Why is no one talking about Jonny Greenwood’s excellent new recording?
Photograph by John Shearer/Getty Images.
You wouldn’t think it possible for even the tiniest bit of Radiohead news to go unheralded. Fans and critics closely monitor each band member’s releases, no matter how minor. Drummer Phil Selway’s latest EP, a four-song set of outtakes from an earlier solo album, netted a stand-alone review on Pitchfork and feature-length attention from WNYC. Last month’s announcement of a collaborative effort between Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and the hip-hop artist DOOM launched thousands of retweets and Facebook likes. Forward-looking aficionados are already anticipating a possible recording next year from Yorke’s side project with Flea, Atoms for Peace. If one doesn’t materialize, you can expect that fact to be news, too.
Such flurries of attention for ephemeral works can sometimes make you long for a browser extension that would excise any mention of the band or its members—even if you like them. And yet, oddly, the most important Radiohead-related release of the year, aside from their most recent album The King of Limbs, has barely been talked about at all.
Since late September, the debut recording of Jonny Greenwood’s first large-scale orchestral work, “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” has been available as part of a solid overall disc from the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. (Also featured on the program are two worthy works by Nico Muhly, in addition to a bland-but-brief offering from Arcade Fire member Richard Reed Parry.) So far, the album has attracted no attention from the pop or classical critics at the New York Times, the news editors and reviewers at Pitchfork, or even the proprietors of one of Radiohead’s most frequently updated fan sites.
There’s no cause for this on the merits. Greenwood has been widely hailed as a compositional talent ever since he scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The guitarist drew on “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” for the Blood score, which led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to deem the work ineligible for Oscar contention (due to the inclusion of elements from a prior work). But if you think that you know “Popcorn” because you’ve seen Anderson’s film, you’re wrong.
Greenwood’s original composition is a three-movement work, lasting 19 minutes. The soundtrack to Blood, issued by Nonesuch Records, has 11 tracks, taking up just under 33 minutes. But only two tracks on the Blood CD have anything to do with “Popcorn”; the tense glissandos of “Henry Plainview” and the slap-string pizzicato playing in “Proven Lands” were clearly snatched directly from the earlier score. (The title track of the Nonesuch CD, “There Will Be Blood,” at first sounds related, as well, but it turns out to contain plenty of distinct compositional features.) The instrumentation alone on several parts of the Blood soundtrack—the Messiaen-like piano on “Eat Him by His Own Light,” and the use of a string quartet at other points—clearly separates most of the soundtrack from “Popcorn,” which was written for a string orchestra.
I count barely six minutes of overlap between the released Blood soundtrack and the full version of “Popcorn.” That doesn’t square with the Academy’s math, as presented to Variety back in 2008, which cited “15 minutes” of music from Blood’s “35 minute” original score as having come from the prior work. One particular passage from “Popcorn” does feature prominently in Blood. The moment in which a chaotic mass of strings migrates at once, in unison, to a single pitch becomes a leitmotif that signals intensity throughout the film. Perhaps this repetition was the score’s awards-season undoing; without access to the cue sheets provided to the Academy by Blood’s producers, we can’t be certain about how they got to their number. Regardless, the point remains that Radiohead fans have yet to hear most passages of “Popcorn”—and even the bits that did make it into Blood sound different in the context of the whole composition.
The opening two minutes of the piece—which figure nowhere in Blood’s soundtrack—are particularly seductive: As the violins sigh and slide from one ghostly tonality to the next, the basses are given shorter, more defined phrases that pace our listening as we wait for their re-entry. This amounts to the inversion of a familiar Radiohead arrangement, post-O.K. Computer, in which Thom Yorke’s lullaby falsetto is apt to interrupt, and also counteract, the discomfiting clatter of the rhythm section. Greenwood’s alternative orchestral approach is every bit as effective, and frames the moments of “Popcorn” that are more familiar, thanks to Blood.
Greenwood has likened the sound of this first orchestral foray to his own memories of childhood car rides, in which the engine’s hum contributed a droning counterpoint to the cassette playing in the tape deck—or a radio signal that might be sliding in and out of broadcast range. The hair-raising moments conscripted for use in Anderson’s film suggest just a portion of this palette, but over the course of the full work, we can hear Greenwood twisting his own aesthetic dial to find and then linger upon those strange spots in between stations: where a lovely, blooming phrase can keen sharply, moments before dissolving into a spectral haze.
Listening to Greenwood’s orchestral writing also amounts to taking ear-training lessons that pay dividends when considering the Radiohead songbook. After absorbing the semisweet complexities of this piece’s debut recording, I found myself gaining new appreciation for a few of the subtler moves on The King of Limbs. Toward the end of “Codex,” a Radiohead ballad, the piano drops out and is replaced by violins that trill new notes over the bass line, modulating the key. The shift doesn’t announce itself with thunderous force, and lasts only seconds. When the piano comes back in, the strings go away and “Codex” continues as before. In its understated toying with texture, though, the brief pivot feels very much a Jonny Greenwood moment: gorgeous, strange, and distinct from the work of any other pop star.
Greenwood has only improved as a composer since he wrote “Popcorn.” Earlier this year, I reviewed the New York premiere of his second large-orchestra piece, “Doghouse,” for the Village Voice. That piece was also carved up to suit a movie soundtrack, this time for Norwegian Wood. But once again, some of the original work’s most interesting musical material was nowhere to be found in the movie, or its soundtrack.
Nonesuch, Greenwood’s label of choice, will be getting around to issuing its own full version of “Popcorn” next year, as part of a program that is set to include two early, classic pieces by one of his heroes, the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. (The CD will also feature Greenwood’s nod to one of those pieces, titled “48 Responses to Polymorphia.”) Hopefully, Nonesuch will also give us a complete version of “Doghouse” in due course. In the meantime, the comparatively small Analekta label has beaten Nonesuch to the punch with this premiere. That is perhaps another reason why Radiohead’s completist fan base hasn’t heard much about the album; the Greenwood promotional machine could be holding its tongue in deference to the bigger label’s calendar. But I can’t imagine Radiohead fans being all that interested in waiting. Like Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil-drilling character in There Will Be Blood, they tend to pursue with rabid intensity any hint of the substance that compels them most deeply.
Seth Colter Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.