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Jonny Greenwood on Penderecki, Messiaen and the BBC Concert Orchestra

Jonny Greenwood made an appearance at Concert For Care at the Royal Albert Hall Today. Below is an interview from The Times with Jonny on how he gets inspired by orchestra’s, tells about his short musical education, his heroes Penderecki and Messiaen. And his Radiohead bandmates are only ‘a bit interested’ in his classical work.

“It’s strange,” he says. “With all these orchestral pieces I reach a point halfway through the writing process when I’ve been stuck alone in a room for days, and feel it’s not worth it. But then I hear the orchestra play the piece, and it’s the most fun thing in the world. Then I just want to get started on the next one.”

He’s been infatuated with orchestras, it turns out, since his teenage years as a viola player. “Yes, a viola player,” he sighs. “Our reputation is either that we are people with no personalities, or lazy violinists who want an easy way into orchestras. All of which is possibly a bit true.” The viola certainly got Greenwood into the Thames Vale Youth Orchestra. A formative experience. “I’d been in school orchestras and never seen the point. But in Thames Vale I was suddenly with all these 18-year-olds who could actually play in tune. I remember thinking: ‘Ah, that’s what an orchestra is supposed to sound like!’”

Greenwood also took A-level music. “I learnt how to harmonise Bach chorales. Glad I did, too. I’m still using the skills.”
He was actually on track to learn more – enrolled on a music course at what was then Oxford Poly – when fate, in the shape of EMI, intervened. “I was three weeks into the course when our band landed a recording contract. That was that.”

But those three weeks were enough! One lecturer had played a recording of the Polish avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and Greenwood was hooked. He still is, as his There Will Be Blood soundtrack amply shows. “I was astonished that Penderecki produced such amazing sounds with such old technology – an orchestra.”
Penderecki is one of Greenwood’s classical music heroes. The other, even more improbably, is the mystic French composer Olivier Messiaen – he of the huge works for church organ, mathematically derived modes, and passion for birdsong. “Most of my BBC pieces were written within Messiaen’s modes,” Greenwood says.

But Messiaen? He’s an awfully long way from Radiohead, isn’t he? Not in Greenwood’s joined-up view of the musical universe. “You know, people from my background are made to feel that it’s wrong to have opinions about classical music.”
Because it’s thought that you don’t have the expertise to form an opinion? “Exactly. So I found it quite healthy, particularly at school, to think about classical composers and rock bands in the same way. The reason I loved Messiaen, for instance, was that he was still alive and writing. To me that was as exciting as a great old rock band still being around. Same with Penderecki. His strange orchestral music was quite dark, but it felt similar to the strange electronic music coming out of Manchester.”
So ignorance can be bliss, musically? “I’m not saying that. There’s ignorance on both sides. A lot of my friends who studied classical music were very nice – chess- playing types, mostly – but their idea of popular music began and ended with Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles.”

And what of the music being created now by those “chess-playing types” – young classically trained composers? “I hear a lot of modern orchestral music that sounds very anxious about what its next note is going to be,” Greenwood replies. “You can feel the tension of the person writing it, and that makes me tense.”
That’s not an unfair description of much post-serial classical music. But what of Greenwood’s own orchestral writing? How did he go about it? “Very cautiously. You can hear that in the pieces. The first two or three minutes are claustrophobic, as though I’m afraid to do anything dramatic.”
Did he take lessons? “No. But I’ve read Alfred Blatter’s book about orchestration from cover to cover a few times. There’s still so much I don’t know, though.”

What do the players think of him? “Someone warned me at the beginning that whichever orchestra I work with, a third of the players will like what I do, a third will hate it, and a third will just get on with the job. But the BBC CO have been amazing.”
Greenwood likes to think through the philosophy behind his pieces before writing a note of them. (“Well, I don’t know how much is thinking and how much putting off the hard work,” he grins.) Popcorn Superhet Receiver was a response to the babble of background noise that constantly affects how we hear music on the radio. Smear came out of his fascination with the hauntingly eerie ondes martenot: the primitive electronic instrument much used by Messiaen, and latterly employed by Greenwood to grace several Radiohead tracks.
“I love those ancient electronic instruments,” he says, “because the focus then was on trying to answer the fundamental question ‘How can we make electricity a musical thing?’ Since electronic keyboards came in, it’s just been about sequencing. We’ve lost the adventure of making new musical instruments.”

How have Radiohead fans responded to Greenwood’s orchestral adventures? “We’re lucky to have fans that expect something different each time,” he replies. “Or aren’t disappointed when they hear something that’s difficult to understand at first.”
And the other members of Radiohead? “I think they’re proud, and a bit interested.” But do they actually come to Greenwood’s concerts? “No,” Greenwood laughs. “But they ask for recordings. I tell them it’s not the same.”

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