Meeting Jonny Greenwood Isn’t Easy: Why Aren’t The Radiohead Guitarist’s Symphonic Works For Sale?


Whereas Radiohead’s distribution methods can seem more precious by the year–pay-what-you-wish downloads! “newspaper editions” bundled with 400-plus tiny works of art!–the classical music written over the same period by Jonny Greenwood, the band’s lead guitarist, has been almost haphazardly loosed into the world.

Count it off: two symphonic works in six years, neither one available to the record- and download-buying public in full. This, despite the state of All Things Radiohead being such that you’d typically expect a few thousand Facebook “likes” to accompany news of, say, DJ Rupture announcing plans to remix Thom Yorke’s sleep-apnea field recordings.

Since the marketplace could easily handle more Greenwood, this unavailability is difficult to read as anything but purposeful. Compared to Elvis Costello or Sting, who are apt to make sure you know all about their classical sideline projects, Greenwood seems to be taking an apprentice approach–even happily carving up the symphonic works after the fact, so that their constituent parts can serve the needs of filmmakers.

The guitarist-composer cannibalized his first orchestral essay, 2005’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” for themes used in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. And Greenwood’s recently completed, more ambitious sophomore effort–“Doghouse,” for string trio and orchestra–currently serves as fodder for the film Norwegian Wood. (Both soundtracks are available on Nonesuch.)

So far, it’s the CD releases of these soundtrack excerpts–and not the fully conceived works from which they spring–that are carrying Greenwood’s notated writing out into the world. It’s a humble way of going about things, but also a confusing one, as when Greenwood’s gripping music for Blood was disqualified from Oscar contention since so much of it derived from an earlier piece. (No matter that hardly anyone had heard it.)

Last Friday and Saturday, audiences in New York had the chance to process “Doghouse” in full. (Thanks to the efforts of WQXR, you can stream Friday’s entire concert; “Doghouse” starts just past the 100-minute mark.)

Not surprisingly, it was the tamest music from “Doghouse” that made it into the Norwegian Wood soundtrack. And yet, judging by its U.S. premiere at the hands of Ensemble Signal and conductor Brad Lubman over the weekend, “Doghouse” sounded like a work worthy of being considered on its own terms.

The piece’s opening movement, “San Antonio Slide (Part One),” traces the development of the melancholic first theme on the Norwegian Wood soundtrack almost identically up until the four-minute mark. At the point where the movie version peaces out, Greenwood begins constructing, section by section, a hive of buzzing textures that eventually collapses into an exciting blast of D. This is followed by some nimbly aggressive percussion work that is also sadly absent from the Norwegian Wood CD.

Yet not everything in “Doghouse” is as varied as this. A long middle movement, during which Greenwood’s writing for the string trio predominates, felt on Saturday like a sequence of variations in search of a theme. But composers can win back points for closing strong, which “Doghouse” does during a precarious ascent up a ladder of pitches–one that leaves its orchestra swaying back and forth between dissonances in the final seconds.

This is what forward-thinking classical music presenters are hungry to build programs around. (The concerts over the weekend were the brainchild of Ronen Givony and his characteristically hip Wordless Music Series.) And it’s not at all hard to conceive of Greenwood as one of modern classical’s foremost ambassadors, if only he’d do a little more PR for himself.

Rounding out last weekend’s concerts were two other works meant to delight a crowd that skewed indie. Philip Glass’s 1997 Symphony No. 4 carries the subtitle “Heroes,” since its themes are derived from the (Brian Eno-assisted) David Bowie album of the same name. Somewhat oddly, the performances by Ensemble Signal represented the symphony’s New York premiere–an injustice ameliorated by the realization that “Heroes” is not terribly essential Glass. In fact, the symphony peaks far too soon by programming its slant on the title track as the first movement. Also dragging the momentum down, during Saturday night’s performance, were some surprising rhythmic lapses during the second section, “Abdulmajid” (a bonus track from the reissued edition of the Bowie album).

It might’ve been the case that Signal’s rehearsal time was devoted more extensively to the Greenwood piece, as well as the evening’s third offering, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto for 13 Instruments. In any event, the ensemble played both of those works with astounding control.

And it’s a compliment to Greenwood to say that, despite the rock lineage of the “Heroes” symphony, it was the chamber concerto that seemed the closer relation to “Doghouse” on the program–given Ligeti’s inspired juggling of moments both solemn (via mysteriously smeared tones) and manic (as during a polyrhythmically harried movement meant to evoke a series of machines clattering at once). By comparison, Glass’s appropriation of Bowie and Eno wound up feeling like a forced shot from an earlier era: as though that prior generation could conceive how it was advisable to strengthen its connection with another audience but didn’t quite know how to pull it off without leaving behind faint traces of condescension.

For all the admirable restraint involved in not presenting his first orchestral essays as grand statements, Greenwood is doing something rather grandiose, at a conceptual level, by developing a language that panders not a bit. Given the enthusiastic response his piece received on Saturday, it seems his audience is ready to go there with him (as well as to Ligeti). We now avidly await the first orchestra piece from Greenwood that is permitted to stand on its own, in one version only.