I really want to like Jonny Greenwood’s compositional career. Radiohead were the first band I loved, and I think that they helped shape my musical tastes and aesthetics more than most composers. I recall excitedly pre-ordering Greenwood’s first classical foray, the soundtrack to the film Bodysong, as soon as I found out about it back in 2003. And I was thrilled the following year by the announcement that he had been recruited to the position of Composer in Residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra. This was evidence, to my excitable teenage brain, that pop music was real, that it could achieve things, that my school music teacher was wrong. Pop music mattered. There was a composer in Radiohead.
I know that’s not how it works, now. Pop music does matter, but composers have nothing to do with it. Some of the best pop music is the least composerly, and much of the most strongly ‘composed’ pop is boring. Pop has its own complexities and quandaries, and they do not relate to manuscript paper. (Or engraving software.) The presence of a nominal ‘composer’ in a band proves precisely nothing in terms of the music’s seriousness, importance or quality, and writing ‘classical’ music rather than pop is not actually a sign of sophistication. There is no sense in which Greenwood’s straying into the classical realm denotes a musical coming-of-age. By that logic, we’d all have to take the Liverpool Oratorio more seriously than Sgt. Pepper, after all. There are, at bottom, different ways to make and write music, and these different ways do not arrange themselves into a neat quality-based order.
This isn’t to say that becoming a classical composer doesn’t require a high degree of artisanal nous, such as is only really attainable by working through years of specific, intricate study. This is why, even for a non-composer like me, it’s kind of annoying when a popular musician just wanders into classical music and has a bash at it. Indie star Owen Pallett’s Violin Concerto, which premiered at the Barbican in London a few weeks back, was an offender here, betraying very little sense of involvement with classical music as a living art-form, despite the programme notes’ bizarre namechecking of Galina Ustvolskaya and the occasional quarter-tone tuning. It’s also despite this musician’s composition degree from the University of Toronto, oddly enough, but there we are. The hip world of indie in which Pallett is established may be hypersensitive to the whims of fashion, but Pallett’s concerto appeared remarkably unaware of any contemporary classical trends at all. Cross-genre musical projects may be great in concept, but you have to do your homework.
With that in mind, Jonny Greenwood’s music is something of a pleasure, and the new Nonesuch CD which pairs two of his works with two of Krzysztof Penderecki’s arguably displays the Radiohead man in a fairly erudite light. Greenwood appears a willing pupil to Penderecki, and no fool. But a pupil he remains, and these pieces by him are so clearly not-yet-there that one has to wonder if he currently merits this much airspace.
I should be clear: I’ve reviewed Greenwood’s pieces twice before. And I was, actually, very positive about his piece Doghouse, given a beautiful performance from the London Contemporary Orchestra in March. His basic talent as a composer was clear from this work. It’s not like he doesn’t know how to write music, and (Doghouse being quite a recent composition) it seems he may well be improving.
And I also reviewed a concert performance of the contents of this CD – like the disc, from the AUKSO Chamber Orchestra with Marek Mos and Penderecki himself – and I enjoyed it, feeling at least interested in the Greenwood works. They are, certainly, fascinating at times, and he has a brilliant command of orchestral colour – it’s this which makes Doghouse so compelling as well. But the repeated listens to Popcorn Superhet Receiver and 48 Responses which the CD has afforded me have not increased my sympathy for these works – or hence for Greenwood as a composer overall.
Particularly, the 48 Responses become tiresome fast. The idea in this piece is to take the shock C major ending of Penderecki’s Polymorphia and to attempt to contextualise it somehow. We are hence left with a bizarrely high number of jarring C major chords, and little sense of direction. Getting to know the piece has only furthered my suspicion that it is poorly structured, and sort of meandering. Further, its positioning on the disc – directly after Polymorphia itself – gains points for logic, but loses points for making both works sound worse than they are. Greenwood’s piece comes out of it badly because it’s so plainly less accomplished than the preceding one, and Penderecki’s loses out because its conclusion – which is actually one of the few truly surreal moments in music – is immediately subjected to a strange and over-earnest critiquing, and hence loses something of its shock value. Also, an uninformed listener could very easily mistake the end of Polymorphia for the beginning of the 48 Responses to it, as the chord seems significantly more at home there.
The first two pieces on the CD, Penderecki’s famous Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver, are similar to the second two in effect, the Greenwood essentially sounding like an inferior version of the former, with some extra funky rhythmic bits. It’s a bit like listening to something by Muse, straight after OK Computer.
There remains plenty to admire in Jonny Greenwood’s music; it is sonically gorgeous, and – especially when his work is played live – it’s clear that this composer has talent and potential. On the evidence of this CD, though, Greenwood still seems to be in the Pablo Honey stage of his classical career. While I look forward to hearing what comes next, this isn’t music which yet deserves the platform it’s been given.
Paul Kilbey writes on music and culture for publications including Culture Wars, Huffington Post and Bachtrack. Follow him on Twitter @paulkilbey.