Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Master's Music of a Former Life

As in Paul Thomas Anderson's previous film There Will Be Blood, The Master uses a soundtrack that is two-thirds new music by Jonny Greenwood with a significant sprinkling of familiar recordings.

The jazz songs used on the soundtrack are directly contemporaneous with the film, set in post-war America. Interestingly though, Anderson chooses tracks that also reference older work, both in melody and text.

For example, the song Get Thee Behind Me Satan (by Irving Berlin) performed by Ella Fitzgerald is based on the biblical text concerning Jesus' temptation in the wilderness.

Of course, it's also the case that the subject matter of the song in which Jesus wrestles with a malign omnipotence could hardly be closer to the dark heart of the film.

Later, Anderson uses a recording of Jo Stafford singing No Other Love, which itself is a reworking of Chopin's Op. 10 Etude No. 3.

The point is that the charismatic principal character Lancaster Dodd makes outrageous claims about the former lives of humans, so it seems appropriate to have music and text that is re-worked in a new contemporary incarnation.

This isn't exclusive to the period popular music however. Jonny Greenwood's distinct original music also resonates with older influences. The string ensemble that accompanies the oft-recaptiulated shots of the boat's wake shimmers with the neoclassical colours of Stravinsky's (pre-war ballet, published in the same year as Berlin's song) Apollo, music designed to capture the climate and vista of Mediterranean antiquity.

Indeed, I remember well the 2009 BBC Prom in which Jonny Greenwood's striking (if slight) piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver was played alongside Stravinsky's ballet.

Paul Thomas Anderson's film is about the power-struggles and cultural trajectory of a modernising America. It is, at the same time, a film about the rather more perennial drama of personal conflict and how we define ourselves. Choices of music that bear the manifest imprint of previous works of art carry that influence on their surface and consolidate the issue that Anderson is essaying in his film.

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