Interview Jonny Greenwood at Wapping

Jonny Greenwood

Award-winning composer and Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood performs some of his own music with London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) Soloists, in the cavernous acoustic of the old Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. Known for soundtracks such as There Will Be Blood, We Need to Talk about Kevin and The Master (which was played by the LCO), he's also been performed several times at the Proms. Here Jonny talks about the difference between composing for film, orchestra and working with Radiohead.

This Wapping gig sounds interesting – what attracted you to the idea? 

I've been inspired by the recent LCO concerts in London - they're usually in unlikely locations, and have a strange mixture of informality and seriousness that I rather like. On top of that, they're an absurdly talented group of players to write for. I enjoy having specific players in mind when I'm writing - it makes the process more real, right from the start to know the players involved.  

Have you arranged your film music specially for the London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists?

Yes - a few of the cues have been rewritten to make them work in a concert setting: many have only been played once, when they were recorded - so there was lots of editing to do. 

And what else will you be unveiling?

There'll be a couple of new pieces. I'm still working on these with 6 days to go - but it's a nice feeling to be writing music for a one-off concert, instead of a recording. I like the sensation of music going into a room and disappearing. It's such a strange thing, when you're used to everything being recordable and re-produceable. 

We’re interested in the new projects you’re working on. Do you have new film scores in the pipeline? New commissions for orchestra?

I finished recording a soundtrack last week for Paul Thomas Anderson's next film Inherent Vice. We recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Clio Gould - they were fantastic. Other than that, I'm just writing orchestral things, doing some nerdy programming, and waiting to see what the band feel like doing. 

Do you have any plans for recording or touring with Radiohead?

Not at the moment. There are songs floating around, but we're waiting to get our strength together - it can be a long process. 

As a composer you blend classical influences with rock, jazz, electronic, you write soundtracks for Hollywood films, you’ve been composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Do all these strands of music flow together or do you think of the genres separately?

I guess there's some overlap - I use the ondes martenot in all of these, for example - but as the way the music gets heard is, in the end, all very different, I guess they're really quite separate things. Not all of the film cues will work away from the films.  

Your film score for Norwegian Wood was played at the Proms alongside Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone and John Williams. Is film music where you’d like to concentrate your energies, as they did?

It's hard to resist having access to orchestras,  with good stories and pictures to write music for. Especially when Paul Thomas Anderson is involved. But I think it's very hard to do lots of films well - or very hard for me, anyway. Real soundtrack composers do loads of films a year - I rarely manage two.

How is composing for classical instruments different from your other music writing or creating? How is it different from writing pieces for Radiohead?

With classical stuff, I have to rely on feedback from the players instead of from the band. But I really need that feedback - I think of it as just giving a script out to a group of actors - it needs them and their musical sense to make anything worthwhile come out of it.  

I've seen your name associated with composers such as Messiaen and Penderecki. What is it about these two that you admire?

They're very different - but I love both of their sound-worlds very much (too much, probably....). The modal language in Messiaen's music is great, and his rhythmic ideas really inspire me. And Penderecki's music - especially the microtonal things - are so complex and strange, even after 50 years. Certainly stranger than anything you can hear out of a couple of speakers. He began in the 60's by learning all there was to know about electronic music - and then left it behind to apply that knowledge to orchestral writing. And I think of all the music from that era, his has dated the least  - especially in the concert hall. 

The classical music world is always keen to attract lovers of other musical genres. Are there barriers for Radiohead fans, for example? Do you think they are daunted by the idea of classical music or will they follow you on the journey?

There is an off-putting atmosphere sometimes - a sense that all classical music is unimpeachably great, and if you don't like something from that world it's somehow your fault. But people coming to classical music for the first time will always find some things they like, and some things they hate. I think both responses are good - that's what taste is, after all - the key is not having any anxiety about either response, and instead drilling down into the area of music that intrigues you most. 

Tickets to the concert on 23 February at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station are available at lcorchestra.co.uk

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