Review Summary: At what point does something become too predictable to be avant-garde?
Penderecki and Greenwood are both hugely important figures in my own personal musical history, and I've got a lot of love for both, but the truth is that I can barely think of any composer and any pop musician that are more obvious a pairing. Penderecki is the standard go-to choice for any rocker trying to piggyback some cultural cache (observe how Kele Okereke of Bloc Party once claimed that the band were influenced by him, when they're really obviously not
), and Radiohead would be the prime contenders amongst all of rock to make the bold leap from Radio 2 to Radio 3. Even moreso than that, Greenwood has been one of the most vocal members of the Penderecki lip service club ever since OK Computer
and "Climbing Up the Walls". Google the song title and Penderecki's name appears in the Wikipedia blurb that pops up.
Still, my hopes for this were high - "Climbing Up the Walls" remains one of my favourite songs of all time, and it's one of the few instances of a popular artist claiming a Penderecki influence that's actually, demonstrably there. There is also the vast difference in experience between the two that promotes interest; one has been composing since the 1950s, the other is untested in these waters, and trying to navigate a path from film scores to the real thing that has only been successfully walked by a number of composers you could count on one hand (hell, one finger, arguably). In theory, a collaboration could both help Greenwood's development, allowing us to effectively see the effects of his mentoring out in the open, while also invigorating Penderecki himself. There is also the contrast in Penderecki's own work to consider - while the music that made him a touchstone was atonal, he moved towards tonal music at least thirty years ago, and that split between who he is now and who most people think he is could be interesting.
Unfortunately, all of this is complete bollocks, and you can tell as soon as you look at the name of the first track. It's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
is a fantastic piece of music. It was my introduction to Penderecki's work, it was probably your introduction to Penderecki's work, and I know that, for a hell of a lot of people in my age group, it was their introduction to avant-garde music - for a few people, their introduction to any kind of classical music at all. And that is exactly the problem - who on Earth is going to ever hear about this album, let alone listen to it, that hasn't already Threnody
multiple times? I honestly don't see the point in even having it here. To me, it seems like it's just here out of laziness and a lack of imagination. Although I'm told otherwise, I'm not sure it's even a new recording. The problems continue when you look at the names of the next two pieces - Penderecki's Polymorphia
was composed in 1961, just a year after Threnody
, and Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver
, which dates back to 2005 and has already been used on the score for a film called There Will Be Blood
, which I'm told was kind of a big deal.
This all leaves only 48 Responses to Polymorphia
as new material here, which is a real problem, because it heaps the majority of the attention onto what is undoubtedly the weakest and shallowest work of the four. I've tried to rationalize how these short - very short - movements are 'responses' to Polymorphia
in any significant way and I honestly can't, other than to assume that the infamous C-major ending is the only source material that feeds into them. That's a little like a set of responses to OK Computer
that all sound like "Fitter, Happier"; it's a moment that contributes a hell of a lot to the overall feel and impact of the album, sure, but it's very distinct - deliberately so - from the meat and bones of it, the things that really make it what it is. It could well be that the other 39 responses paint a fuller picture, but the ones included here feel more like a dumping ground for all the scraps and ideas Greenwood couldn't fit into larger works. It's not even Penderecki that informs the sound of them most - that honour goes to another composer Radiohead have often mentioned as an influence. Some of these movements feel so heavily indebted to Olivier Messiaen that it's tempting to look for his name in the credits.
It's a shame, really. Greenwood has proven in the past that he's a composer of real promise, and even if the likes of Messiaen, Penderecki, Arvo Part, and Igor Stravinsky have had an obvious impact on his work, he approaches their influence with intelligence, taste, and a hip-hop sense of originality, lifting the bits he likes and ignoring those he doesn't until he sculpts something that, if not new, is at least a refinement in some sense, taking the sounds into new places. (Compare this with DJ Shadow's Endtroducing....
, arguably the album that had more of a profound impact on Radiohead's best work than any other - Greenwood is, of course, a self-professed fanboy for Mo' Wax.) And yet 48 Responses to Polymorphia
really lets him down. Popcorn Superhet Receiver
is much better, with a much better synthesis of those influences, but it still doesn't stand up to either Threnody
Can we really hold that against Greenwood? I suppose you could point out that Penderecki was quite a bit younger than Greenwood is now when he composed the two works here, but it would be extremely harsh - not only did Penderecki have a much more extensive, relevant, and traditional education for a composer, but Greenwood has also spent the bulk of his career working in another medium, and that generates its own problems. After all, sculpture and painting may both be visual media, but you wouldn't expect a painter to jump straight into sculpting and do a great job, would you? But that's the problem, really - Greenwood has pretty much stacked the chips up against himself by deciding to get involved in this album in the first place. There's no need for him to be seen as a competitor to any canonical composer at this point in his career, but by putting his works side-by-side with Penderecki's, he inadvertently puts himself in that light, and it leaves us with an album that tells us very little about his work that isn't obvious to anybody who knows how long he's been composing (young composer still learning his trade - gasp!), and nothing about Penderecki that we haven't already known for over forty years. It's the only place that Popcorn Superhet Receiver
is available on disc in full, and that lends it a certain importance, but outside of that it's hard to really see where the value in this album is, for either artist.