Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), prominent figures in music from different generations, traditions, and cultures, meet in the blurring epistemological circumscriptions of the two mega-genres of Western music — popular music and so-called classical music — by means of this set of concise, non-chronological, complementary compositions for string instruments. The album, officially titled Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima / Popcorn Superhet Receiver / Polymorphia / 48 Responses to Polymorphia, is not ‘new’ as in being ‘groundbreaking’ music for 2012, and therefore it does not fall into the trap of musical experimentation as the only conceivable path to take in contemporary music (a path propelled by the deceiving notion of aesthetic progress and artistic evolution). This album is also not ‘new’ as in previously unpublished music (thus dismissing the notion of novelty as a fulfillment of consumerist desire): Penderecki’s compositions are already canonical, and Greenwood’s contributions have shown up in different media in the last few years. However, the juxtaposition of these musical pieces is radically unique, constituting a forceful statement that’s both symbolic and factual, a diagnosis of past and current music in an unified ground regulated by the notion of sonorism: sound matter as the source of forms, textures, patterns and dynamic substance.
In 1971, the year Greenwood was born, Penderecki premiered the second installment of his seminal piece De Natura Sonoris (on the nature of sound). With these works, he referred to the innate quality of sound that can be traced back to the origin of the universe as a sonic event, a big explosion, whose vibrations still resonate as cosmic background noise and from which any other possible sound is derived and inscribed. Taking the infinite timbral possibilities of electronic music combined with the organic quality of traditional Western orchestral instruments, Penderecki’s approach gave priority to the natural over the artificial, to perception over reason, creating a more holistic means to summon musical sounds freed from their historical roles and the constriction of genres. But while the Polish composer addressed the primeval origins of sound, Greenwood has always explored them in their embodied form (e.g., Bodysong), exploring and pushing the limits of conventional and atypical instruments within different outputs. The music of both composers has also been widely employed in films, not only for enhancing the possible cinematic effect, but also for helping to shape the core of their concept: Penderecki’s music outlines its otherworldly quality (The Exorcist), conveys the uncannily enigmatic (Inland Empire), and forms a maze of deranged mental components (The Shining). On the other hand, Greenwood’s music displaces notions of clichéd passionate feelings (Norwegian Wood, We Need To Talk About Kevin). Yet among all the concepts and musical techniques that connect Penderecki and Greenwood, the tone cluster brings further implications at different levels.
It starts in 1915 with Charles Ives, the American prophet of the avant-garde, who (inspired by the intellectual and philosophical transcendentalist thought of New England) expanded the established concept of multitudes as dispersed collectivities without physical proximity, interpreting them musically as heterophonies: multiple voices, each individual making their best effort according to their capabilities. The tone cluster emerged as a metaphor for an ideal society in the pinnacle of the modern era, chords of adjacent notes not necessarily in agreement but coexisting in unity. Ives employed the cluster in his piece “The Masses” (also called “Majority”), where a mixed choir — the majority, the masses — overcomes the harmonic dissonant oppression of the clustered orchestral background through a solid, unanimous line: “the Masses are singing […] the Masses are dreaming […] all will be well with the World.” After a tense global political struggle — endorsed by technological and scientific development — showed the possibility of manipulating the masses physically and ideologically, this chimera of the majorities ended on August 6, 1945 with a blinding flash of light and a deafening roar. Instead, mass destruction, genocide, and policide became a new possibility for the applied concept of the multitudes.
Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” from 1959, a quintessential creation of 20th-century music, represents perfectly this modernist debacle by introducing a tragic twist on the tone cluster: 52 strings shrieking in unison, every instrument in isolated suffering becoming part of the sound mass of moaning glissandi dissolving slowly into dissonant agony. Even fear or panic was annihilated by the instantaneous nature of this horrendous event, and thus metrical notation is no longer needed; in this threnody, events are inscribed directly into a frantic temporal frame. Among tens of recordings of this colossal poem of mourning, this version performed by the AUKSO Orchestra (conducted by Penderecki himself) is particularly violent, emphasizing the percussive attacks and affliction of the strings.
Greenwood’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” is modeled musically after Penderecki’s “Threnody,” and it is conceptually inspired by the idea of ethereal but omnipresent electromagnetic waves being transduced to sound. Here, the tone cluster emerges again, showing its inner contraventions, the string mass fighting against itself continuously, with some peaceful moments of accordance briefly releasing the permanent scabrous tension. “Part 2 B” goes even further, constituting a thesaurus of extended bowing techniques. It can be proposed that some fragments of “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” were not merely employed as a soundtrack to There Will Be Blood; rather, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s images of desolation and latent violence could actually work as a videoclip to Greenwood’s music (image subordinated to sound, not the other way around), which calmly foresees the unavoidable events to come in the proto-capitalist society.
The second pair of pieces follow a similar complementary logic. Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” (multiple forms) slowly departs from a quiet, low-pitched molecular state to a higher density domain marked by the perpetual mobility and inconstancy of sound, consummating a grotesque, ever-changing sonority developed paradoxically within a concrete structure. For this piece, Penderecki employed notation derived from electroencephalograms, some of them actually taken from patients listening to his “Threnody.” These neural oscillations relate to the cognitive mechanisms that trigger emotions in response to auditory stimuli, and Penderecki translates again this electrical activity into concrete sounds, displaying the brain as the ultimate filter. The final resolving chord of “Polymorphia” defines the vertebrae for Greenwood’s responses. Starting with the Elgarian pragmatic temperance of “Es is Genug” and perhaps inspired by Penderecki’s idea of rhythm interpreted as temporal mobility, Greenwood creates a variety of perplexing pictures, sometimes searching for an economy of language, a non-discursive discourse, that gives importance to individual timbres and encapsulated events (“Baton Sparks”, “Scan”) or insist on the repetition of motifs (“Overhang”). In “Three Oak Leaves,” each instrument portrays a vein in a leaf, ramifying and forming pathways for the vascular flow of sound, going from the solemnly tonal to an overwhelming, frenzied fluidity, to a trembling, palpitating pattern. “Pacay Tree” rabidly finishes this piece through punctual strokes, intriguing pizzicato, and shaky, atonal sound.
Penderecki’s dramatic utterance and Greenwood’s practical resolution conspicuously expose the way life in modernity has been shaped to become completely clustered: there are no individual tones forming a discernible and coherent continuum of melodic subjectivity. However, they also surpass this allegorical region to expose the contradiction of scales inherent to sound (the cosmic buried deep inside the biotic, as visually shown by Shin Katan’s pensive cover art) and its inseparable perceptual base. Indeed, before reaching the auditory cortex and being processed in higher cognitive levels — before being rationally labeled and classified — sound comes into existence in the ear canal. This is the place where Penderecki and Greenwood vindicate, where their sonic matter primarily acts. Certainly, Western musical tradition has ignored the middle and inner ear, regions of pure physicality where touch and hearing are part of the same mechanosensation and virtually indistinguishable from each other, where waves vibrate and resonate with the same ranking, independent of their source. Therefore, this album distances from any collaboration or ‘fusion’ that still departs from the premise of bridging two different worlds: what Greenwood and Penderecki make clear throughout is that they are not dissimilar and cohabit within the same confines, no matter the compositional techniques or chosen instrumentation (for example, pieces such as Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and Olivier Messiaen’s Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus share the same place of inception), reflecting at the same time a positive crisis that could eventually lead to the dismantlement of a fictional framework. Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood are cultivating a dialogue of past, present, and future ideas, presented as potential energy for creation — and also for acquiring new ways of understanding music.