Tomasz Handzlik: How come you’re fascinated with Penderecki’s music?
Jonny Greenwood: Many reasons. It employs such traditional technology to create whole new sound-worlds. A teacher introduced me to the Thredony for the Victims of Hiroshima. I started hunting for his scores, and thinking about pitch and time in music in new ways. I’m also fascinated that he drew influence from electronic music, and after studying it in great detail, took what he learnt back to orchestral writing. That was a remarkable second step to take.
A rock-star and avant-garde classic music? That’s an unusual combination.
I grew up as an obsessive fan of many kinds of music, thinking of good rock, jazz and classical records as all being as valuable as each other. Still I think that’s true. Kraftwerk, Miles Davis, Messiaen, Joy Division, The Fall, Lee “Scratch” Perry... all of these, for example, have made great records, well worth hearing.
But your history with music started with a cello.
The viola – yes, I was in youth orchestras, and recorder groups well in to my teenage years. I’d be practicing with rock bands after school some days, and with orchestras or baroque recorder groups on others. It was a strange double life, but I’m grateful that I was spending so much time making music.
Which of the composers came into your life as the first one? Krzysztof Penderecki or Olivier Messiaen?
Penderecki & Greenwood
by Nonesuch Records
Nonesuch Records releases an album of works by Krzysztof Penderecki and Radiohead’s composer and guitarist Jonny Greenwood on 13 March 2012. The artists’ work premiered in two concerts in September 2011 during the European Congress of Culture in Wrocław, the main event of the National Cultural Programme of the Polish Presidency in the European Union Council.
The composers recorded the album in Kraków’s Alvernia Studios immediately after the performances, along with one other piece by Greenwood.
For both the concerts and the recording, the pieces were performed by the AUKSO ensemble, which comprises graduates of Poland’s Katowice Academy of Music.
Penderecki conducted the ensemble in his works and AUKSO’s artistic director – the violinist, chamber musician, and conductor Marek Moś – led the group for Greenwood’s pieces.
The record was produced by Filip Berkowicz – artistic director of the Sacrum Profanum, Misteria Paschalia, and Opera Rara festivals and curator of the Penderecki concerts in Wrocław – and made in association with the National Audiovisual Institute of Poland.
Messiaen. A teacher played us the Turangalila Symphony when I was 15, and I was very surprised that such colours could be made with an orchestra. The Ondes Martenot swooping over violins that seemed to be playing a different piece of music from the rest of the orchestra. It struck me as supernatural. And, as a teenager, I think I responded to the fact that he was still alive and composing: it made him more like a band to me, less of a remote figure.
It’s Messiaen that you’ve borrowed the Ondes Martenot from?
Yes – such a great way to turn electricity into sound: it’s very tactile, like a viola: you can control every aspect of pitch and tone in a way that feels very natural. It makes you realise that most synthesizers are still just a collection of switches, rather than musical instruments.
And today you’re the Composer in Association in BBC Concert Orchestra. It’s your second calling apart from playing with Radiohead?
There have always been orchestrations in Radiohead songs – even if they’re just using guitars and pianos, and for us, it’s helpful to think of them as arrangements. We try and think of all instruments as important as one another, whether it’s a glockenspiel or a laptop, or a guitar – or even string orchrestra. Whatever the song needs, we hope not to be scared off using anything, even if we use it clumsily.
Your Popcorn Superhet Receiver was inspired by Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Why did you pick this particular piece?
This piece by Penderecki ends with a big block of white noise created by 2 octaves of quartertones (48 individual notes each half a semi-tone apart). I took this as a starting point, treating this as a solid three-dimentional white cube, like plaster or stone – something that could have shapes carved out of it.
Have you ever dreamed of working with Penderecki?
Never – it’s too strange.
But you’ve met Penderecki after his concert in London, where he in person conducted the Cello Concerto no. 2. How do you recall that meeting and event?
Penderecki & Greenwood
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960-61)
Popcorn Superhet Receiver* (2005)
48 Responses to Polymorphia* (2011)
AUKSO Chamber Orchestra of the City of Tychy Krzysztof Penderecki conductor
Marek Moś conductor*
Grzegorz Barszczewski lighting design
Marcin Bania and Maciej Malinowski video
22 March 2012 at 20:00
It was in the Drapers Hall, in London. I led a standing ovation from the front row – which really isn’t like me at all. No-one else stood up, which felt more like me... I couldn’t understand how, as well as the melodies, the room was filled with such exotic, beautiful clouds of sound. I half believed that electronics were involved – but of course all these new sounds were coming from an old-fashioned string orchestra.
I do think that of all recorded music, Penderecki’s suffers the most in translation to CD and speaker: it’s complexity means you really have to experience it in the room, with the orchestra, in order to hear the beauty and details in the textures he creates. That reduction from 48 instruments to 2 speakers is a real diminution – like watching The Shining on a mobile phone. You miss so much.
And now, your cooperation is getting more tight. What do you expect from the project prepared for the European Culture Congress?
I’m working on something at the moment that is inspired by polymorphia – I’m trying two very different approaches, and waiting to see which one works. I’m unsure of how it’ll turn out, but I am very glad that Penderecki is proving to be so open-minded and welcoming to musicians from outside the classical world.
This interview has been previously published in Beethoven Magazine No. 11/2011