Jonny Greenwood on the Dark Power of His Music for The Power of the Dog

One of the most intriguing, and certainly dark and disturbing, scores of this season is Jonny Greenwood’s music for “The Power of the Dog,” filmmaker Jane Campion’s Western starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a surly, complicated cowboy in early 20th-century Montana.

It’s one of three scores the Radiohead musician-songwriter has in end-of-year awards contention. Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer,” about Princess Diana, is already in theaters, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” will be released next week. “The Power of the Dog” begins streaming today on Netflix and is in theaters Friday.

Greenwood granted a rare interview to Variety to talk about his unique compositions for “Power of the Dog” and his collaboration with the New Zealand filmmaker.

Variety: Was Jane Campion a fan of yours? Did she say why she wanted you as a composer?

Greenwood: She did the thing of taking me on, telling me she trusted me, and attacking me with enthusiasm for the ideas that worked, and nearly – but not quite – the same enthusiasm for the ones that didn’t. It was a very happy and creative time because of that. Lots of emails, lots of talking.

Did she have specific ideas about what the score should say or do?

She was a bit dazed by my first rambling emails, I think, but [that] helped me focus on the more promising ideas. And she highlighted the key emotional moments of the film to focus on.

What were your own ideas? Can you talk about your overall plan for the music and what function it could perform?

They were a bit disparate at the start. I sent her photos of 1920s drum kits, and wanted to try and emphasize that this was a modern Western – the ’20s aren’t long out of living memory, so I was obsessed with the music feeling contemporary. Or, at least, not 19th century. It’s too easy to see cowboys and think it’s 1870. Really, the only ideas in that first email I got right (or, at any rate, stuck to) were the mechanical piano and the French horn.

Did you start before, or during, shooting? And if so, did you write anything that might have been played on set?

I started just before shooting. They were listening to some of the solo cello things on set – perhaps that had some effect? – but I’m more proud of coming up with the suggestion to use [Johann Strauss Sr.’s] “Radetzky March” in that key scene. It was fun to have to find a bad, but memorable and famous, piece of music that could be played as a piano/banjo duet. I think I nailed that brief. It’s sort of awful, isn’t it? With respect to Strauss Sr.

There are four key characters here: Phil, his brother George, Rose and her son Peter. Did each need his/her own sound or motif? They’re all such different personalities.

I’ve never really consciously thought of scores like this. Rather, I write to the situations, or tone of the film, or the look and color of it. I guess the detuned piano material fitted Rose so well that it became a kind of theme… but only by accident.

Phil (Cumberbatch’s character) in particular is a very complicated man. Talk about what you needed to do specifically for him.

Yes, he’s fiercely bright, as well as… just fierce: not just an enthusiastic castrator of cows, but, you feel, a cultured, well-read person too. It’s a nice break from the traditional portrait of the cowboy. And makes him more threatening a presence too. He’s so cunning.

This is a Western, yet you didn’t opt for a big “Western” score? Why?

I wanted to avoid the trope of sweeping strings to accompanying sweeping landscapes. When Peter does venture into the mountains and desert, it’s an alien, forbidding landscape. It’s funny, I was more inspired by the ’60s “Star Trek” scenes which, in my memory at least, had lots of atonal brass. So I hired a couple of French horn players and wrote some duets for them. That was a really fun day – we recorded them in a big church in Oxford, with the intention that reverb in the church would be the third instrument.

Tell me about the “mechanical piano” – did you actually have one? (I can never tell what’s real or sampled these days.)

I have a pianola. It’s real and mechanical, but computer-controlled. So I wrote some software in Max/MSP to emulate the paper-roll that would normally drive one of these. It made more sense than trying to use notation. I also have a tuning wrench, so you can slide the pitch of the notes whilst it’s playing. This became really useful for the character of Rose: Not only is her story wrapped up in the instrument, but it was also a good texture for her gradual mental unraveling. I recorded hours of this stuff – poor Jane had to hear quite a lot of it.

What kind of input did Jane have during the process? How did you share ideas?

I was sending her the things that I could play – the piano stuff, and the solo cello things – but the rest she didn’t hear until they were recorded (computer demos are so off-putting for everyone). She responded often with hand-written notes, scanned and emailed. Her energy was a huge part of how this music was written.

How did the pandemic impact how you went about this? I am wondering how you recorded it, and if it took place over a long period of time.

It was recorded at the height of the pandemic, and all the harshest restrictions on gatherings were in place. I did manage to get a viola quartet on one day, and six cellos on another. But because orchestras were unusable, I had to fake a lot of it using my own cello. I can’t really play it very well with the bow, so it was a process of tuning the strings to each pitch and recording myself playing all the notes one at a time. Eventually, I built up an orchestral texture. You should see my cello: it’s got a white sticker inside with the Sharpie-ed name  “Stephen Bennett” on it. My wife thinks that this is the name of the school child who owned it – it’s a junky old $100 cello – but I’m sure it’s the cello’s real name. “Stephen” is all over this score.

Phil plays the banjo on screen. Is any of that your work? Yet there is no banjo in the score itself, is there?

The first plan I talked Jane into was this pompous crusade to find out why the banjo hasn’t really been used in contemporary classical music (aside from a few George Crumb things). We found out pretty quickly why it hasn’t been done before. To me, the banjo can be a dark and sinister instrument, so I thought I could make it work. It didn’t, though – not as a solo instrument with microtonal strings, anyway. Plus, Phil plays the banjo so well in the film – having it in the score would have just taken something away from those moments of music on camera.

So, as an alternative, I learned to play my cello like a banjo (an instrument I can play a little) with the same sort of fingerpicking technique. Took a while to figure out, and I had to cover my cello with tape to mark the pitches, but Jane really liked the effect, and it’s used a lot in this film. It’s somber but has momentum – a bit like how I hoped the banjo would be.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of obvious “emotional” music here. Can you talk about that, if it was your intention, and why a more “stark” approach was the way to go?

Yes, usually I’m all for making music as romantic as I can. I find music like that very moving, for all that it should embarrass me. But we recorded the string groups whilst running random scenes from the film, and the colder they played, the better it suited the picture. So there’s not much vibrato in their playing. Likewise the French horns – to me, that’s the sound of pent-up masculinity: they sound repressed, but the louder they play, the more open and angry they get. It’s an odd tone, generally, in this film. Lots of conflicts, and not all of it overt. The horns got closest to that sound I think.

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