Sharp Strings for Radioheads – Penderecki & Greenwood Live CD

by Richard Unwin

Ever since the surprising turn of following the bold, guitar-led rock of OK Computer with Kid A’s ambient electronica, Radiohead have established themselves as one of contemporary music’s most experimental bands. Nestled behind the quirky front-man genius of Thom Yorke, lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has been at the heart of Radiohead’s genre shifting success, quietly drawing on his own classical influences for over a decade.

Greenwood’s talent as an independent composer has already seen him pen scores for the movies Bodysong, There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood. Now, in album format for the first time, listeners can savour Greenwood’s interaction with one of his musical icons, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

As reported by Flux back in October 2011[link], the collaboration between Greenwood and Penderecki began with a special concert in Wroclaw, Poland  as part of the government organized European Cultural Congress. The four-day festival, come diplomatic powwow, saw Penderecki go on to collaborate with Aphex Twin in a second concert that continued the theme of a contemporary musician responding to two of the Polish maestro’s 20th Century classics. While the latter, techno/classical clash would be a one-off, Poland’s AUKSO ensemble orchestra then recorded the Penderecki/Greenwood concert in Kraków’s Alvernia Studios. As in the concerts, Penderecki conducted the orchestra for the recording of his own work, while a second conductor, Marek Mos, led the pieces composed by Greenwood. Alongside the release of the album on 12 March, the orchestra finally came together again with Penderecki, Greenwood and Mos on 22 March to perform the music live at London’s Barbican Hall.

Penderecki is now 78, his short stature and well-turned-out appearance belying his standing as a giant of the 20th century avante-garde. For Greenwood, the opportunity to interact with the composer must feel particularly special, having first heard his work as a young music student. Greenwood’s first composition on the new album, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, was, itself, written back in 2006 in response to Penderecki’s seminal 1960 work Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. An enveloping piece that helped establish the Radiohead guitarist as a serious composer, Greenwood used Popcorn Superhet Receiver in both Bodysong and There Will Be Blood, proof of his enduring attraction to the dark tones of the Pole’s sonic world. Greenwood’s second contribution to the album, 48 Responses to Polymorphia (split here into nine separate tracks) responds, as the name makes clear, to Polymorphia, written by Penderecki in 1961 as a composition for 48 string instruments.

Now more than half a century old, the original Penderecki works perhaps require little new explanation, suffice to say that they suck the listener into a noise-filled chamber where a cacophony of scuttling insects and sharp shrieks seemingly lead the way into madness. Broken down on the album into four parts, Popcorn Superhet Receiver closely references Penderecki’s Threnody in its moments of quiet, its swift tuns of pace and its brooding desolation, but Greenwood also imparts a more traditional classicism with diversions into melody, beat and tune. The more recent 48 Responses, written by Greenwood for the concert in Wroclaw, arguably achieves greater heights, cleverly taking Penderecki’s brief reprise into harmony at the end of Polymorphia and reworking it again and again throughout a wider experiment in orchestral textures. The summit of Greenwood’s success comes in the final segment, Pacay Tree, with the orchestra switching their bows for curved rain sticks and concluding an uplifting stringed march with fifteen seconds of energetic, shaking sound.

Hearing the album on CD is obviously a very different thing to experiencing the music performed live. Greenwood has spoken about the greater acoustic depths of hearing an orchestra live, and the relative inferiority of recordings. While that is true, listening to the CD does provide greater control over the extent to which you can isolate yourself in the music; through volume adjustments, the use of headphones, or contrastingly being able to press pause if it all gets too much. For all its innovation, Penderecki’s music is certainly not always an easy listen and many will find it beyond their comfort zone. To be really appreciated, the listener needs to give themselves over completely to the orchestra, wrapping themselves in the sound. In concert, that effect was achieved best in Wroclaw’s eery Centennial Hall. At the Barbican, a combination of the orchestra playing with less confidence, and a shallower range in acoustics, meant the required sense of claustrophobia was less profound. Still, though, it was enough to receive a standing ovation.

Perhaps because the Barbican performance was less enveloping, the sense that this is music particularly suited to enriching film was apparent: not surprising given Greenwood’s commissions and the fact that Threnody and Polymorphia have respectively featured in The Shining and The Exorcist. Leaving the Barbican, though, what became even more apparent, haunting even, was the way the sounds of the nighttime city mirrored the music, almost as if the performance had never ended. Play the album loud at home at night, close your eyes, and you will probably achieve a similar effect.

Krzysztof Penderecki / Jonny Greenwood: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima / Popcorn Superhet Receiver / Polymorphia / 48 Responses to Polymorphia
AUKSO Orchestra/Penderecki/Marek Mos
(Nonesuch Records)
Available to buy now on CD


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