Jane Campion's films tend to focus on relationships, with questions of gender and sexuality often lurking not far below the surface. Her style is one which seems to take an observational approach to characters. So unlike other writers and directors who spell out in detail the emotions that viewers should feel, Campion's films have a certain ambiguity allowing viewers to fill in the blanks and make up their own minds about character motivations. Thus it was with "The Piano" for example and this is also the case with "The Power of the Dog". In the former, a piano takes a central role in the story, and she chose Michael Nyman to supply the music in a kind of improvisational yet passionate folk style. For "The Power of the Dog" Campion has gone to Jonny Greenwood to provide a score where music takes a more traditional background role. As with Campion's other work, "The Power of the Dog" doesn't shy away from deep issues. In this case we are witness to some powerful family tensions, we see some merciless bullying and there are hints of repressed sexuality. All of these provide lots of raw material for Greenwood to get to grips with.
Greenwood's music career started off with the band Radiohead, supporting and arranging the songs of its frontman Thom Yorke. He is now better known as a film composer with a growing list of credits and awards to his name. Some composers have a certain predictability about their sound. In fact they may be employed on a film score specifically to create a version of their signature sound. Not so with Jonny Greenwood. The only thing predictable about his film work is that he will surprise you, and the sound and score will be uniquely crafted for the film at hand. Greenwood is well-known as a multi-instrumentalist from his Radiohead days, and that carries over into his film work with some unusual instrumentation choices. In the case of "The Power of the Dog" the composer has chosen a sound consisting mostly of low strings, particularly cellos and violas, with piano, horns and violins providing support. And as we will soon see, Greenwood has also chosen track titles which are a curious mixture of film references and self-descriptive phrases.
"The Power of the Dog" is set on a ranch in the 1920s, so it is a latter-day Western without any of the trappings associated with the genre during the golden hollywood days. So it is not surprising that Greenwood hints at the setting from the start, not with a guitar or banjo but with some plucked guitar-like playing on a cello. This kicks off with arpeggios in "25 Years", with some harmonics thrown in for good measure, but soon bowed strings take the lead. "Requiem for Phil" starts off with a bold yet plaintive rising melody on solo Horn but soon joined also by strings, harmonising in an otherworldly scale. "So Soft" takes a more traditional approach to string writing with vertical chords and horizontal counterpoint, like a folk-inspired string quartet who have forgotten about rhythm. The 4th track is called simply "Detuned Mechanical Piano" which sounds like what it says on the tin, with an extemporised single line dashing and dancing over its keys. The track also sets up the idea of "detuning" which becomes a recurring feature in the score. Based on 5 beat groups, "Prelude" seems inspired by Bach's keyboard preludes though played with an unusual articulation on the cello.
The horns then return in "The Ravine", with call and answer impressions as though chasing echoes. In the movie there is a dog-shaped feature in the mountains, giving the film its title though it also references Psalm 22 where Dog seems to represent repressed urges. And in this movie it could also refer to the underdog. The power of the horn here seems to give a mythical quality to the concept. We return to a neo-classical world with "Mimicry", perhaps on a solo Viola. Greenwood is clearly conscious of Western connotations when "West Alone" uses a more overt Western styling with a solo piano playing a nice piece of folk Coplandesque Americana, later joined by a solo Cello. Hammered pizzicato strings with added percussive bow hits give a rough aggressive quality to "Miss Nancy Arrives" before they morph into insistent bowed strings, since Nancy's arrival precipitates the family friction central to the plot. "Figured It Out" allows a return to the guitar-like sound of Track 1, while "Viola Quartet" (another example of "what it says on the tin") sounds like a deconstructed yet surprisingly moving Vivaldi concerto with contrary-motion arpeggios, until some quarter tones herald a return to a detuned sound.
The Dog lurks again in "Best Friends" with more horn calls and underlying string textures, full of darkness, while "Paper Flowers" seems to have two children plonking away on a poorly-tuned piano in imperfect harmony and independent timing. Though that description sound perfectly innocent, the resultant cacophany has sinister overtones. "A Lovely Evening" has a strange ascending/descending follow-my-leader echoing effect on strings, before these cascades fall away. "They Were Mine" features a strange bowing technique as string instruments enter and bounce around on repeated notes, before sustained notes provide a counter-texture. "West" then returns to the Americana folk melody with some classical styling. The album then comes to an end with the longest track, named after the aforementioned "Psalm 22". Here the string writing is closer to solo plus accompaniment rather than the equal partners of a traditional quartet. An enigmatic piano enters repeating extemporised figures before the track returns to the equally enigmatic rising scales of the opening. This final track sustains a high emotional intensity for all of its 6 minutes before fading.
There is a track on Nyman's score for Campion's earlier film "The Piano" called "The Mood That Passes Through You". That phrase could apply to Greenwood's score for "The Power of the Dog". It is an uncompromising listen, largely non-melodic, strange and otherworldly in terms of instrumentation, tuning, tonality and scale. Yet it has an almost mythical influence on the listener. While the album tracks are not presented in film order, they certainly make a coherent and powerful musical experience, one that rewards repeated listening. Greenwood's score is available on CD at these links Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Other formats are also available to stream/download or on Vinyl - see the vinyl cover below.