Unlikely Allies: Composer Krzysztof Penderecki and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood

Jonny Greenwood and Krzysztof Penderecki in the recording studio.

By Bradley Bambarger <2012>

Like Picasso’s Guernica, only more so, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima stands as a rare monument to man-made horror that actually evokes physical levels of feeling apt to such a memorial. Composed in 1960, this nine-minute piece for 52 strings retains its power to sear the senses — the extreme dissonances almost sickening the gut, the instruments made to clatter and screech like souls on the run. Music had never sounded like this before, and even after decades of sonic experimentation the world over, Penderecki’s composition still sounds hair-raising, moving, radical. It’s little surprise that filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick to David Lynch have drawn on these tones to get under our skin. More surprising, perhaps, is that the Polish composer’s work has been a primary inspiration for a guitarist in one of the 21st-century’s top rock bands.

Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has often talked about the head-spinning impact of hearing a record of the Threnody in college. Later, the English guitarist would hear more of Penderecki’s music in the concert hall. He has said that the weird “buzzings and rumblings” produced by Penderecki’s way with live strings disoriented him at first, making him think they were perhaps electronic and coming from speakers; once he realized the sounds were acoustic, it seemed “odder, stranger, more magical.”

Usually the one in Radiohead tasked with translating the band’s more experimental notions into sonic reality, the 40-year-old Greenwood has also become a solo composer for orchestras on the side, wresting his own strange, visceral sounds from traditional acoustic instruments. Two of Greenwood’s own Penderecki-inspired orchestral compositions are now paired on a striking Nonesuch album with the Threnody and another key early work by his classical hero, Polymorphia. The acute, enthusiastic performances are by the Aukso Orchestra, a Polish youth ensemble, with the Penderecki scores conducted by the composer and those of Greenwood by Marek Mos.

After the “sonorist” period of his youth that produced such pieces as the Threnody, Penderecki would move on to compose potent operas and choral works, eventually forsaking the avant-garde to explore more traditional tonal forms (including concertos for such luminaries as Isaac Stern, Mstislav Rostropovich and Anne-Sophie Mutter). But the young Penderecki was inspired by sound in and of itself, much like Greenwood. In fact, the Polish composer had initially given the work that would be the Threnody the nondescript title of 8’37” after its duration (in a nod to John Cage); but hearing the score played through for the first time “was a shock,” Penderecki recalls. “The tension was so overwhelming that the piece no longer seemed abstract to me. It seemed dramatic, very human. It was the emotional effect of the music that inspired the title.”

For the Threnody, Penderecki wrote 52 individual string parts, casting bar lines aside and calling for all manner of unorthodox techniques — playing on the bridge, fingerboard and tailpiece, sliding on the strings for unsettling glissandos, beating on the body of the instrument as if it were a drum. It was a maelstrom of acoustic sounds inspired by Penderecki’s experiments in an electronic music studio in the 1950s.

“I was trying to transfer the noises of these new electronic sounds to acoustic instruments — I don’t think I would’ve imagined these sounds without that experience,” Penderecki says. “When I invented this idiom, it was on a frontier, another world from what I learned in the conservatory. The new sounds required new methods and new notation. But this was ahead of its time. The orchestra of Italian radio refused to play the Threnody, saying the music would destroy its instruments. At the Munich opera house, the orchestra said, ‘It’s against our dignity to play this.’ But I was young, and I believed in being progressive. And, fortunately, I wasn’t lonely for too long.”

One of the new Nonesuch album’s Greenwood pieces is Popcorn Superhet Receiver, influenced by both the Penderecki of the Threnody and the shape-shifting white noise of shortwave radio. Scored for 34 individual string parts, the dizzying 14-minute work brims with microtonal clusters, pealing glissandos, pools of assuaging melody and bracing percussive effects (including strings played by guitar picks — an effect minimalist pioneer Steve Reich called the first new approach to pizzicato since Bartók). Those who have seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic morality drama There Will Be Blood will recognize some of the music, which Greenwood tapped for his score to the film.

Along with Popcorn Superhet Receiver and the Threnody, the album includes Penderecki’s even stranger 1961 piece Polymorphia (for 48 strings), which he based in part on a technique that seems as if out of some dystopian sci-fi film: The composer played a tape of the Threnody to patients in a Krakow mental hospital while their brain waves were recorded; he then traced the music of his new piece along the shapes on the encephalographs. After nine minutes of tension like a trip through a haunted house, Polymorphia ends with light at the end of the spectral tunnel: a pure C-major chord. The second Greenwood piece on the album, the 20-minute 48 Responses to Polymorphia (the title referencing not 48 sections but 48 players), begins with that radiant C-major chord before flowing into a Bach-like chorale that comes and goes like a sweet memory in an otherwise turbulent fever dream. The magical finale has the strings beat a rocking rhythm as maracas shake in the air, with tunes swooping in pizzicato then arco for an almost 3D effect.

About Greenwood’s response to his score of a half-century ago, Penderecki says: “Jonny uses some fragments from my work, which is fascinating, but his piece is very much its own music. He may be a musician from the other side, so to speak, but he isn’t just a good guitar player — he is a serious composer.” (As for Radiohead, the 78-year-old Penderecki was introduced to the band’s music through his granddaughter. “I like Radiohead’s music,” he says. “It’s very musical, very colorful.”)

Greenwood has admitted to being as nervous in the composer’s presence as Radiohead fans are in his. According to Penderecki, the two haven’t discussed music much: “Musicians tend to talk about everything but music when they’re together. If the music is good, it speaks for itself. I do think Jonny will work differently now. But the influence goes both ways. I am writing a chamber piece for string quartet, double-bass, harp and electric guitar. It’s an interesting combination of instruments, particularly with the way Jonny plays guitar. I hope he can be available for the premiere next year.”

Penderecki even speaks of revisiting his ’60s sonorist style, spurred by the enthusiasm of Greenwood and sold-out crowds for joint concerts of their works in England and Poland. He says: “Who knows? Through Jonny, my music is reaching a new generation, and those early pieces still sound avant-garde. It’s interesting — like a renaissance of my youth.”

(Originally published in the autumn 2012 issue of Listen magazine… Krzysztof Penderecki died in March 2020 at age 86.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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