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(Credit: Zach Klein)

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's favourite composer and the strange Ondes Martenot

Jonny Greenwood is a musician like no other. One would wager that he is very much a modernised, futuristic torchbearer, built in the mould that David Gilmour and Roger Waters outlined in their Pink Floyd heyday. However, one would also argue that he is a more accomplished musician than the former Pink Floyd duo. 

He expertly straddles the line between modern and classical in his work. Maybe a touch pretentious, he is a cerebral artist in every sense of the word. Everything he does has a considerable amount of forethought behind it. Interestingly though, Greenwood is also somewhat of a walking contradiction. He is the pioneering, angular guitarist of Radiohead, who gives the band its intense edge.

On the other hand, however, he is an accomplished composer of beautiful film scores. Incredibly well versed in musical theory, his works are wonderous blends of the modern and the classical. Fittingly, the films that he has scored are the works of some of the best modern auteurs, and his scores are brilliant sonic augmentations of their visual delights. There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice and The Phantom Thread are just three of his works with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, which has proven to be a long and fruitful relationship.  In fact, his work as a composer has started to bleed into Radiohead’s work, as heard on 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool.

An accomplished musician on a variety of instruments, Greenwood’s influences are numerous and varied. These include Scott Walker, Alice Coltrane, Can, Sonic Youth, Steve Reich and the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

Attempting to continue his marriage of all things classical with the modern, in 2019 he launched his label Octatonic, which gives a platform to some of the most innovative contemporary composers. Additionally, the label pays a great deal of attention to the composers of the 20th century in offering up modern renditions of their works. 

Plainly stating that his favourite composers are all from the last century, it is apt that his favourite composer should too be a relatively modern one. This lucky individual is the late French composer Oliver Messiaen. Claiming to experience synaesthesia, Messiaen’s body of work is a colourful, complex catalogue, and has inspired so many. In fact, pupils of his included Karlheinz Stockhausen and Yvonne Loriod. 

Greenwood said that he regards Messiaen as the greatest of all time because he is “one of the few composers when you can hear just a few chords in isolation and know it’s him”. Messiaen had a huge influence on Greenwood when he was just 15, and this experience would shape Greenwood as a musician forevermore. 

Greenwood’s position as a proponent of the obscure instrument, the Ondes Martenot stems from his love of Messiaen, and in particular, his iconic ‘Turangalîla Symphony’The Martneot has featured in almost all of his film scores and in numerous Radiohead songs, including ‘The National Anthem’, ‘How to Disappear Completely’ and ‘Where I End and You Begin’. 

The significant point of Greenwood’s use of the theremin-style instrument is that it has come to embody his voice. He uses it because he can’t sing, and once explained: “I’ve always wanted to be able to play an instrument that was like singing, and there’s nothing closer.”

Thanks to Messiaen, Greenwood has given us some of the most emotive modern pieces of work using that strange, early example of an electric instrument. Greenwood went on to popularise its use, and in more recent years the likes of Damon Albarn and Daft Punk have become its disciples. 

Listen to the ‘Turangalîla Symphony’, below.

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