“I wanna be Jim Morrison” sang Thom Yorke on “Anyone Can Play Guitar”, but that fairly dull early single gave no indication that band-mate Jonny Greenwood harboured a desire to be Polish avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Yet acknowledging the Pole's heavy influence on his own excursions into classical music (both as the BBC's composer in residence and an in-demand soundtrack artist), the Radiohead guitarist confesses that performing a concert together in Wroclaw last September reduced him to being a “star-struck fanboy”.
The success of that concert resulted in the recordings compiled here, which sees the Aukso Orchestra performing Penderecki's “Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima” and “Polymorphia” alongside Greenwood's “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” (elements of which appeared in his celebrated soundtrack to “There Will Be Blood”) and new material composed in response to “Polymorphia”.
“Threnody...” kicks things off with a gut-wrenching screech of discordant strings, setting the tone for a piece that's as harrowing as it is inventive. Penderecki only named the piece after hearing it performed live for the first time - presumably Hiroshima was one of the few events in modern history horrific enough to justify such a soundtrack. Showcasing Penderecki's innovative use of the orchestra, whereby he instructs musicians to pluck and manipulate different parts of their instruments to create a noise like thousands of people stumbling over each other, even in its quieter moments you are never free of the distant hum of dread.
Greenwood's “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” creates a similar atmosphere of queasy unease using multiple pitch-bending crescendos, but results in something that communicates the sadness of a single heart rather than the terror of many. Split into several sections, “Part 2B” sticks out most thanks to a heavily rhythmic base which gives it a real snap. Some may recognise the section which Greenwood and Thom Yorke sampled for their recent collaboration with MF DOOM, and for a second things feel almost... funky.
Penderecki's “Polymorphia” soon puts a stop to that. The composer created it by notating the brainwave responses of psychiatric patients as they listened to his “Threnody...”, and unsurprisingly the results are less than jovial. Opening with doom-laden bass drones, Penderecki demonstrates his ingenuity by having the orchestra create a sound that sounds uncannily like a crowd of barking dogs. The tone and timbre changes frequently; one moment dominated by arrhythmic stabs, the next by insidious rattling noises. It ends, ludicrously, with a single C major chord, in complete contrast to the atonal chaos that precedes it. The sudden jolt of conventional harmony is, hilariously, more shocking than even the harshest of the dissonant patches.
Apparently Penderecki decided on the ending first and then worked backwards. Greenwood's “48 Responses to Polymorphia” uses the chord as a jumping-off point for several thematic excursions (actually 9 rather than 48), which feel like a harmonic battleground for the two sides of his tonal palette. The sweet little violin flails on “Overtones” provide the album's gentlest moments - and at one point in “Overhang” a melody even breaks out - but high-pitched drones and uncomfortable note clashes are never far away and the orchestra's imitation of fireworks on “Baton Sparks” bears the unmistakable mark of Penderecki's sonic influence.
Hopefully Greenwood will explore that influence further in the future. While his contributions don't quite reach the height, say, of his majestic soundtrack to the film “Bodysong”, the prospect of him integrating some of Penderecki's tricks into his arsenal is an exciting one. He's even hinted that his band may adopt a more classical approach, admitting to being “very keen to do some Radiohead stuff that starts on paper”.
For Penderecki, this collaboration will bring his work to a new audience, even if more casual Radiohead fans might lack the stomach for his unrelenting attack on harmonic convention. Greenwood's reward, meanwhile, is the satisfaction that though he may think of himself as a fanboy, he can now be considered a peer.
48 Responses To Polymorphia: Pacay Tree