A Conversation with Jonny Greenwood
Jonny Greenwood was named the BBC’s composer-in-residence in 2004; during this time he debuted "Popcorn Superhet Receiver", a twenty-minute work for string orchestra inspired, in part, by the phenomenon of white noise and Penderecki’s "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima". Tickets are on sale for a two-night performance of the composition at The Church of St. John the Apostle in January as part of The Wordless Music Series; works by John Adams and Gavin Bryars will also be performed.
We spoke with Greenwood this morning, which happened to be the same day his side-project – a little band called Radiohead – unveiled their seventh album, In Rainbows, via digital download. It’s being sold online only at the moment and – did you hear? – buyers are welcome to pay as much or as little as they want! Disc 2 of In Rainbows, however, is gonna cost you.
Parts of Popcorn Superhet Receiver sound cinematic to me; I know you've done the soundtrack for the new PT Anderson film There Will Be Blood. Did you have any visual images in mind when composing Popcorn Superhet Receiver?
No, the opposite really. It’s more about radios and radiowaves and hearing music that isn’t there.
Hearing music that isn’t there?
Yeah, like the noise from a radio in the background. Or when you hear a popular song that you think you know over the back of a car engine or spilling out of someone’s walkman. So it’s weird that you say that; there was nothing visual to it. That’s interesting.
Where did the title come from?
I had a whole page full of radio-related words and a superhet is a kind of radio that seemed to fit with what I was writing.
What kind of radio is a superhet?
It’s a short wave receiver. I don’t know how it works or why, I just had it scrawled in my notepad, along with other words like VHS and that kind of thing, you know. Superhet seemed the most suitable.
How have you revised the composition since it premiered in 2005?
It was revised for the last performance; I just cut out some of the more obtuse parts of it. Partly because I find it hard to write music that isn’t just in three minute sections. So now I’ve arranged it so hopefully over the whole twelve minutes it’s got some shape to it.
So now it’s twelve minutes as opposed to twenty minutes?
Yeah, it’s just a bit shorter. I forget how long it used to be; it was about fifteen minutes I think. Like I said I tried to arrange it so that it’s set as one thing flowing into another instead of different sections stuck together, which is how it began really. The new arrangement is just a way to try and do something on a larger scale that goes on for longer but still has a structure that holds your interest and hopefully takes you somewhere.
Is it exciting or nerve-wracking for you to sit in the audience and hear your music performed as opposed to being on-stage?
Yeah, you feel very self-conscious even though nobody’s watching you. It’s sort of a personal thing and it’s quite odd to involve all these people. It’s quite embarrassing for me. I don’t know. But it’s such a magical moment when orchestras start up; when you’ve got silence in the room, with instruments making a sound together. It’s magical for me. So I just get excited about that really and try to ignore everything else.
There is a lot of tension and drama in this piece yet you seem, in public at least, to be rather serene. Is making music therapeutic for you?
I don’t know, maybe that’s true. Maybe people writing lighter music are very angry, violent people. I don’t know, that’s interesting. Maybe Burt Bacharach writes stuff and then fights. I don’t know. For me it just feels like the orchestra is making sounds I really want to hear. That’s all I’m thinking about really. It’s such an amazing thing; I’m still a bit in awe of what orchestras can do and how much of an event it is. And then when they’re playing in a room… You can forget and think that CDs are enough and you sort of don’t need to see an orchestra play. But then once you’re actually at the performance you realize it’s so much more magical than a recording.
I agree; the vibrations that come out of an orchestra are very palpable.
Right, you think recordings are so good now but they don’t touch you in the same way as all those wooden boxes with the strings strung across them being played by musicians. It’s just incredible, really.
So today’s a big day?
Yeah, big day today. It’s the launch. Like a ship.
Seems to be going flawlessly. At least for me, it downloaded very quickly.
Yeah, I know, we’re all quietly surprised because it’s mostly done all on our own back with a small group of people.
I’ve been able to listen to the album twice this morning. All I can say at this point is WOW.
Oh great! A good wow, I hope. We’re just really, really relieved that it’s out, and people are hearing what we’ve been listening to for so long.
What’s motivating the band to distribute the album this way?
Just getting it out quickly. It was kind of an experiment as well; we were just doing it for ourselves and that was all. People are making a big thing about it being against the industry or trying to change things for people but it’s really not what motivated us to do it. It’s more about feeling like it was right for us and feeling bored of what we were doing before.
Why give people the option to pay whatever they want?
It’s just interesting to make people pause for even a few seconds and think about what music is worth now. I thought it was an interesting thing to ask people to do and compare it to whatever else in their lives they value or don’t value.
Have you gotten any figures of how much people are choosing to pay?
No we get the numbers tomorrow supposedly. Yeah, I don’t know. The more exciting thing for me is just hearing it on the radio today and knowing it’s landed on everybody’s desk at the same time. That’s what’s exciting. But yeah, I’m sure our manager will have some idea soon.
How did the process of making In Rainbows differ from Hail to the Thief?
It was more like earlier Kid A stuff, more based in studio experiments and trying out ideas and spending quite a long time. That’s what we did with Kid A and Amnesiac.
What song on the album proved most difficult to finish? Even ones that we finished quickly we spent a long time deciding if they were good enough. None of them were easy, actually. Reckoner kind of came together quickly.
Back to the impending PT Anderson soundtrack, it features another composition called Smear. Did you compose that at the same time as Popcorn Superhet Receiver?
No, that was a couple years ago, that was the first thing I wrote for orchestra. I wrote it for the London Sinfonietta and ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument. It’s like a nine-minute piece. I’m really fond of it because I’m really fond of the instruments themselves.
You won the Listeners’ Award at the 2006 BBC British Composer Awards for Popcorn Superhet Receiver and part of that was a commission to write a new piece. Have you started working on that?
No, it makes me sweat every time I think about it. I must start that soon. Yeah, it’s a little bit daunting. I don’t know. I’m not one to sit at an empty table waiting for inspiration or something. I had an idea for Popcorn Superhet Receiver about radio frequencies and I wanted to try an orchestra and I was wondering what you could do with strings. So I kind of jumped at the chance to do it. I don’t know if it’s what I want to do [with the next one]. So yes, thanks for reminding me, I must start something soon on that.
Did your experience as composer in residence serve as extra motivation to compose Popcorn Superhet Receiver or was work already underway on that?
No, that was finished completely. I love the orchestra and their patience and they’re up for trying new things. They’re kind of waiting for the next piece so, yeah, there’s a few things I’ve got to get started.
Are you going to be in New York for the performances in January?
I’d love to but I can’t really justify the flight just to come to that. I’d feel a bit weird about it. If I was in America already for touring or something I’d love to go but I can’t really justify it. It’s a shame.
Have you been trying to reduce your use of air travel because of carbon emissions?
Yeah, that’s basically why. It’s difficult because we want to travel and tour and do musical things and we’re just looking at ways of doing it without going to the other extreme. It’d be crazy to not tour for that reason but it’d also be crazy to tour in too greedy a way. So we’re just working on the balance for it. And I can’t really justify going to New York just for my own sort of thing.
Are you working out plans to tour in America at this point?
We’re talking about touring somewhere in the world next year. Now that the album’s out that’s what we’re talking about. I hope you’ll get to see some good shows.
Have you considered doing some sort of carbon-offset thing with touring?
We’ve heard bad things about that. I’m not sure that that’s enough; to buy off our guilt with money. That might not be the best way to do it. We’re kind of looking at a few other ideas. It’s interesting; we’ve had a report done on touring and how much pollution gets created and what would be the most efficient way to do it: playing small venues or big venues, playing venues inside a city or outside a city, playing a big venue and having lots of people drive a long way to get to see you or whether it’s better for us to travel to different places. There are a lot of things to balance out. Whether it’s better to play a festival. So we’ve got to factor that in as well.
Is it better to play a festival?
Depends which festival, depends on where it is. It gets kind of complicated. You have to compromise something or don’t play at all. I’m sure we’ll end up doing something wrong, that’s just how it is. It’s not going to be perfect by any means. And it’s still got to be a good show and be in a venue people can enjoy and get to; that’s probably half of it. It’s not just about us feeling smug that we’ve done exactly right in how we’ve planned the tour.
Yeah, it sounds very complex!
Yeah, really complex. Interesting but very complex.
Tickets are on sale for a two-night performance of the composition at The Church of St. John the Apostle in January as part of The Wordless Music Series. Photo of Jonny Greenwood by Jason Evans.