John Wilson [Narrating]: The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki was a pioneer of 20th century experimental music, developing new tonal scales and melodic structures in the 1960s. His music is best known for its use by Stanley Kubrick in the film ‘The Shining’, it also provided a terrifying soundtrack to ‘The Exorcist’. Now Penderecki is collaborating with one of his biggest fans – Jonny Greenwood, guitarist with the band Radiohead – who’s also forging a career as a classical composer. The pair have released a record together, and last night staged a joint concert at the Barbican in London. I met Greenwood and Penderecki in what we hoped would be a quiet dressing room at the Barbican. I started by asking the 78 year old composer what he was trying to achieve musically in 1960s Poland.
Penderecki: I was young, angry, I wanted to build my own world, forget about polyphony and harmony for many years, and I was trying to write my music.
[Excerpt from a piece]
John: And did you say you were ‘young and angry’ or ‘young and hungry’?
Penderecki: Maybe both but... [laughs] I was angry because, you know, this was a time of rebellion, a time of discovery... not only me but everybody at that time, young people, especially in Europe. So we wanted to start from the beginning.
John: A lot of people may think they are unfamiliar with Penderecki, and yet if they’ve seen films including ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Exorcist’, they will know these pieces of music very well. Very evocative and very scary. So did you welcome the use of your music in those films?
Penderecki: Yes, I remember... it was maybe 30 years ago... Kubrick called me and asked me if I would be interested to write the music for The Shining. And I gave him some proposal pieces that he should listen to, maybe it would be useful for him. And he did, it connected with the picture and sounds very scary.
John: So you don’t mind people reinterpreting the music, taking it out of the original context then?
Penderecki: No. I mean, you know there are some people who know my music because of the movies.
John: Jonny Greenwood, when did you first come across the music of Krzysztof Penderecki?
Jonny: It was just before we signed a record contract with EMI, and I did a few weeks at music college, and a lecturer played us ‘Threnody’ and showed us the score and said this is what orchestras can do as well. I took the score with me and just investigated while I was touring.
John: What appealed?
Jonny: The complexity, the fact that you can make use of that many musicians in a room and do something that is so far removed from what I thought orchestras were. I didn’t realise that you could make these magical sounds and textures.
John [Narrating]: Jonny Greenwood is so enthralled to his music hero that he’s composed 2 musical works in response to Penderecki. This one featured in the soundtrack to the film ‘There Will Be Blood’ starring Daniel Day Lewis. But he says that his sense of musical adventure started even before he joined Radiohead.
Jonny: I remember being at primary school and having a violin orchestral lesson, and the teacher telling everybody “right, now everyone, can you try and make a different sound with your instrument?” And that fascinated me and I thought that’s really exciting to think of what you’re holding as a way of making other sounds. So, I’ve always thought of the guitar as a piece of technology, as something physical to get sounds out of, rather than this slightly fetishised obsession. It’s like a tool, like a typewriter or something, but also quite limitless what you can do with it.
[Extract from Paranoid Android]
John: Before you met Jonny Greenwood, were you aware of Radiohead’s music?
Penderecki: Yes, from my children and granddaughter actually, they told me and they gave me the music.
John: And what did you think of Radiohead?
Penderecki: It’s very interesting, and you know this was for me... also discovering something new.
John: Are you increasingly drawn to the classical concert hall rather than the rock music studio, do you think?
Jonny: What I’ve realised is that recordings just aren’t good enough. I grew up being told that if you had the best recording of an orchestra, that you knew what it sounded like. But when you’re sitting in a concert hall and you hear an orchestra begin, you realise that it’s a far richer and more complicated sound than you can get from a couple speakers in a room. I mean, I nearly feel like i’ve been sold a lie. It’s such a revelation to me, and that’s why I would, you know, urge people to go to more classical concerts and hear orchestras live. I think Penderecki’s music especially when you hear it on record and also how it’s described is often that it’s somehow abrasive, but it really isn’t, it’s just very rich and complicated and I think that’s fascinating to see an orchestra play.
John: Can we hear any direct Penderecki influence on individual Radiohead songs, do you think?
Jonny: I suppose so, I mean there’s string arrangements in a song like ‘How to Dissapear’, which is on our album Kid A, and that ends with lots of microtonal effects and things that are very indebted to this kind of writing.
[Extract from HTDC]
Jonny: I mean, even as early as Climbing Up The Walls on the album OK Computer, the strings on there, again, are very influenced by that complexity you can get.
[Sound of pneumatic drill in the street outside]
John: Some strange noises off in the Barbican. [Laughter]
Jonny: That’s the first chord.
John: You like that sound, you could use that.
Penderecki: Oh, yes.
John [Narrating]: Well, the sound of a pneumatic drill on the street outside the Barbican may provide inspiration for an avant-garde composer, but it’s not good for a Front Row interview. So we moved from dressing room to the concert hall itself.
John: ...And you broke the rules when you first started writing this kind of music, was it an act of rebellion against the Communist regieme of the day?
Penderecki: Yeah, we were trying really to... this was not only happening in the music at the time, it was in the theatre – very modern, avant-garde theatre – it was the movies, everything, and also music. We were trying not to follow the kind of aesthetic which they asked us to do.
John: And are you still trying to break the rules now, in your later years is it still important for you to be...[Penderecki’s mobile rings]
John: That’s a very conventional ringtone, isn’t it.
Jonny: There isn’t a Threnody one yet.
John: There’s no Polymorphia ringtone... that’s a shame, isn’t it? [Laughter] Is it still important for you to be exploring new ways of making music?
Penderecki: Yes, but of course not the way I did 50 years ago. I’m trying to, first, not repeat myself.
John: And Jonny Greenwood, what is the game plan for Radiohead? I know you’re mid-way through a tour. You’ll be heading back to the studio to make another album soon?
Jonny: No, we’re touring ‘til November, and we’ve got no plans after that, so...
John: And do you have a future vision of the direction the music will head?
Jonny: I dunno, it’s confusing because half the time I’m very excited to be programming and using computers, and I love that side of what we do with Radiohead, but then I keep coming to classical concerts and getting very excited about acoustic sounds. I feel the two things splitting apart, which is interesting to me.
John: Could you see a Radiohead/Penderecki collaboration sometime in the future?
Jonny: I doubt it. He writes every day, the professor, and has many commissions ahead of him.
Penderecki: No, actually we have some future plans. I think in the next year – I don’t know if you are going to do it – but I would like to write a piece for string quartet, electric guitar for you, harp and double bass, so a septet.
John: So a real collaborative piece. Did you know about this Jonny?
Jonny: Yeah, it’s going back to the style of the first string quartets, which were very interesting to me, and if anything it’s going to make me look at the electric guitar in a different way, it’s going to be working with the professor on this kind of music... you know, it continues to inspire me.
[Extract from HTDC]