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‘The Power of the Dog’: How Jonny Greenwood’s Oscar-Nominated Score Redefined the Western Sound

An exclusive clip from a recent live performance demonstrates how Greenwood bent instruments into off-kilter sounds to convey Benedict Cumberbatch's troubled psyche as Phil.

THE POWER OF THE DOG (L to R): KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

“The Power of the Dog”

KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

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Jonny Greenwood achieves a masterful reinvention with his Oscar-nominated score for Jane Campion’s psychological western “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix). Inspired by the repression and savagery of rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), Greenwood bends orchestral instruments into off-kilter sounds to convey his troubled psyche. The cello becomes a banjo to express Phil’s loneliness, the detuned piano symbolizes chaos, and French horns with reverb underscore his yearning for the past.

Having enjoyed Campion’s moody and unpredictable “Top of the Lake” series, Greenwood was drawn to “The Power of the Dog” for her deconstruction of the western, set against the 1925 backdrop of a beautiful, inviting Montana landscape and a dark, oppressive ranch house. “I fancied working on something with the same complexity of tone, and the script for ‘Power of the Dog’ certainly promised that,” he told IndieWire via email. “Phil is both a brutal rancher and a thoughtful, artistic man. I enjoy it when there’s a difficult/contradictory tone in a film because it inspires the music to go in less likely directions.”

Greenwood (best known as the leader of Radiohead) was also attracted to the avoidance of traditional characters in Campion’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of the Thomas Savage novel. Indeed, Phil’s sadistic behavior toward the other characters — his sensitive brother George (Jesse Plemons), George’s vulnerable bride Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her tender son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — inevitably transforms into a twisted cat-and-mouse between Phil and Peter.

“Not that I could do a pastiche ‘[Aaron] Copland’ score or whatever a western score would entail — but from the start I wanted to use French horns and mechanical pianos,” Greenwood continued. “I have a computer-controlled piano, so I borrowed a piano tuning wrench, and was able to detune strings while it was playing. Really, it was all my interests in one place: programming software with Max/MSP to ‘play’ the piano, and modifying the sound and pitch while it was playing. I love sounds that are recognizable, but at the same time also ‘wrong’ or impossible in some way: pianos with bending notes are somehow very satisfying, and suit the film well, I think.”

The Power of the Dog Netflix Benedict Cumberbatch

“The Power of the Dog”

Courtesy of Netflix

At last week’s Live-to-Screen performance of Greenwood’s score with Wordless Music Orchestra at the Ace Hotel Theater in downtown LA (see video clip below), Campion elaborated on the composer’s creative process by reading snippets of his emails to her: “I’m experimenting at the moment with the pianola ideas, principally looking at ways to introduce imperfections and mechanical stutters/distortions into the midi which is sent to the piano… and perhaps this is something that can recur, with increasing chaos, at the close of each act. Or perhaps other types of treatments to suggest the building fate.”

In building the score around the domineering presence of Phil’s toxic masculinity, “horns and low, dark strings seemed a good direction to go in,” Greenwood continued in his email interview with IndieWire. “No violins was the first rule, so I stuck to the lower sounds of cellos and violas. Then, when I tried (and failed) to write music for banjo and orchestral strings, it led to the idea of playing my cello like a banjo instead. This became the sound of the film, I guess. Something about the dark familiar tone of a pizzicato cello being picked like a five-string banjo creates a nice portrait of Phil.”

Because of the pandemic, Greenwood’s collaboration with Campion was virtual, exchanging emails, and sending her samples. They started prior to shooting in New Zealand, yet she was very trusting in discussing ideas, instruments, and colors. “I felt sure that atonal, solo horn music, recorded in a large chamber, would be a key sound for the film,” he said. “It was meant the be a duet between the horn and the reverb of the room (in this case, a large church in Oxford) and just suited the oddness of the film’s landscapes and wildernesses. I’d just read Ted Gioia’s excellent book about orchestras where he points out that all the ancestors of modern orchestral interments are animals: skin drums, sheep guts, animal horns, bone flutes, animal-hair bows. It’s like a slaughter yard. So that was certainly in my mind when thinking of the more brutal scenes in the film.”

Greenwood also wrote music (such as “Best Friends”) in which the cellos are the reverb chamber for the horn. “Not as a straight echo, but as a messed up/mangled ghost-image to the final note of each phrase of the horn,” he added.

By contrast, “West” was meant to be just a sincere depiction of the love between George and Rose. “I really love writing tender music like this — it used to embarrass me, but now I just feel it’s honest, and there’s nothing shameful about that,” Greenwood said. “I hope it makes people feel the same way I did to write it.”

His takeaway from “The Power of the Dog” experience? More confidence about using instrumentation outside of small string groups. “I feel like I had the chance a couple of years ago to become a real film composer with a big C — and start to employ arrangers, composers etc. — but I really love doing that finicky stuff myself,” Greenwood added.

“Printing out scores in my room, the evening before a session, is a very exciting time. The only downside is that I’ve still so much to learn, so many glorious-sounding instruments that I’ve not written anything for, though timidity/ignorance of how to get the best out of them. I guess one step at a time, but — as an example — I know I’ve only scratched the surface of what French horns can do, and there’s a world of other instruments and players out there. It’s an enormously privileged position, and I’m absurdly lucky to be in it.”

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