Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Wind through the Grass

This week my head has been full of Radiohead. I can't get enough: on one hand they know how to make rich, interesting music (Kid A) while on the other they know how to sound like a "real" rock band (as in those quiet starts that explode moments later, or the crushing intensity of the guitar solo in Just). Their best music has a unique, ambivalent quality, too, which somehow manages not to interfere with its intensity. (It's almost as if they've taken our ideas of past rock music and used them much as Warhol used photo-journalism - as in their allusions to Bohemian Rhapsody in Paranoid Android). I thought it was just me until I read Thom Yorke saying something similar (he's talking about the album, The Bends): "It was like there's a secret camera in a room and it's watching the character who walks in - a different character for each song. The camera's not quite me. It's neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite". And again, on OK Computer: "Loads of the music on OK Computer is extremely uplifting. It's only when you read the words that you'd think otherwise."

It all began a few weeks earlier. Amy and I had been sat in the car on the edge of the moors outside Hebden Bridge (outside the Shepherd's Rest pub, for the sake of any local readers) eating fish and chips, listening to the Proms on Radio 3. I'd turned it on in the middle of a piece for string orchestra. We had no idea what it was: possibly Penderecki, I thought, at first. (Moments reminded me of his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima). It was one of those moments when the place you are in and what you are feeling at the time conspire together to make your mind more receptive than it usually is. Outside the wind was riffling the dry, long grass on the hillside, and it was as if the movement of the grass was actually creating the shimmering string-sounds we were listening to. Life was a film with a soundtrack, and I felt helplessly embedded in it.

When the piece finished we discovered what it was: Popcorn Superhet Receiver by Jonny Greenwood (the Radiohead member) and for me, it knocks spots off a lot of contemporary classical music being written in Britain at the moment (well, at least most of the things I get to hear). It is driven by a real expressive impulse. It is neither afraid of being challenging one moment nor afraid of being simple another.

When I was younger, attempts by classical musicans to make rock music (and vice versa) were usually dire and misguided. Deep Purple's famously dreadful Concerto for Group and Orchestra springs to mind. To make a particular kind of music one has to intuitively understand how it works and what it's trying to say: too often when people cross from one genre to another they only seem to understand the surface texture. The results are empty. Popcorn Superhet Receiver is different. This, for me, is the work of a musician who tries to make sound serve his creativity, be it the sound of a string orchestra or a Fender Telecaster. And what goes for Greenwood goes for Radiohead as a whole. As the composer and conductor Esa Pekka Salonen put it: "When I heard OK Computer, after five minutes I said, 'I actually get this. I understand what these people are trying to do.' And what they were trying was not so drastically different from what I was trying to do."

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Rachel Fenton said...

I remember sitting in my car looking over the long brown grass being blown almost flat one evening, just moments after sunset, (late August I think) and hearing "Hope There's Someone" by A & the Js and sobbing! I could still hear the wind and see a kestrel hovering. Magical.

It's wonderful when music makes a connection to something greater than a listening experience.

It must have opened a box in my brain because I see a lot of music now.

Titus said...

Dominic, this is an intersting post, so well-written I almost understand. Loved " Life was a fim with a soundtrack ..."

But I still had to run screaming from the room. Husband and eldest son big Radiohead fans, but for me their music only induces thoughts of self-harm.
Such a philistine I actually remember the Purple album with fondness.

Rachel Fox said...

Despite my 'Not tonight, Radiohead' poem I'm actually quite a fan (and my Mark is a HUGE fan). We were listening to some in the car just the other day and saying how fantastic it is.

The Weaver of Grass said...

It pleases me the you always get such pleasure from music. Now that I can no longer happily listen to it I have to remember it in myhead - and surprisingly I can do that with so many favourite pieces.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Interesting post Dominic.Music really connects with our emotions way deeper more than anything else can manage.

Dominic Rivron said...

RF: Those boxes we have in our brain are fascinating: those odd responses we make that are almost colour, almost smell, etc.

Titus: The brain is strange. Wondering what to type here, the "big tune" from the first movement of the Purple album came into my head. I'd totally forgotten it, or so I thought. I last listened to it 30 years ago, so I too must have just a bit of a soft spot for it somewhere.
I think collaborations across musical genres usually leave me feeling let down - they promise so much, but often feel to me to be less than the sum of their parts.

RF: Good, innit?

WG: I certainly do. Doing it for a job sometimes (but not always) leaves me overdosed with it, though. I sometimes need a day or two of talk radio to clear my head!

TFE: True. Perhaps it's an illusion, but not just our emotions, I think. Some music leaves us in awe, as if we have had something revealed to us that it is beyond our ability to understand.