Critic’s Notebook: Jonny Greenwood shows a deft classical touch


Classical and pop mashups have been going on, like, forever.

Way back in 1969, Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord wrote a successful Concerto for Group and Orchestra that the Royal Philharmonic premiered in London and the Los Angeles Philharmonic grabbed for the Hollywood Bowl the following summer. Way, way back in the Middle Ages, folk music messed with the church music to help give us what we now call classical music. Something similar probably went on way, way, way back with the ancient Babylonians. Want to bet that King David played a mean folk harp?

So we need not place too much weight on the fact that when certain famous British rock musicians from the ‘60s and ‘70s reach their 60s and 70s they turn to writing for the symphony orchestra and become in essence classical musicians. Lord, who had classical training, happens to be composer in residence of the Hagen Philharmonic, which last month premiered a large-scale chorus and orchestra work, “From Darkness to Light,” in Dortmund, Germany, where the ensemble is based.

A recording of “Six Pieces for Orchestra” by Tony Banks, keyboardist of Genesis and also classically trained, has just been released by the City of Prague Philharmonic. “The Titanic Requiem” by Robin Gibb and his son RJ Gibb had its world premiere (also by the Royal Philharmonic) in April, shortly before the Bee Gees singer died, and it is out on CD. Paul McCartney’s “Ocean’s Kingdom” was written for a New York City Ballet dance this season and can be found on CD as well.


Unfortunately little of what caused these musicians to capture the imagination of millions comes across in their orchestral writing. The third of Banks’ “Six Pieces,” “Blade,” is a kind of mini-violin concerto reminiscent of early 20th century British symphonic music with a dash of more recent film music. The Gibbs’ “Titanic Requiem” is Andrew Lloyd Webberish. Lord’s “From Darkness to Light,” which was streamed live by a Cologne radio station, is attractively Elgarian. McCartney’s equally old-fashioned ballet score has few reminders of his wonderful yesterdays.

A generation younger, Jonny Greenwood, however, is different. Guitarist in Radiohead, Greenwood, who studied viola and a smattering of composition, has something original to say in the bit of concert music he has produced. And stylistically he has moved up the historical ladder a few decades, taking his influence from the avant-garde of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He isn’t the only rocker so clued in. Brian Eno, Sonic Youth and Björk are others, but they’re not writing for orchestra, and Greenwood is.

In 2004, Greenwood was appointed composer in association of the BBC Concert Orchestra, which raised a few eyebrows. “I’m going to drive everyone slightly crazy” was how he put it to the British newspaper the Guardian. He didn’t. He wrote “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” for string orchestra and won the BBC British Composer Award, an extraordinary achievement not only for a pop star but also a novice symphonic composer.

It has taken an absurdly long while for “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” to get much traction. Curiously, this is one worthy crossover bandwagon the L.A Phil has yet to jump on. Greenwood has been noticeably absent from its Green Umbrella series, let alone the Bowl. But that could finally change. There are two compelling recordings of “Superhet,” and last weekend at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., two more recent Greenwood pieces were included in a program with newsworthy U.S. premieres of neglected orchestral works by John Cage.

The recordings of “Superhet” come from, of all places, Canada and Poland, although that is maybe less surprising than it seems. The Canadian disc on Analeckta is by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony; its music director, Edwin Outwater, was the resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony when the Bay Area’s Magic*Magic Orchestra gave the U.S. premiere of “Superhet” in 2008. The Polish recording is by the Warsaw-based Aukso Orchestra on a Nonesuch disc that pairs “Superhet” and another Greenwood score with the early ‘60s avant-garde works by Krzysztof Penderecki that inspired them.

The Polish composer isn’t the only European avant-gardist on Greenwood’s playlist. As is evident from Radiohead songs, he is a guy who likes not only Penderecki’s clotted clusters of tones but also Olivier Messiaen’s sticky-sweet swooping sounds and György Ligeti’s complex textures. Still, the Nonesuch disc clearly demonstrates how “Superhet” is a kind of antiphon to the anguished dissonances of Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” and Greenwood’s “48 Responses to Polymorphia” is an obvious response to Penderecki’s “Polymorphia.” Just to make sure the patronage is on the up and up, Penderecki conducts his own pieces with Aukso, while Greenwood’s are led by Marek Mos.


Like Penderecki in “Threnody,” Greenwood treats the string players as unique voices, sonic swarms of bees making clouds of sound. But he works differently. As a young Pole flexing his expressive muscle in 1960 during one of Poland’s artist thaws, Penderecki smacked his listeners with fistfuls of grating dissonances. Greenwood replaces the grater with a blender. He works as a pop musician in a studio might, toying individually with tracks and finding the right complex mixtures of sonorities.

“Superhet” is most startling when it slips and slides, one swishing and swooping pitch after another. The clusters invite you in. The popcorn starts popping in a middle section, with smartly rhythmic pizzicato effects. There are a few artificially cloying measures, but what can be said about “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” is that its composer has an immediately recognizable voice. The performances are very different. Outwater’s is far slower, more entrancing and mysterious. Mos’ is dramatically gripping.

Greenwood’s other work on the Nonesuch disc is “48 Responses to Polymorphia.” It is actually nine responses to Penderecki’s “Polymorphia,” an aggressively clustery score with a gimmicky fat C-major chord at the end, as if to say this was all a bad dream. Greenwood plays with that chord in a variety of clever and graceful ways, stepping in a Bach bath at first and ticktocking his way out in the last response.

Then there is Greenwood the film composer. His score for the soundtrack to “There Will Be Blood”was Oscar material (it was disqualified for consideration on a technicality), and he is working on another Paul Thomas Anderson project, “The Master.” Meanwhile, Nonesuch has released the soundtrack that Greenwood wrote to Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s “Norwegian Wood,” a Japanese film based on the novel by Haruki Murakami. The exquisite 2010 movie never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. but it is out on DVD. Despite a touch of sentimentality, Greenwood’s dreamy, haunting score has the brilliant ephemerality not heard on film since the great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu died two decades ago.

In fact, just try to escape Greenwood’s presence in classical music these days. Radiohead’s song “Idioteque” uses a chord sequence from an obscure early computer music piece by Paul Lansky. Five years ago, Lansky returned the favor by making that sequence the key moment in his two-piano concerto titled “Shapeshifters.” The Alabama Symphony played the concerto in Carnegie Hall last month and has recorded it on Bridge with conductor Justin Brown and the two-piano team known as Quattro Mani.

Arrangements of Radiohead songs pop up, so to speak, on two more new CDs: “Shuffle. Play. Listen.” and “when words fade.” The first features cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianistChristopher O’Riley, the second is by Anderson + Roe, another two-piano team. These are fine musicians, but they make Radiohead sound as comfortable as the old slippers favored by McCartney and crew. Maybe it’s time for Greenwood to write some real music for them to play.