The common approach when writing about Jonny Greenwood’s compositions outside Radiohead is to talk about him having rock star looks or rock star energy and contrast that with the formalities of an orchestra. As if the cheekbones and floppy hair, or restlessness and introspection, merely confirm the “oddity” of a musician from popular music being invited to sit with the grownups of classical, or if you prefer traditional, formal or “proper” music.
Less likely to come up are the dense, stacked chords of Popcorn Superhet Receiver, the first of his orchestral compositions to attract public attention. Or the way some of the ideas of Popcorn … expand under the influence of Krzysztof Penderecki into a finely balanced tug of war (in the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood) between disturbance and a strange kind of consolation.
The greater emphasis on strings played more conventionally – albeit without losing that element of discomfit – in his third soundtrack, Norwegian Wood, and the switching between elegant and disorienting, traditional and harshly modern, in the music for The Master, broadened the palette of what we “knew” of Greenwood.
Which is not to say there aren’t connections with his Radiohead work, not least in the capacity for unsettling the form in which they operate. That may be in stripping grand rock to spare electronica, cutting against unmistakable beauty with jaggedness, or applying to a band what Xenakis said was one of the pleasures of working with an orchestra: the capacity for slight errors, for humanity, to shift the composer’s plans.
Greenwood, who dislikes talking about himself almost as much as he dislikes being photographed (hence the floppy fringe being more likely to figure in a photo than the eyes) is the first to disavow pretentions to higher concepts and grander ambitions. Well, he would. He’s English.
To anticipate the interplay of tanpura and flute, of synthetic sounds and the colour of what Greenwood lovingly calls “wood and strings and flesh coming together”, of cascading phrases and resonant drones is to grasp some of what Richard Tognetti saw early in the process.
“The main attraction,” Tognetti said of working on Water, “is the genius of the line and the textures that Jonny has been able to access.”
So we shall see.
Bernard Zuel, 22 October 2014
Arts journalist for Fairfax Media
‘Water’ by Jonny Greenwood is performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra across Australia as part of Tognetti’s Beethoven tour.
Melbourne Arts Centre – Sun 26 and Mon 27 October
Perth Concert Hall – Wed 29 October
Canberra Llewellyn Hall – Sat 1 November (RETURNS ONLY)
Sydney Opera House – Sun 2 and Mon 3 November