“I didn’t know it was allowed to write music like that” – says Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s lead guitarist and award winning composer – referring to the first time he listened to Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphonie. He was then a teenager, and the tight relationship with Messiaen’s music would remain audible for years on within his own compositions. A few words about Greenwood:
He is famous mostly for his work with Radiohead and is often referred to as one of the greatest guitarists of all times. But his fascinating career includes residencies with orchestras such as the BBC Concert Orchestra, while his works are being played in festivals such as the Proms, alongside prominent contemporary composers. He released several film scores and now-days orchestras around the world invite him for collaborations and commission his works. Much like Messiaen, Greenwood’s music cannot be easily mistaken for someone else’s. Over the time he developed a musical language which can be recognised from the back of the backstage.
Equally influencing so much of the best music being done today, whether with Radiohead, who never stops surprising, or with the London Contemporary Orchestra, who I believe is one of the best ensembles for contemporary music out there these days – Jonny Greenwood is one of the only people on earth who truly makes musical categories irrelevant.
“I enjoy struggling with instruments I can’t really play.” Says Greenwood.
Interesting thing to say. Aside from the guitar, he plays instruments of almost any family and masters music programming and various electronic music techniques. He is also one of very few Ondes Martenot players worldwide – an electronic instrument invented in the early 9o’s by a french cellist – Maurice Martenot (read more about him on this week’s issue).
Naturally, this is no coincidence. Greenwood was introduced to this instrument through Messiaen, who included it in some of his most important works. In the Turangalila Symphonie the Ondes Martenot has a solo role which sounds as if taken from a different tale. The vivid-metallic sound of the instrument is partly what makes this masterpiece so recognisable and different. The first time Messiaen wrote for Ondes Martenot was in 1937: Fête des belles eauxa was a commission for the Paris Exhibition, scored for no less than six Ondes Martenot.
Years later, Greenwood takes inspiration and leads a group of six Ondes Martenot on Radiohead‘s live concerts of How to disappear completely. “I walk through walls” sings Thom Yorke, as an orchestra of weeping willows cuts through the air:
Although influences of Penderecki and Ligeti are almost as audible in Greenwood’s music, it is the connection to Messiaen which truly fascinates me – partly because of my own love for the latter. While tracing the beginning of Greenwood’s surprising footsteps within the classical music scene, I learn that Messiaen has everything to do with the fact that he is one of the most sought after classical composers of our times. According to Greenwood, his endeavour into classical music began with Messiaen, while the rarity of the Onde Martenot became a vivid inheritance. There is something incredibly heart-rending about a musical instrument being the link between two human beings.