MAGNET Feedback With Radiohead’s Philip Selway

My soundtrack for Let Me Go is the first full score I’ve written for film. Finding the music’s place in the film amongst the direction, the cinematography, the production design and the amazing performances was a fascinating process; it was a very steep learning curve for me. Fortunately, it’s a path that’s been well-trodden by many immensely talented composers, so I had lots of scores to turn to for instruction. Here’s a short selection of soundtracks that MAGNET asked me to write about that have captured my imagination over the years. —Philip Selway

Ennio Morricone, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
I grew up watching Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s. At the heart of these were Ennio Morricone’s hauntingly memorable scores. In the soundtrack for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Morricone turned convention on its head. He used minor keys for many of the pacy action scenes and major keys for the more melancholic sequences. He wrote for large ensembles of uncommon groupings of instruments, where electric guitars could sit alongside an ocarina or whistling and whip cracks. He more or less reinvented the Western film score, and I always find myself humming one of his themes whenever I see a poncho.

Edmund Meisel, Battleship Potemkin
I remember going to see this film in a chilly village hall when I was a teenager. The movie was based around the mutiny on the Potemkin in 1905, so the score for Eisenstein’s film was never going to be easy listening, and I can’t say that I immediately warmed to it. Edmund Meisel’s composition for the film was atonal and angular. It was blamed for causing riots at the Berlin premiere and was subsequently banned. However, the score played its part in turning a film that had received modest success in Russia into an international hit. It also acted as a blueprint for composition for film from thereon in.

Mychael Danna, Monsoon Wedding
I love the work of director Mira Nair and have lost myself in Monsoon Wedding, in particular, many times. Mychael Danna’s soundtrack is definitely part of my emotional memory of the film. He based the main title, “Baraat,” on a traditional Indian-wedding processional for a groom. It is such a joyous piece of music. The soundtrack also includes a qawwali by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and a ghazal by Farida Khanum, so it evokes a devotional and spiritual character, almost subconsciously, through the music. It’s such a rich soundtrack.

Gottfried Huppertz, Metropolis
I recently came across Metropolis again through my eldest son, who’s become a bit of a film buff. This soundtrack was written at the height of the silent-film era, just a couple of years after Meisel’s Battleship Potemkin score. I find the ambition and scope in these pieces almost overwhelming. Huppertz’s large-scale orchestral score, inspired by Wagner and Strauss, was prominent in the production of the film, and Huppertz would play piano on the set to guide the actors’ performances.

Quincy Jones, The Italian Job
Aside from establishing my lifelong love of Minis, The Italian Job also introduced me to Quincy Jones’ music. Jones’ track “The Self-Preservation Society” is as synonymous with the film as Michael Caine saying, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” His soundtrack was perfectly in tune with the energy and irreverence of the film. It also shows how the music in a film can stay with you long after the actual images of the film have faded from your mind’s eye.

Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood
It’s impossible to talk about film scores and not touch on the incredible work of my bandmate Jonny Greenwood. His ongoing working relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson has been particularly fruitful, and it’s hard to imagine one without the other now. I remember going to see There Will Be Blood and being absolutely blown away by how visceral Jonny’s score was. It was so accomplished and self-assured and definitely laid down a marker for me.

Leonard Bernstein, On The Waterfront
From West Side Story through to On The Waterfront, I love Leonard Bernstein’s use of complex and insistent rhythm in his music. His soaring melodies, coupled with the dissonance and sometimes atonal harmonies he dresses them in, make for one of the most compelling voices in film composition. An anecdote of his also reminds me of how music must serve the film and cede to it when necessary. When Bernstein was attending a dubbing session for On The Waterfront, he had to look on in horror as a music cue that he felt was very important to the film was mostly removed to make way for Marlon Brando’s grunt. “What are you going to do?” he reminisced. Even the greatest have to bow down at points.

Mark Knopfler, Cal

This is one that’s stayed with me over the years. It laid in me the seeds of the idea that you could come to film-score composition from disparate musical backgrounds, and that gave me the confidence to have a go myself. It shows how you can have a very distinctive musical voice but still support the drama perfectly. There is a beauty and melancholy in this soundtrack that complements the tender moments in the film but also acts as a counterpoint and foil to its harsh darkness.

John Barry, Midnight Cowboy
It’s hard to choose among John Barry’s scores. His music is the sound of James Bond and espionage. The vast, soaring sweep of his themes have elevated so many films. But Midnight Cowboy has Barry’s trademark arrangements of lush strings and strident brass, and with some of the main melodies being carried by harmonica, there’s an intimacy which lends a poignancy to his score. This soundtrack also benefits from Fred Neil’s amazing song “Everybody’s Talkin’,’’ sung by Harry Nilsson.

John Williams, Star Wars Trilogy
From Harry Potter to Indiana Jones to Schindler’s List, John Williams practically is soundtrack composition personified. It’s his music for the Star Wars trilogy, though, that created a whole musical universe, drawing on the symphonic influences of Dvorak and Strauss. It’s also possible to hear intonations of English composers like Holst and Walton in this work. His music for these films is like a series of great themes for Westerns and WWII films all rolled into one. Above all, they are just cracking tunes that make me say to myself, “God, I wish I’d written that.” Maybe, one day …