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Composer pulls some old strings | The Australian

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JONNY Greenwood is on a lunch break, eating soup.

The guitarist has just stepped out of the studio in Oxford where his band, Radiohead, is rehearsing for a series of festival shows in Europe. He’s talking to The Australian about the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s upcoming performance of his composition, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, and about the pleasures of writing for an orchestra. But really, he could be forgiven if his attention is elsewhere.

Greenwood is behind schedule for his second commission for the BBC, where he was appointed composer-in-residence in 2004. And his Radiohead commitments are as pressing as ever. For the past few months, the five-piece British outfit, one of the world’s most innovative and admired rock bands, has been recording new songs, and a varied collection of tunes is taking shape. "There’s a bunch of stuff slowly growing, some more finished than others," he says.

Two years ago, no longer signed to a major record label, the band released In Rainbows online, inviting fans to pay whatever they thought the album was worth. It was a bold move, seen as undermining the recording industry and testing new modes of distribution. Where Radiohead goes next, though, is less certain. The members aren’t even sure whether to release another conventional album at all.

"Traditionally we’d be looking for 10 or 11 songs and putting them together, but that doesn’t feel as natural as it used to, so I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll find four songs that work together and we’ll call that a release. I don’t know," Greenwood says.

After changing direction so many times, it’s perhaps no surprise that Radiohead finds itself, once again, at a crossroads. After starting off in 1993 with Pablo Honey and then the more accessible The Bends, the band established its place at the cutting edge of contemporary music with the landmark OK Computer. It then headed off in new directions with Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief, embracing alternative forms of rock and electronics before 2007’s In Rainbows. Meanwhile, digital music and downloads changed the way music was consumed.

During the past few days, music circles around the world have been in a flutter after the band’s singer, Thom Yorke, told an American magazine he was "not very interested in the album at the moment". Greenwood confirms that a conceptual shift is under way. "No one knows how to release music any more, including us," he says. "How to put it together, in what format, how long. We’re in the dark as much as anyone I think."

Apart from that, Greenwood isn’t giving much away. He doesn’t seem worried though : Radiohead has always had a thing for reinvention. It’s no wonder, then, that the 38-year-old sounds relaxed as he discusses one of his other projects.

Greenwood was commissioned by the BBC to write Popcorn Superhet Receiver, an elegiac exploration of "white noise" featuring 36 strings and inspired by Olivier Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki. With its title taken from shortwave radio, the piece had its premiere in London in 2005, was performed in the US in 2008 and will form part of the 2010 program for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. (It can also be heard in the film There Will Be Blood, though Greenwood’s score was ruled ineligible for an Oscar because it contained too much "pre-existing music".)

Greenwood says he loves the variables of live performance : the "slight inconsistencies" of any ensemble, the idiosyncracies of musicians, the musical imperfections that make them "humans, not robotic things".

"I’m really curious to see what they get out of it," he says of the ACO. "It’s about the lift that musicians put into things. You realise you can write fairly simple things on paper and the musicality that people put into it is where it gets that lift. It’s not what I’ve done, and that’s what I find quite exciting."

When it comes to contemporary classical music, Greenwood is no dilettante.

The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross describes his "fascinating synthesis" of 20th-century music as "avant-garde romanticism", and says of Popcorn Superhet Receiver : "The piece possesses a solid architectural shape, with slow-moving, darkly meditative passages framing a kinetic, rock-tinged midsection." The piece also won the 2006 listener’s prize atthe BBC British Composer Awards.

Greenwood plays several instruments, including the early electronic instrument ondes Martenot, and was classically trained on the viola. He warns against making too much of his classical background — "I stopped when I was 18" — but says there are lessons from his musical adolescence that remain relevant.

"What I learned was that a room full of strings playing a tune or just making a sound is like nothing else," he says. "You can’t even record it, really. You can’t reproduce the experience of sitting in a room and hearing these sounds, and that’s what I keep coming back to. It’s all about the live event for me."

Indeed, it’s clear that Greenwood, along with other members of Radiohead, has a deep interest in the mysteries and possibilities of sound. He recalls how he was once transfixed while sitting in the audience during a Penderecki cello concerto.

"I just remember finding it hard to believe it was only a stage with strings in front of me. I kept wondering where all the electronics were coming from, where are all these textures were, but it was all just being made from these old instruments."

Greenwood also arranged the string parts for Radiohead’s recent one-off release, Harry Patch (In Memory Of). The song, full of solemn, plaintive beauty, was written in honour of Britain’s last World War I veteran, who died last month at 111, and released after his death.

Among all the instruments Greenwood plays, it’s his fascination with the ondes Martenot that stands out. The electronic instrument was a favourite of Messiaen’s, which is where Greenwood first encountered its sound. He has since used it in several Radiohead recordings and written for the instrument in orchestral works. By contrast, he dismisses the theremin — an instrument to which the ondes Martenot is sometimes compared — as "just a toy".

"It’s surprisingly easy, it feels very natural to play," he says. "What appeals to me is that it was invented with the intention of making music from electricity in quite a pure way. That was the motivation, at least as it seems to me. It was just done very well the very first time it was tried. The first one was made in 1928, it’s a really early idea and they just made it very musical."

Greenwood has great faith in the potential for contemporary classical music to evolve. "An orchestra is a piece of technology like anything else," he says. "In the same way as there’s still life in the piano or the guitar, there certainly is in an orchestra, because it’s a collection of musicians, and the variety of sounds they can make is limitless."

Greenwood wrote Popcorn Superhet Receiver by playing the string instruments into a digital editing program before transcribing the lot with a pen and paper. However he warns that computers have a way of stifling creativity, and is reluctant to rely too much on electronic aids.

"You try and make things sound good on a computer and everything ends up quite sort of traditional," he says. "It leads you down certain paths, which can be nice, but it’s like anything, like Photoshop : you end up working in certain ways even though it’s meant to be limitless. You find yourselves using the same sort of route."

Greenwood seems to enjoy finding a balance between the electronic and physical worlds. He tells how he was once trying to write a score while on tour with Radiohead. At the time, he was becoming frustrated with the mistakes he was making on the page, so he went off to a shop for supplies.

"I needed to get some scissors and glue," he says. "I came back and I was pasting it on and I suddenly realised that’s where the computer thing comes from, of ’cut, copy and paste’. So I was for the first time in my life doing an analog version of something I was used to doing on a computer." He pauses, then continues in a softer voice : "I kind of like it when technology goes backwards like that."