28 Sep 2019

Exclusive: Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood

From Upbeat, 9:30 pm on 28 September 2019

Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s lead guitarist-turned-orchestral composer, chats with RNZ Music’s Zoë George about the NZ premiere of his work 48 Responses to Polymorphia.

They discuss the wonderful absurdity of his being programmed alongside Haydn and Ravel as part of the NZSO's Shed Series in May 2019 in Wellington; Greenwood's work with film maker Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Wil Be Blood); and what he hopes NZSO audiences get from his work. 

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood Photo: Jason Evans

Jonny Greenwood is a bit of an enigma. The Radiohead lead guitarist and keyboardist-turned-orchestral composer is hard to pin down. But it’s worth the wait. 

His orchestral work 48 responses to Polymorphia has its New Zealand premiere in Wellington in May as part of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Shed Series: Responses.

It’s the second time in two years the national orchestra has performed a Greenwood composition. 

The piece is a response to the 1961 work Polymorphia by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki; who Greenwood has both admired and collaborated with.

He first heard Polymorphia when he was at college; an academic stint which lasted only five weeks before Radiohead signed to EMI. He feels lucky his music lecturer played it to the class. 

Composer Krzysztof Pendereck

Composer Krzysztof Pendereck Photo: Marek Beblot

Greenwood was captivated by it straight away, and says "It's still the sound of the future”. “All (or most) of the electronic music from the 60s sounds of its time,” he says. “The paradox is that the ancient technology that is the string orchestra still sounds far stranger and more exotic than, say, a Moog [synthesizer].” 

Greenwood says "Polymorphia is, famously, 10 minutes of 'otherworldly sounds' as an introduction to one short C major chord". That became his starting point. “I set out to write 48 very short pieces that all began with the same C major chord, and develop/distort that simple chord in lots of different ways. In the end there aren’t as many as that, but each short section begins with the same, simple chord."

“I’ve always tried to copy the music I love, whether it’s New Order or Penderecki. That both of those [musicians] make music way out of reach doesn’t make you want to stop trying. Man’s reach exceeding his grasp and all that.”

The NZSO programmed 48 responses to Polymorphia alongside Haydn and Ravel; a quirky combination Greenwood finds amusing. “It’s absurd, of course, but then so it is when a radio station plays Radiohead after a Beatles song,” he says. “If you worry about that stuff, you just stop trying.”  

He delved into creating orchestral compositions in the early 2000s. In 2007 he scored the Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood. The NZSO performed parts of that score in 2018. 

Greenwood has composed the soundtrack to every Anderson film since; resulting in an Academy Award nomination for 2017 American period drama Phantom Thread. They have a strong relationship. “I find him and his films very funny. And he laughs at my stupid jokes. That’s probably the main reason,” he says. 

It’s the “semi-success” of his film scores and orchestral pieces that tempt him to continue creating, even if the process can be difficult at times. “There are parts in the 48 Responses that make me cringe, others that I don’t remember writing, and I like very much,” he says. “It’s hard, because until you reach the first rehearsal, it’s all on paper, and by the time it’s printed, it’s too late to change.  

“It’s like arranging a big firework display. Lots or preparation, and all over in 10 minutes.” 

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood Photo: wikicommons

While he’s used to playing in front of large crowds with recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Radiohead he thinks the orchestra is the ultimate acoustic gig. “There’s no way of hearing such musical colours any other way,” he says.

Greenwood anticipates the kiwi audience will feel the same way. “I hope that they are spurred to see far more live orchestral concerts. There might be a few magical moments in my piece, but there’ll be thousands in next week’s NZSO concert. Get your tickets now!” he laughs.