Another rocker goes classical. And this time, it works.
Even if you're not a fan of contemporary rock music, you've perhaps come across the name of the English band Radiohead. We've played their music on WFCR's classical shows, as covered by such artists as Christopher O'Riley (both solo and with Matt Haimovitz), Katia Labèque and Anderson & Roe. If you're new to Radiohead's music, check out their "OK Computer" and "In Rainbows" albums, and hear what draws classical artsts to them.
While lead singer Thom Yorke does most of Radiohead's writing, he's not the only intriguing composer in the band. Guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, in particular, has carved out a separate identity for himself both inside and outside Radiohead, masterminding the group's intelligent use of electronic sounds, and composing film soundtracks (e.g., "There Will Be Blood", " We Need to Talk About Kevin") and classical works. One of the latter won the the Radio 3 Listeners' Award at the 2006 BBC British Composer Awards, has just been released in its second recording, and is coming up during the noon hour Monday on WFCR.
"Popcorn Superhet Receiver", Greenwood's first extended classical work, took its name, and some of its static-y sonorities, from shortwave radio, and (avowedly) took its way of handling string orchestra textures from the music of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music Greenwood first encountered while at college. Indeed, two of Penderecki's best-known works, "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" and "Polymorphia" share the new Nonesuch recording by the Aukso Orchestra with two by Greenwood. But influence, however obvious, does not preclude originality or personality when the composer under the influence has something to say and knows how to say it. Tune in to see whether you agree (I'll repeat the piece this Sunday), but I find "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" to be an engaging and imaginative work, and an excellent addition to the string orchestra repertoire.
While there's no particular reason why Greenwood's rock background means that his classical works should therefore be compared to similar efforts by other rockers, it's instructive in this case to consider"Popcorn" alongside Paul McCartney's recent ballet Ocean's Kingdom (which I wrote about on a previous blog entry). Sir Paul has come up with a pleasant enough piece, thanks in large part to his professional arrangers and orchestrators. But it utterly lacks both the energy and personality of his pop and rock music and the substance classical listeners want in even the lightest score. It would be hard to imagine die-hard fans of The Beatles or Wings getting their groove on to McCartney's ballet, while experienced classical lovers would be hard-pressed to pay attention to the whole thing, and not sneak out a book or smart phone to pass the time. This goes for McCartney's earlier classical works, such as the "Liverpool Oratorio" or "Standing Stone". B-o-r-i-n-g!
Greenwood's work, on the other hand, is at once less ambitious and more accomplished than Paul's. In just over thirteen minutes, it says its piece, doesn't overstay its welcome, and is done with it. After one listening, you know that its composer knows how to pace, develop and structure a classical work. It's both unified and varied like, you know, "real" classical pieces. And even if they don't hear ear-to-ear on other things, there's one thing the staunchest Radiohead fan and the most sensitive classical connoisseur can agree on: "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" sounds really cool!
(Jonny Greenwood, left, with Krzysztof Penderecki)