh ardor. The harried, distressed confusion is punctured with single notes whose contrast against the clamor only serves to accentuate the larger frenzy. In this piece, we are introduced to a trademark of Greenwood’s score—interruption and heightened re-start.
“Proven Lands” is a practice in this art. Arresting and bizarre, “Proven Lands” is nearly upbeat—until it becomes quite obvious that the track runs not on optimism (despite what the desperately interweaving piano would have you believe), but on thinly veiled aggression and ambition. Yet the violence is interiorized. The plucked instruments and the beating bows compete with one another. The song speeds itself up, trips on itself, and breaks through itself simultaneously with a bewildering impatience; the result is a chaotic, quasi-folk revival which bursts through and seethes in the gaps it itself creates.
Greenwood’s score is not simply background music, it insinuates itself into the story being told. To travel the line of Greenwood’s music is to experience what Paul Thomas Andersen presents to the audience in Daniel Plainview. A psychological portrait is unfurled, not a plot. Here you do not laugh and cry with the protagonist—you laugh until you understand how laughter is itself The Cry. Each piece of Greenwood’s score is catastrophic, searching, harried, mad, sly, and witty—like Plainview himself. In so many of these songs, redemption is an unfulfilled promise: tracks end abruptly, unresolved, or just simply not quite how we expected. Like the title to the film, Greenwood’s score is suffused with a violent and hungry anticipation.
This is not the typical background fare. Greenwood does not hold your hand and lead you through a story. This is not the sort of score which uses melodrama to dictate emotions to the audience: now the criminal enters, cue suspenseful bleating, insert-feeling-here. The genius of this score is a result of its total dismissal of trite obligations: the score treats the film and the audience with respect. It is a work of art, not a didactic tool. Each track proves that a single fragment can contain a totality: it tells the story as much as the narrative tells the story. Profoundly organic, it is an outgrowth of the very soil of the Anderson’s film. To say it plainly: Jonny Greenwood’s score is correct. Rarely has a score been so deeply considered.
It came as a surprise to many then to discover that Jonny Greenwood was disqualified from being considered for Best Score by the Academy. The reasoning offered was that “the majority of [the Blood score] was not composed specifically for the film.” Anyone who experiences the film will understand the lack of nuance this assertion betrays. I would be hard-pressed to find another movie whose score was crafted more specifically for the film.
What we can infer from this slight is that the Academy, like so many other traditional and established artistic communities, has yet to accept the collage as a legitimate art-form. In a Paris Review interview, Burroughs discusses this bias in relation to his “cut-up” method, “People say to me, ‘Oh, this is all very good, but you got it by cutting up.’ I say that has nothing to do with it, how I got it. What is any writing but a cut-up? …Somebody has to do the cutting-up. Remember that I first made the selections. Out of hundreds of possible sentences that I might have used, I chose one.”
We are now at a point in human progress where we can look forward and backward to see a breathtaking landscape of human creative achievement. Perhaps this is a convenient juncture for us to re-consider what it means to be original, what it means to be daring, what it means to have genius, if that concept still holds any purchase.
The most rudimentary and simplistic way of thinking about a creator is as someone who teases something out of absolutely nothing. But even God breathed into soil. An obsession with this “something from nothing” framework drives our art into an untenable and stultifying esotericism. To cut up—to take the rib from Adam, and press it into the wet dirt, and to then use your own hot breath to forge naked life—this is the process of creation. Wealthy men do not beg for food—with a creative legacy that is so rich, starving artists should hunger only for bread, not for inspiration.
We use what we are given; we use the tools around us, to craft art and to communicate meaning. Preoccupying oneself with being the first and the different—in this day and age, such a posture is mere selfishness and ego. The ability to combine and create, to innovate and to invent, to bring together disparate sounds and moods and textures and, in doing so, to produce a work of art that is not only dazzling, but true is the very character of modern genius.
The collage is not a poor man’s art nor is it the second-best. When we examine the new generation of young artists, we notice a burgeoning culture of collage. It is not just in the remix and the mash-up, but also in the cultural fusion (a la Vampire Weekend). Like Burroughs said, it is all cut-up. We negotiate a fragmented world. We communicate this world to an audience. Is it not then natural to use disjunctions and confusion and collision and piecemeal construction in our presentation of a confused, disjointed, colliding world?
“An artistic product must stand or fall on what’s there,” said Burroughs. Jonny Greenwood’s score does not only stand, it rises. The Academy’s slight should come as a wary reminder to a new generation of artists: there remain those who, given a choice between something and nothing, would have nothing. The genteel nihilism of the old school, which would choose “original” mediocrity over collaged brilliance, can be simply dismissed as absurd. Yet if Greenwood’s score tells us anything, it is just this sort of absurdity that when given power, veers quickly into the disturbing.