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For Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, there are no rules to composing for film

Composer Jonny Greenwood arrives for the Academy Awards on March 4, 2018, in Hollywood, Calif. Greenwood was nominated for an Oscar his work on  <em>Phantom Thread.</em>
Valerie Macon
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AFP via Getty Images
Composer Jonny Greenwood arrives for the Academy Awards on March 4, 2018, in Hollywood, Calif. Greenwood was nominated for an Oscar his work on Phantom Thread.

Jonny Greenwood was known primarily as a guitarist and keyboardist for the rock band Radiohead at the time that filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson reached out about Greenwood writing the score for his 2007 movie, There Will Be Blood.

"My reaction when Paul asked me was excitement," Greenwood tells Fresh Air. "I thought, 'This is going to be a bit like being in a band with somebody — except I'm in a band with Paul and the people who are making this film.' "

Greenwood went on to write the music for three more of Anderson's films — The Master, Phantom Thread and most recently Licorice Pizzaas well as scores for The Power of the Dog and Spencer, both released last year.

Greenwood was eventually recognized for his inventive, organic film compositions, receiving an Academy Award nomination in 2018 for Phantom Thread, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for The Power of the Dog. (Oscar nominations for 2021 will be announced on Tues., Feb. 8).

Scoring movies gave Greenwood a chance to more deeply explore his interest in baroque and avant-garde music, which he traces back to childhood. In elementary school, a teacher encouraged his class to try to make a different noise with their instruments — in response, Greenwood remembers, he put the bow of his violin under the strings, playing the bottom string and top string at the same time.

"That really stuck with me," he says, "just realizing that there were really no rules. ... The variety of color that one player can make with a string instrument is quite mind blowing."

You can read highlights from this interview below, or listen to the broadcast version via the audio player at the top of this page.


Pretending to play keyboards when he first joined Radiohead

When I got the chance to play with [Radiohead], the first thing I did was make sure my keyboard was turned off when I was playing. And I must have done months of rehearsals with them with this keyboard, and they didn't know that I'd already turned it off.

Thom [Yorke]'s band had a keyboard player — [whom] I think they didn't get on with because he played his keyboard so loud. And so when I got the chance to play with them, the first thing I did was make sure my keyboard was turned off ... I must have done months of rehearsals with them with this keyboard, and they didn't know that I'd already turned it off.

They made quite a racket, quite a noise. It was all guitars and distortion — and so I would pretend to play for weeks on end and Thom would say, "I can't quite hear what you're doing, but I think you're adding a really interesting texture, because I can tell when you're not playing." And I'm thinking, "No, you can't, because I'm really not playing." And I'd go home in the evening and work out how to actually play chords and cautiously over the next few months, I would start turning this keyboard up. And that's how I started in with Radiohead.

Why he prefers working with real instruments

I always found acoustic instruments, certainly orchestral instruments, to be capable of much more variety and strangeness and complexity than nearly all of the software I've used in the past.

I think the danger with writing music not-on-paper and relying on computers and demos is that you start to get used to how some strings sound, and then just look to replicate that. Whereas the variety of color that one player can make with a string instrument, it's quite mind-blowing. And just the combination of a whole ensemble and all the directions it can go, it's really exciting and daunting, and it's easily my favorite day of the year when the string players turn up for an afternoon.

I always found acoustic instruments, certainly orchestral instruments, to be capable of much more variety and strangeness and complexity than nearly all of the software I've used in the past. And I think that's maybe why, to me, music by people like [Krzysztof] Penderecki and [Gyorgy] Ligeti ... still sounds very strange and contemporary, and they still sound like the music of the future to me. Whereas lots of the electronic stuff that was done in the '60s and '70s, you hear it now, and it's just of its time.

The strange sound of his "Phantom Thread II" theme

There's a roll of felt laid between the hammers and the strings, which is why it sounds like that. And it's a little bit out of tune — just because I'm a bit lazy with my booking the piano tuner, I'm afraid.

[Violinist] Daniel [Pioro] is a very physical player indeed, and is interested in every possible color and texture. I also love a recording where you can hear the physicality of what's happening, whether it's the breathing of the player or just the effort involved in making the music. I know it drives some people crazy, but things like Glenn Gould singing along and all of that remind that there's all this muscle ... behind the making of the music. It just makes it more exciting to me. I think that stuff is, quite often, clinically stripped out in most people's consumption of music. Especially classical music.

On the more baroque version of that theme, "Phantom Thread III"

I'm a big fan of these historically very inaccurate recordings of baroque music that were done in the '60s, '70s, '80s even, before the authenticity police stepped in and made everyone play with the right size of orchestra and the right kind of violins. Because it's sort of glorious hearing this baroque music done with big romantic orchestras — it would never have sounded like that. So that was a reference I sent to Paul [Thomas Anderson], and he was also talking about that [Stanley] Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon, that has some big baroque orchestral things in it. It was, on one level, another excuse to get in a room with an orchestra and just revel in that beautiful big sound they make.

Fitting the music to a film's story

There's a few cues in Phantom Thread that were written specifically for the scene they're in, but they're the minority. It's usually more a case of writing music about the characters, or the scenery, or the story itself. Like in There Will Be Blood, I remember being really taken with the story of H.W. and this sort of abandoned boy being taken — I enjoyed writing quite a lot of, I suppose, quite sentimental music for that. I enjoyed that easily as much as writing the more atonal and relatively stranger orchestrations and things.

I try to avoid things like click tracks, so quite often the players are just being asked to play two or three minutes of music and I and Paul, the editor or director, have to just put up with something that might not fit a picture, or even move the picture around so it fits the music. But this is partly from just trying to avoid computers as being the arbiter in how music is played and how tempos are conducted.

Working off of early footage, before a film has even wrapped

Usually, a lot of it gets written when I see the first test footage. Like with Jane Campion's film [The Power of the Dog], it was seeing all of the footage of New Zealand that was standing in [for] Montana, and just seeing the colors of the film and understanding the script and the characters. That's already lots of really fertile ground to start writing music — and I'd rather write twice as much music as needed and just keep going, rather than panic about dropping the level of the music at the right place so a line of dialogue can be fitted in exactly in the right second. And so I'm very indulged in that way, and I'm allowed to start at work very early while films are being shot. Or even before.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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