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Monday, March 5, 2018

Recordings Review: A Little Old Fashioned (But That's All Right)

Unraveling Jonny Greenwood's Phantom Thread.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
One of the hidden messages in a dress from Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread.
Image © 2017 Focus Features/Universal.
On Oscar Night 2018, the Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread won only one major award: that for costume design. While it is not surprising that a film about a 1950s London dressmaker garnered that particular Academy Award, a listen to the lush, creative and emotive soundtrack (available on Nonesuch) to that film by composer Jonny Greenwood indicated that this picture may have had a shot at Best Score as well. (That Oscar went to Alexandre Desplat and his work on The Shape of Water, and it was a well-deserved win.)



Mr. Greenwood rose to fame as one of the three guitarists powering the British band Radiohead. However, he quickly moved beyond his instrument, embracing strings, keyboards and the ondes Martenot. This is his third collaboration with Mr. Anderson. In the film, his incidental music serves as a sometimes romantic, and sometimes edgy accompaniment to the world of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his difficult relationship with his muse (and later wife) Alma, a former waitress played by Vicky Krieps.

There are few coincidences in an Anderson film, and the choice of "Alma" for his heroine evokes the history of art music. Scholars of the life of Gustav Mahler may remember that that was the name of his wife. Born Alma Schindler, she was a prodigy and lover of the composer Zemlinsky who sacrificed her own compositional career for a role as Mahler's muse and the mother of his children. (For more about her, see the excellent and underrated film Bride of the Wind.)  Like Mahler, Woodcock is a fierce, independent creator who functions only with constant nurturing and support: he is both as strong and as delicate as the garments he creates.

The score of Phantom Thread shows influence from everybody from Mendelssohn to Messiaen, and yet in Mr. Greenwood's hands, the eighteen short tracks on this disc are anything but a pastiche. No, this is important new music, flexible and fascinating and expertly serving to accompany the camera's eye. Yes, there are explicit references to other composers but like the hidden messages sewn into a Woodcock garment, they are for the listener to slowly discover over time.

Lyrical tracks evoke the glitter of the House of Woodcock (the coutourier also has a his purse-lipped sister played by Lesley Manville--she handles the business end) and the glamour of a career spent wrapping rich women in miles of expensive fabric. These alternate with terse, nervy movements that owe something to the Bernard Herrmann of Twisted Nerve: it's real edge-of-the-seat stuff. This tension between the two, much like the sparks between Reynolds and Alma, drive the experience forward.

The entire score of the film is 90 minutes and this single CD presents an hour of carefully curated excerpts. It gives a window into the world of Woodcock in the silk and sweep of the "Phantom Thread" theme. This is repeated in four sections over the course of the disc, with each in a radically different arrangement. The final one is for gut-wrenching violins, and speaks to that instrument's capability of sounding tragic and joyful at the same time. Then there is the tightening screws of the plot, caught in the piano accelerando of "Catch Hold." "House of Woodcock" is lovely and triumphant.

"Sandalwood I" and "II" use shifting, minor key strings to ramp up tension, as does "Barbara Rose", a scraped, plucked string piece that sets the teeth on edge with its taut harmonics. = The latter seems to indicate the actual creative process reminding one of needles pulling thread and careful, pale fingers hiding those hidden messages within the lapels and folds of gowns and Woodcock's own suits. The finale "For the Hungry Boy" evokes a sort of recursion: it seems to bring the love of Reynolds and Alma to some sort of resolution even as it recalls their first encounter.

Phantom Thread may have escaped the Best Picture honor  because, like one of Woodcock's garments it is hard to pin down. It is part romance, part comedy of manners, and part tense Hitchcockian thriller. With this seductive, and yes, playful soundtrack Mr. Greenwood has created an ideal accompaniment, for the House of Woodcock. One can even imagine these selections being played discreetly by a small ensemble as the dressmaker ties another bodice. They'd be behind a screen of course. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.