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Pop pioneer in love with the classics

Another interview with Jonny Greenwood was published in today’s Daily Telegraph:

As the guitarist with Radiohead, one of the most successful and adventurous rock bands in the world, Jonny Greenwood is used to strutting his stuff for people he doesn’t know in places he’s only heard of. But none of that prepared him for his first encounter, late last year, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, when they tried out the first piece he has written for them as their composer-in-residence. Weeks later, nursing a pint in a pub in Oxford (he lives in a village nearby), Greenwood still seems slightly dazed by the experience.
 
The awed excitement he owns up to feeling as the musicians arrived at the BBC’s Maida Vale studio is almost groupie-ish. “I’m very romantic about Maida Vale and all the great orchestral recordings that have been made there,” says the floppy fringed, studenty-looking character who shelved his music degree three weeks into his first term at Oxford Brookes University after Radiohead signed to Parlophone in 1991.

Fearless experimenter: Jonny Greenwood with the BBC Concert Orchestra

As the Concert Orchestra grappled with Greenwood’s first proper score – a 20-minute sequence inspired partly by radio static and partly by the long, discordant chords in the Polish composer Penderecki’s Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima – it all got too much.

“As long as I looked down and just listened it was OK,” he decides. “But, if I concentrated on watching all those people spending time on my stuff…” He remembers being almost hypnotised by the presence of a white-haired woman cellist. “That really blew me away. That was when I knew I had to shut my eyes.”

Most unnerving of all was not knowing how a fairly abstract concept, which he had some difficulty scoring, would sound once an orchestra got hold of it. For one thing, Greenwood had never worked with a conductor before.

Although he insists that Robert Ziegler was “great”, it wasn’t like working with his regular band “where you have one-to-one contact with everybody. Here everything had to be done through the conductor.”

And not everything came out right. “The orchestra were great at explaining what they could do and why certain things couldn’t be done. But there was one section where they just burst out laughing because it sounded so wrong, one irritating repetitive chord rather than a burst of hissing white noise. And I had to grin and bear it, and move on to the next part. Which worked, thank goodness.”

It was Greenwood’s fearlessly experimental attitude that first brought him to the attention of Radio 3 controller Roger Wright. Wright heard a piece called Smear, which Greenwood wrote for the 2003 Fuse festival in Leeds. It featured the onde martinot – one of the earliest electronic instruments – and a small string section from the London Sinfonietta.

“It was more of a sketch than a finished piece,” Wright says, “But it had a strong sense of colour and a personal voice. I could tell that he was trying to create a new sound world.”

Wright’s decision to offer Greenwood a gig with the BBC Concert Orchestra was made “because they are the most flexible of our groups” and also because Anne Dudley’s three-year tenure was coming to an end. Greenwood didn’t hesitate. “My first thought was, ‘I’m going to get my hands on an orchestra and all the sounds in the BBC archive.” He hopes in a future commission to re-model some classic TV and radio theme tunes with the Concert Orchestra.

The announcement of his appointment coincided with a public outcry from a group styling themselves the “friends of Radio 3″, who denounced what they saw as the network’s betrayal of its heritage.

If Greenwood was their intended target – and Wright doesn’t believe it – the “friends” picked the wrong enemy. Classical music was Greenwood’s original passion. He learned the viola at home in Oxford years before he picked up the guitar at 16. His first band was the Thames Vale Youth Orchestra, and he still remembers how “the first time I heard a proper orchestra, the sound just blew me away.”

Unlike the army of pop-crazed youth who have allegedly given up on orchestral music, Greenwood insists that “it’s not finished at all. The traditional orchestra is still a magical group of instruments. Despite the promise of samples, there’s a lot that only an orchestra can do.”

His favourite orchestrator currently is Penderecki, but his first big hero was Messaien. “It was like a pop thing. Being at school and realising he was still alive, I equated him with the bands I liked at the time, the Fall and Sonic Youth.”

The indie-classical connection was, he concedes, partly “a reaction against the more prissy kids who were studying music with me whose idea of pop music was Enya and the Beatles, and who couldn’t understand what was great about Joy Division.”

It also encouraged an unusually partisan approach to the classical canon. “I had that schoolboy thing of being either passionately into things or against them.” Bach he found epic and grand; Mozart, by contrast, was merely “impressive, not moving”. Greenwood strikingly compares this to the way he “loved the Pixies but never got into AC/DC”.

Over the past year, juggling his extensive interests in rock and contemporary classical music has become his life’s work. Days after his first workshop with the Concert Orchestra, he was being filmed in a band led by Jarvis Cocker for the next Harry Potter film.

Once he’s sorted out his first BBC commission, or maybe even before, he’ll be back in the studio to record another Radiohead album. He and the band’s vocalist Thom Yorke are then scheduled to appear together at the Warp label’s Ether festival on the South Bank on March 28.

Greenwood has organised an evening of startling variety, which promises, among many other things, arrangements of Radiohead songs performed by the London Sinfonietta, a fresh take on Smear, and a new piano piece Greenwood has just begun writing for the Sinfonietta’s pianist John Constable.

He describes this mighty splurge as “an overreaction” to Radiohead’s decision to take six months off after their last tour. Greenwood doesn’t do time off. During a previous break in band activities in 2002, he devised a soundtrack for an art movie, Body Song. This led to his getting the Smear commission from the curator of Fuse, Django Bates.

Despite all this extra-curricular activity, Greenwood is still “100 per cent committed to Radiohead” and says that the solitary work of composition is “nowhere near as much fun as being in a band”. And he is particularly anxious to get Thom Yorke’s feedback to his first BBC piece.

“I’m planning to play it to him as soon as I see him.” And if Yorke says he doesn’t like it? “I’ll believe him! He won’t though. He’ll find what’s good about it and highlight that.” [thanks James & Rachel]

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