Jonny Greenwood, Classical Star
Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's classical oeuvre can be difficult to get one's head around -- mostly because he's been commissioned to write works for various orchestras that have then been carved up to serve popular film scores.
For example, as many Radiohead fans know, director Paul Thomas Anderson asked Greenwood to score 2007's beloved There Will Be Blood (as well as his forthcoming film, The Master). For Blood, Greenwood used some of his pre-existing orchestral music alongside some new material, which disqualified him for an Oscar that many people, including me, felt he deserved: The music's just too good. And that same confusion has also jumbled up his classical discography.You may think you've heard the first major Greenwood classical piece if you're familiar with the There Will Be Blood soundtrack, but you haven't. Nonesuch finally got around to releasing "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" in its full version this year, along with a world-premiere recording of another Greenwood orchestra piece (a "response" to a famous piece by the modernist Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki). Another Greenwood soundtrack, for the film Norwegian Wood, reused elements of what is basically the first Greenwood symphony, which has yet to be released in full. (I've heard it performed live, and think it's even better than "Popcorn.")
Still, we've got enough (finally) to work with for a Greenwood-centric playlist. Here, we start with the new, full recording of "Popcorn," then go into the best bits of the Norwegian Wood soundtrack -- before mopping up bits of the Blood soundtrack that Greenwood wrote just for Anderson's film. The second major piece here is Greenwood's ode to Penderecki's "Polymorphia" -- it opens with a recapitulation and then variation on the big theme that closes the original piece. (Really, you should go listen to the Penderecki pieces on that same album; they're milestones of late 20th-century music.)
Overall, "48 Responses to Polymorphia" hits many of the high points of Greenwood's orchestral sound: dreamy tonal moments are driven to alarming points of disintegration via squealing glissandos and overtone overload. But he's not just a color-by-numbers modernist, either, as some of the incidental Blood music proves. The last cuts here are from Greenwood's 2003 solo album, Bodysong. Even as miniatures, they still reveal the skill that has since been put to work in the guitarist's big symphonic gestures. At this point, it's fair to say that some people (ahem, me) are looking forward more to future Greenwood works for orchestra than to additional Radiohead albums proper. Though I'll take those, too, of course.