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There Will Be Backlash: Radiohead Star Faces An Uphill Battle With Classical Work

February 8th, 2008 9:05am EST
Jonny GreenwoodBeneath the sky blue dome of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, an eclectic packed house waited eagerly, most of them sandwiched shoulder to shoulder in the wooden pews. The unforeseen overflow attendees were relegated to folding chairs on either side of the Holy Water fountain.

They had listened patiently and attentively to the Wordless Music Orchestra perform ambient modernist pieces by Gavin Bryars and John Adams, but then the breathless crowd saw conductor Brad Lubman signal his players, who raised their bows to strike the first note of Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead's orchestral piece "Popcorn Superhet Receiver," portions of which feature prominently in Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, There Will Be Blood.

The piece begins with an ominous glissando. Rather than the standard orchestral convention of dividing the players into sections, each musician's part is completely independent. The effect is a white noise wall as unsettling as a wailing child. Chords meander about, but for the most part, Greenwood relies extensively on the idea of each musician as an individual, not a part.

The standout section comes midway through "Popcorn" when the eeriness collapses into a barrage of violent pizzicato reminiscent of electronica or metal. The rising tension of this militant march, with plucked strings acting almost as drums, was so forward-driving in its rhythm that many audience members at St. Paul's instinctively bobbed their heads to the beat.

When set to the action of "There Will Be Blood," "Popcorn" evokes the score of another hauntingly abrasive film, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, not surprising since Greenwood claims Krzysztof Penderecki, who wrote "The Shining's" score, as a major influence.

"I knew Penderecki had a solid block of [white noise] at the end of his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima - The strings are playing all possible frequencies, simultaneously, in a two-octave range - and this just fascinated me for years," wrote Greenwood in an explanation of his piece in the evening's program.

When the musicians set down their bows, the audience greeted the American premiere of "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" with standing applause. Classical music critics and film critics alike have lauded Greenwood's first major classical work, but as the crowd shuffled out, a young fan remarked to a friend, "It seemed gimmicky." Was this a Radiohead fan who felt betrayed? Was it "gimmicky" simply because of Greenwood's already solidified reputation as one of the most innovative rock artists of the past 15 years?

The young composer faces an uphill battle to cross over and retain the esteem of rockers and classical enthusiasts, who could claim that his classical work is too rock-influenced or vice versa. We'll find out soon - the BBC Orchestra has already commissioned Greenwood to write a new piece.

Story by Patrick Gaughan
Starpulse contributing writer


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