Interview: London Contemporary Orchestra's Hugh Brunt on There Will Be Blood
12 Jan 2017
Co-Principal Conductor and co-Artistic Director of the London Contemporary Orchestra, Hugh Brunt, sheds some light on the creative processes behind There Will Be Blood's highly compelling live performance and the intricacies that have enabled it to flourish in to a truly captivating experience.
When did you first see There Will Be Blood and what attracted you to this project? Is it a score you were immediately taken with?
I saw the film when it was first released, in 2008, the same year that London Contemporary Orchestra started in fact. Every element of the film is so strong – the screenplay, 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 in the past couple of decades.
The London Contemporary Orchestra originally performed the live score for There Will Be Blood in London in 2014. Is it the same ensemble going out to other venues now, or is there a slimmed down version for touring?
We’ll be bringing the full line-up: 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.
Conducting music for a film screening presents different challenges to those you'd face when working with the score for live opera or theatre – particularly since a film can't respond or adapt to what you're doing. How do the two compare for you as a conductor? Does that leave much room to make the performance your own?
I guess the first thing to mention is that for both the rehearsals and performance, the orchestra and I don’t have a time code 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.
There are some parts of the film where music runs alongside sound effects and dialogue. With a recording, you can adjust sound levels, but is it difficult with a live performance to make sure the orchestra doesn't drown out other sounds?
It’s one of the most complex aspects of performing this film live. We are very fortunate to have a fantastic sound team of Barry Bartlett and Luca Stefani who have 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.
Your work with Jonny Greenwood started not long after the film came out – how did that collaboration begin?
We’d been performing his orchestral music since 2008 and through that had the opportunity to work with him on his second collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master, in 2012.
When you're working with a composer on something new, like your work on The Master or Moon Shaped Pool, how collaborative a process is it? Do you get given a finished score to take away and put your stamp on, or is there more of a back and forth all the way along?
With Jonny Greenwood, 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 Martonet 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 festivals in the Netherlands and Poland.
You're known for working on some quite innovative, immersive projects, like Secret Cinema and your Imagined Occasions series. There seems to be more of an appetite for 'experiences' over more conventional shows now. I wonder if you have any thoughts as to why that is? And do you think orchestral music needs to be doing more to cater to that if it's going to survive and keep bringing audiences in?
It’s certainly 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.
There Will Be Blood: Live is at Brighton Dome on 6 February. For tickets visit brightondome.org or call 01273 709709.