The Music Master

For me, there are two great things about film music. For starters, it unlocks emotions that seemingly great acting, writing, cinematography and editing cannot do alone.

For me, there are two great things about film music.

For starters, it unlocks emotions that seemingly great acting, writing, cinematography and editing cannot do alone. E.T. is a beautifully told fantasy but would we feel quite so airborne when those bikes take flight if it wasn't for John Williams' racing strings? Would Christopher Nolan's Gotham be quite so ominous if it weren't for Hans Zimmer's primordial brass reverberating beneath? Music enriches almost all movies.

But film scores also lower a drawbridge for millions of people to experience and enjoy orchestral music. Many who might never dream of going near a concert hall find themselves drawn in by the orchestras they hear in films. They buy the soundtracks to underscore their own daily existence with a little symphonic colour, so orchestras start playing a natural part in their lives separate from the movies where they first heard them. Some are then tempted to hear an orchestra perform their favourite score live, or even other works, classical works, that have the same emotional power.

That's how I first got into classical music, and I've scarcely looked back.

Some film scores do their job by going unnoticed, blending discreetly into the fabric of the narrative. Others are like a character in themselves, and you find yourself humming them long after you've forgotten the protagonists' names. Every now and then, a film score comes along that almost changes the game. This week, many film blogs (those that have finally got past Skyfall) will be telling you about The Master, a movie which may or may not be about Scientology. The critiques are getting so wrapped up in that debate that precious little column space has been spared for the truly controversial force at the heart of this film: its music.

The film begins and we see the tumbling blue waves of the Pacific. In any conventional movie, you might almost imagine this serenity complemented by high woodwind gently drifting in. But no. Here we get a fierce jab of ferocious strings, sounding like Beethoven at his most feral. Before we've even seen one character's face, the music is saying 'notice me' and from that moment on, it plays a lead part, putting in as overt and individual a performance as the two Oscarbound leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffmann.

The music is by Jonny Greenwood who you might have heard of from his day job: being in a band called Radiohead. Here, like there, Greenwood's music resiliently follows its own path: just as Radiohead fill their palette with instruments, textures and time signatures that no other band go near, so Greenwood's score almost rips up the film music rulebook. For a start, it has very little tonality. Every now and then, the score settles momentarily on a major chord, but these moments are striking for their rarity: swiftly the music lifts off again, clarinets and harp swooping and swirling back and forth, unable to find resolution - somewhat like the personalities in the story.

Some critics seem perplexed that this film doesn't telegraph how you ought to feel about its characters. Could this be the music's deliberate aim, denying us major and minor themes that usually prod us towards feeling happy or sad? Time and again, the music seems mischievous: percussive twangs and slapped bass seem at odds with the elegant vistas, almost compelling us to look beneath the surface for something festering beneath the veneer. Not once does Greenwood adhere to any of film music's principles: the score creeps in and out at unlikely moments and often stays silent in scenes that other composers would have laden with sentiment.

You've never heard film music quite like this before. It suddenly made me realise how buttoned-up and well-behaved film music has been all these years.

It's not Greenwood's first score for a big Hollywood movie. He wrote the music for the same director's previous film There Will Be Blood, and that too was disarming. Back then, his music paid significant homage to the classical composers Penderecki and Messiaen. Here, though, his music has a voice all its own. And you never quite know what the voice is going to say next.

So go and see this film, but moreover go and listen. That way, I guarantee, you'll really catch a Master at work.


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