Paul Cooke celebrates the achievements of Jonny Greenwood.
I cannot have been the only teenager caught between two musical worlds, on the one hand the classical inclinations of my musician father, on the other, the temptations of some vibrant and innovative popular music. Fortunately, there were occasions when we ‘in-betweeners’ were catered for. In London in 1969, the Royal Albert Hall witnessed the premiere of Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra: there, in a concert which advance publicity billed as ‘When two worlds meet!’, Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra started off as stylistic antagonists and ultimately reached some kind of rapprochement.
The following year, much closer to home, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was joined by singer Jeannie Lewis and rock group Tully for Peter Sculthorpe’s Love 200. The work had been commissioned to mark not only the bicentenary of Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay but also of his observations of the transit of Venus. Regarded by Sculthorpe as one of his best works, Love 200 managed to encompass both avant-garde orchestral writing reminiscent of Penderecki and the more traditional vocabulary of the rock group. It has been praised as being “both elegant and jarring, serene and chaotic”.
Such adjectives could equally well describe the compositions of Jonny Greenwood, though in his case, there isn’t the same sense of trying to marry the exotic to the familiar: both traditions seem natural to him. Born in Oxford in 1971, not long after the aforementioned experiments, as a teenager Greenwood played recorder and viola, the former in groups that played Baroque music, the latter in the Thames Vale Youth Orchestra. He took music at school, studying chorale harmonisation at A Level, and had begun a degree in music when the rock group he was currently playing with, Radiohead, was signed to a major record company.
In his youth, Greenwood’s favourite composition was Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, and he was familiar with Penderecki, whose “strange orchestral music,” he thought, “was quite dark, but it felt similar to the strange electronic music coming out of Manchester” in the 1980s.
Greenwood’s affinity with Penderecki has manifested throughout his career; it can be discerned in the 1997 Radiohead song Climbing up the Walls, where 16 string instruments are heard playing quartertones apart. In 2005, as composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra and inspired both by radio static and the dissonant tone clusters of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, he wrote Popcorn Superhet Receiver. For this composition, he recorded individual tones on viola and then manipulated and overdubbed them.
Though Greenwood joined Radiohead playing keyboards and harmonica and then became their lead guitarist, it was his arrangements, which incorporated electronic techniques such as programming, sampling and looping, which set the group apart. His first more ‘serious’ work, the soundtrack to Bodysong (2003), incorporates swirling electronics and backwards record loops. In a more recent soundtrack, You Were Never Really Here (2018), “placid passages continually give way to sudden bursts of dissonance, noise and harsh electronics”. In the concert work commissioned for the BBC Proms, Horror vacui (2019), the process is turned full circle: the “solo violin treating the orchestra like a big reverb chamber, triggering resonances, echoes and granular-style stretching of time.“
Rock? Classical? Electronic? Organic? Jonny Greenwood is not between worlds. He straddles them.