Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood Q&A – Blending Classical Music With Rock

Jonny Greenwood’s playing Wapping Hydraulic Power Station this Sunday (February 23) with London Contemporary Orchestra soloists and very excitingly he’ll be premiering new material. Although best-known as an outstanding guitarist in Radiohead, Greenwood’s classical oeuvre is expanding. He’s soundtracked five major films (Bodysong, There Will Be Blood, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Norwegian Wood and The Master) and to date written four classical works. I put a few questions to him about guitar music, his classical influences and how he transitions between playing in Radiohead and writing alone.

NME: Sunday’s concert (February 23) in Wapping with the LCO will include new material written by you. What can we expect?

Jonny Greenwood: A few short pieces – hopefully one with guitar and strings, if it’s sounding OK in rehearsals. Nothing soloistic, I’m just trying to write some guitar music that sits with the orchestra. It’s strange how little music was written for strings and electric guitar when it first came out in the 1930’s – or later, even. Eventually, things did get written – but there’s usually a wall of guitar effects involved. I’ve tried to go back to the idea of an un-effected guitar as part of an orchestra. Most of the concert will be the film cues from There Will Be Blood, Norwegian Wood, and The Master. In addition, we’ll hear some new (and very old) music by other people.


NME: As well as music from your film scores there’ll be pieces by Bach and Purcell. What’s the connection?

JG: Some of the film cues are similar in their harmonies. I still tend to write stuff that starts as chord-sequences and once you apply them to strings, you realise that these are often echoes of very old ideas.

NME: You’ll be playing with the orchestra, right? How does the experience of playing with a 48-piece (or so) ensemble differ to playing in Radiohead?

JG: I’m hoping to play a little – there aren’t 48 players this time – it’s only a chamber group (7 strings and piano)…so in some ways it’s more like being in a band than with a full orchestra. Aside from anything, I’ve got to know the players in the LCO. It’s more anonymous when you’re confronted by 48 strangers.

NME: What kind of risks can you take when writing classical compared with rock?


JG: It can be a much stranger sound-world than drums and guitars – there’s access to microtones and other colours that you can’t recreate with a traditional band line-up.

NME: You can communicate a feeling or emotion so immediately with rock or pop music, is it more challenging in a classical setting?

JG: I suppose so – though seeing this group play in various non-standard venues around London has made me think a little differently about that.

NME: You mentioned that you liked the new Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks album on Twitter calling it “all the guitar music I need this year.” What’s the challenge facing guitar players in 2014? I find the way Bryce Dessner uses the electric guitar in St Carolyn By The Sea as sonic texture interesting.. Can it ever not sound old-fashioned?

JG: This is the contradiction I bounce around in. Guitar bands forming now are often playing the instruments of their grandparent’s generation – and often in the same style. The Beatles didn’t pick up banjos when they started, after all…but then, violins are even older. So I can’t decide. I guess, looked at in the right way, things like 808 drum machines are now very old, but still ubiquitous. So maybe it’s better to think of all these things as being as current – or as retro – as anything else. I enjoy there being lots of technology to play with, however old it is.

NME: I watched Doghouse performed at Reverb at the Roundhouse. There are so many classical nights at the moment in London, Berlin and other cities in alternative venues that seem more relaxed and less stuffy. How is the reputation and perception of classical music changing for music fans more into rock/pop?

JG: I think you’re right – it’s really not that different a world any more. Outside of big, seated classical venues are lots of less conventional venues starting to put on small classical events – and it can be a revelation to see and hear these players up close.

NME: What are you excited about in contemporary classical music at the moment?

JG: I like lots of the new music being written without any regard for electronics – perhaps, like in the 60s, these laptop treatments that used to startle are starting to sound a little dated. I’m not sure that a return to ‘conventional’ instruments is necessarily the next step forward, but I am sure the sounds being made by new composers like Edmund Finnis are very intriguing.


NME: Clearly there are a load of influences/interests going on musically with you and different members of Radiohead. I listened to some of the Persian pop you tweeted the other day. If you hear a cool technique, instrument or melody, say, how do you decide whether you want to experiment with it in your classical, or Radiohead world? How do you decide which idea goes where?

JG: If the sound obsesses me I try and use it whenever and wherever I can, to the quiet despair of everyone around me….

NME: I read that Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie (listen below) is your favourite piece of music. Do you stand by that? What do you love about it?

JG: I remember sitting with Thom and a recording of this about 15 years ago, looking for samples – then realising that that’s what Messiaen had already done, i.e. written all the good bits and put them in a row – and a 70 minute sample of a record is just…a record.

NME: The score for one section of ’48 Responses to Polymorphia’ is a picture of a purple oak leaf — the players all begin on a single note, then slide off according to the patterns of the veins on the leaf. Is that right? Why did you use that technique?

JG: It’s an affectionate nod to Penderecki who collects trees like Messiaen collected bird-song. I tried it with trees first, but it was easier with a leaf.

NME: You’ve used aleatoric techniques. What interests you about leaving things to the “imp of chance”, as Feldman described it?

JG: It focuses all the attention on the live performance – which is unrepeatable – and away from the recording, which is.


NME: Can you remember the first moment you heard Penderecki? I’ve heard it was quite a significant moment for you…

JG: The first recording when I was 18 – but the live concerts are much stranger and better than the recordings let on.


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