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on Tue, 20 Dec 2016
By Heather Kincaid
Conductor Hugh Brunt talks to What’s On about a new orchestration coming to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in February...
While most of us might be aware of a handful of major film composers, we rarely give a second thought to the orchestras interpreting their work. Yet musicians and conductors play a vital part in setting scenes and building dramatic tension - particularly in a film as visceral and heart-stoppingly intense as Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.
Released in 2007, the Oscar-winning feature tells the story of Daniel Plainview, a miner turned ruthless oilman in Southern California during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For his role as Plainview, Daniel Day Lewis took home just about every major award for Best Actor (Oscar, Bafta, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, NYFCC and IFTA, to name just some). But what's perhaps more remarkable is how highly lauded just about every aspect of the film was, from writing and direction to cinematography, editing and, of course, music.
Hugh Brunt and the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) aren't responsible for the recorded soundtrack to the film, but they have since worked with its composer, Jonny Greenwood, on other recordings, including the soundtrack to Anderson's later film, The Master (2012). Next month, Brunt will be bringing the LCO to Birmingham for a live performance of Greenwood's There Will Be Blood score, to accompany a screening of the film at Symphony Hall.
“We’ll be bringing the full line-up,” says Brunt, “a 53-strong orchestra plus three soloists - Cynthia Millar, Galya Bisengalieva and Oliver Coates. The majority of Jonny Greenwood’s cues are scored for strings with ondes Martenot (a rare early electronic instrument). The film also features the last movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which deploys woodwind and brass forces not used elsewhere in the film. However, for this live version, those players are asked to double up on percussion for one of the crucial dramatic scenes where a total of 12 percussionists is required.”
Set up by Brunt along with Co-Artistic Director Robert Ames in 2008 (the same year There Will Be Blood appeared in UK cinemas), LCO has rapidly gained a reputation as one of the country's most exciting and forward-thinking contemporary ensembles. They have worked with a whole host of high-profile music acts (including Frank Ocean, Goldfrapp, Beck, Foals and Belle & Sebastian), recording and performing film soundtracks, creating thrilling site-specific musical experiences and more. Although the original There Will Be Blood soundtrack was recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra, as part of its ongoing work with Greenwood, LCO has developed an intimate knowledge of the score through various live performances dating back to 2014.
“I saw the film when it was first released,” says Brunt, “and every element of it is so strong - the screenplay, the performances, cinematography - but I was particularly moved by the music. It had a visceral impact and felt so raw and fresh. I'd happily stick my neck out and say it's one of the most important scores of the past couple of decades.”
Best known as a member of Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood is also an increasingly prolific composer in his own right. Nevertheless, his score for There Will Be Blood will be instantly recognisable to fans of the band, featuring the dissonant, distorted, multi-layered walls of sound that are so characteristic of his work. In the film, they're often overpowering, rising to an unnerving, almost siren-like drone that hits the listener like a ton of bricks, especially right at the start of the film. As a result, the sheer volume presents something of a challenge for a live orchestra in terms of ensuring they don't drown out other sounds.
“It’s one of the most complex aspects of performing this film live. We’re very fortunate to have a fantastic sound team of Barry Bartlett and Luca Stefani, who’ve worked on all our performances of There Will Be Blood. They know the score and mix so intimately and, as such, all the places where an element - be it the score, dialogue or sound effects - needs to come to the fore, or be shaded off to make way for something else.
“Perhaps another point worth mentioning is that much of the music when it was originally recorded was performed loudly but, when mixed into the film, was set very low. So, that provides an interesting challenge for me and the orchestra - to play something with the intensity and character of a forte (‘strong’) dynamic but with the sound of something much softer, so that it doesn’t cloud the dialogue. In short, the whole thing is a constant conversation between what the orchestra is doing acoustically on stage and what Barry and Luca are doing at the mixing console.”
It's not the only difficulty in working with film. Unlike live performers, a film can't respond to variations (accidental or otherwise) in the music; thus absolute precision is required to keep time with the visuals.
“The first thing to mention is that for both the rehearsals and performance, the orchestra and I don’t have a timecode or a ‘click track’ - a metronome guide to keep us in sync with the film. So, aside from preparing the music itself, much of my time is spent watching the film while conducting through the score in silence (or singing various lines to myself!). I do that over and over again to refine the tempos and make sure I’m meeting all the ‘hit points’. What’s enjoyable about this way of working is that, certainly in the freer sections, you can really allow the music to breathe.”
This year, thanks partly to the strength of their relationship with Greenwood, LCO appeared on Radiohead's acclaimed new album, Moon Shaped Pool, having recorded orchestral arrangements for several of the tracks. Though not directly involved in the composition process, the orchestra has enjoyed opportunities to collaborate with Greenwood in workshops and performances.
“All the material comes from him, but we’ve been fortunate to work with him closely in workshop scenarios - just a small group of seven string players and a pianist, and him on ondes Martenot and guitar. He’s fascinated in drawing new colours and timbres from these instruments, and equally sensitive to the personalities - interested in the characters, the dynamic of the ensemble, not just the instruments the players are holding. We’ve ended up performing eight, maybe nine, new works by Jonny written for the group over the past couple of years, and toured to some amazing cities - including Moscow, Geneva, Budapest - and to festivals in the Netherlands and Poland.”
Alongside recordings and more conventional performance settings, LCO have also worked on immersive film projects with Secret Cinema, as well as causing a stir with their own Imagined Occasions series - a set of concerts that took audiences on musical journeys through an abandoned underground station, Bethnal Green's impressive Oval Space, and out onto Primrose Hill at sunset.
“It's very important for us to have something of a varied diet. LCO's site-responsive work is a big focus and provides an exciting opportunity to engage more directly with a narrative. When we choose a location for a performance (for example, the disused Aldwych Underground station, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, or the top of Primrose Hill at sunset), we look to celebrate everything about that space - its character, history, acoustic qualities - considerations that inform the shape and emotional trajectory of our programmes. This way of working also allows us to be more flexible with where the audience is placed in relation to the sound source, and we enjoy commissioning pieces specifically for a space, as sonic installations.”
Hugh Brunt conducts the London Contemporary Orchestra performing the score of There Will Be Blood at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Sunday 5 February.