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Radio Signal

February 25, 2014

Radio Signal

Best known as the guitarist in the world’s most interesting rock band, Greenwood is also a compelling new composer. Here’s a sneak peek at the program notes for this weekend’s program.

The piece is scored for ondes martenot or oboe with strings. Duration is 17 minutes. This is the first performance by the Colorado Symphony.

Most often, Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971) has made headlines as guitarist and keyboardist with the rock band Radiohead. That band’s music, though possessing the rhythmic drive found in much rock music, tends to involve more melodic flow than one might expect in its genre. Those two qualities are found in Greenwood’s own works for the classical concert hall—he is composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra—as well as his film scores, currently five in number. One also finds influences of Greenwood’s favorite classical composer, Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), whose startling harmonies and inventive juxtaposition of instrumental colors offer an appropriately modern counterpoint to Greenwood’s own stylistic touches.

Greenwood’s orchestral suite There Will Be Blood derives from his own score for the 2007 film of the same name. The original score attracted such favorable attention that it was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008. That nomination was withdrawn when objections were raised that the score was not entirely original to the film, being derived in part from several of Greenwood’s works for Radiohead, and also from Penderecki and even Brahms. Thwarted in that recognition, Greenwood decided to make of the film score a concert suite for orchestra, which premiered with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta June 16, 2012.

The suite There Will Be Blood is scored for string orchestra, supplemented in the opening movement by ondes martenot, an electronic instrument of subtly variable tones which Greenwood himself plays. Lacking an ondes martenot, the Symphony can substitute a solo oboe to fill that haunting roll, which you will hear in today’s performance. The instrument appears only in the first movement.

The suite as a whole is highly varied in character, as Greenwood calls upon a diverse selection of instrumental and compositional techniques. One of those most frequently coming into play is the division of the strings into far more than the usual number of parts. Instead having only first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and basses, Greenwood sometimes divides his forces more drastically, at times calling upon nearly two dozen different lines. This practice allows him to have that many more simultaneous tones, creating elaborate clusters of new harmonies. It is a technique more often identified with Penderecki’s music, but Greenwood, too, has learned how to make it work.

In addition to severely divided parts and unusual harmonies, Greenwood also manipulates rhythms. This is especially clear in the brisk fifth movement, in which rhythmic fragments of one part fall into the rests of another, so that the propulsive energy is unceasing. Throughout the suite, Greenwood draws upon some of the most intricate techniques of master composers past and present, from Bach to Bartók, bringing to those musical ideas his own personal perspective.

All program notes © Betsy Schwarm, author of “Classical Music Insights”