Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Oscar nominee for ‘The Power of the Dog’ soundtrack, new master of film music

Radiohead fans have known it for a long time: behind the long strand of hair that eats Jonny Greenwood’s face, lies a genius. It is therefore not surprising that the guitarist and keyboardist of the Oxford group also turns out to be a great composer of film music.

His talent in this area resolutely imposed itself last year on the general public, the musician signing two major soundtracks in quick succession, starting with that of The Power of the Dog by Jane Campion for which he was nominated for an Oscar, the film alone accumulating 12 nominations. He also composed the one, remarkable in all respects, of the series spencer on Lady Di by Pablo Larrain, with Kristen Stewart in the title role.

As if that weren’t enough, last year Jonny Greenwood also signed the theme of Licorice Pizza by Paul Thomas Anderson, who was the first to ask him for the soundtrack of There Will Be Blood, released in 2007. The American director has since retained his services for all his feature films, either The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017, with which the musician has already won several awards.

While Radiohead has been on hiatus since the album tour A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) and that a new project with Thom Yorke (another genius) is emerging in the coming weeks under the name of The Smile, Jonny Greenwood, aged 50, deserves to win a trophy on Sunday March 27 at the ceremony of Oscars.

An admirer of Olivier Messiaen, Jonny Greenwood is known to be one of the few to have introduced the complexity and sonorities of highbrow music into rock, notably with the octatonic scale.

Devoting himself to film music gave this multi-instrumentalist a chance to exercise his art of composition beyond rock while further exploring his interest in classical and avant-garde music, inspired by another of his models, Krzysztof Penderecki, whom he quoted from OKComputer (1997). A figure of contemporary music, the Polish composer Penderecki, who died in 2020, has become in spite of himself a master of film music, his abstract compositions freed from all rules being particularly popular for underlining anguish and instilling unease in films of horror, like The Exorcist and shining.

I’ve always found acoustic instruments, and especially orchestral instruments, to be capable of far greater variety, weirdness, and complexity than any of the software I’ve used before.“, Jonny Greenwood explained to American public radio last year.. “And I think that’s maybe why, to me, the music of people like Penderecki and Ligeti still sounds very strange and contemporary, it still sounds to me like the music of the future. While a lot of electronic stuff made in the 60s and 70s today sounds of their time.

Like those of his models, Jonny Greenwood’s film scores do not observe “no rules” and are timeless. Far from pop, they are demanding, rather dark, sometimes romantic, sometimes difficult or grating. Tailor-made lace dominated by string instruments.

He who plays the cello without being a virtuoso has often said it in interviews: nothing excites him more with Radiohead than the “string days“, the recording sessions with the stringed instruments.”The variety and color that a single musician can deliver with a stringed instrument is breathtaking.“, he said last year at NPR. “And the combination of a whole set and all the directions it can go is really exciting.“.

Being able to work for and with great orchestras is one of the reasons that pushed Jonny Greenwood to compose for the 7th art. But it is not the only one. Another is the fact of being in contact with a director or a director “During months“, and “to exchange ideas with enthusiasm for various instruments and different styles of music“, he confided in December at New Yorker. Because the pillar of Radiohead is lucky to have always been called up to now from the development of the films, even before the shooting. A privilege that allows him to experiment upstream in all directions, without restraint, a freedom that he compares to that of finding himself “in a candy store“.

For the series spencer, Jonny Greenwood has composed a dazzling soundtrack, which can be listened to without the images. He approaches both baroque music and more jazzy shores, when he does not intertwine them together in the most wonderful way. Never short of ideas, he had fun starting certain pieces with a baroque orchestra, whose musicians he gradually replaced one by one for jazz musicians, as on the magnificent Arrival and New Currency (below).

As a master of happy imperfections, Jonny Greenwood also plays, as with Radiohead, trying to approach a style in a non-conformist way – for example 80s bands like Wham! prized by Princess Diana, interpreted in Baroque style. It never or rarely works, he acknowledges, but the process of getting there always offers something deeply personal. His music can even then become the driving force of certain scenes, such as that of the New Year’s dinner in this series.

For The Power of the Dog by Jane Campion, her compositions underline the strangeness and the lines of tension of the film with finesse, and in a way that is also daring. In this feature film, we remember a key scene: the one during which Rose (Kristen Dunst) fumbles on the piano downstairs, while her brother-in-law Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) answers her note for note on the banjo upstairs. floor to torment her. While Jane Campion had suggested to him “an instantly recognizable but not very good piece of music“, it’s Jonny, he’s proud of it, who found the “terribleRadetzky March by Richard Strauss.

The banjo being therefore with the piano a key instrument of the story, Jonny Greenwood tried to compose for a string quartet and a banjo. It did not work. “But that led me to play the cello like a banjo, (…) to play the rhythm of the banjo on the cello in picking“, he explains (as in 25 Years below). “The result offers some confusion – it’s a sound you recognize, but it’s not a style you’re familiar with”he analyzes in a conversation with Jane Campion on video for Netflix. The detuned piano is symbolic of Rose and her social malaise, then of her confused mind. The piano ends up ringing”inhuman“, points out Greenwood in the same interview.

The pandemic hasn’t made it any easier for him either, he says. The presence of musicians being very limited in the studio, he spent whole days recording the cello parts himself, to give the illusion of an orchestra of a hundred musicians. Always ready to take risks, he also recorded a horn duet in an Oxford church, “with the intention that the church reverb be the third instrument“. The horn, a symbol of masculinity that gives depth to the scenes of wide open spaces and the intimacy of cowboy Phil, and whose unexpected contribution blew Jane Campion away.

Head researcher at Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood has always cultivated a singular style. He now nourishes the 7th art with his discoveries, with incredible grace. His double hit of 2021 could, should, establish him as the new climate wizard in cinema.

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Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Oscar nominee for ‘The Power of the Dog’ soundtrack, new master of film music