Fuck a Blog: Jonny Greenwood's Orchestral Thing

Categories: Fuck a Blog

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More splendid pics, all by Chris Owyoung, below

Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver
Church of St. Paul the Apostle
Wednesday, January 16

“Can I ask what brings you here?”

This is a logical question, posed by an elegant, serious-looking, appropriately dressed woman, to me, a scruffy, bewildered dude in jeans and a flannel shirt from Old Navy, I believe.

I am inexplicably shamed.

Uh, it’s the Radiohead dude.

“Ah. Just not the sort of crowd I’m used to at a new-music concert.”

No. This evening we are largely dilettantes, cowed by the gorgeous, cavernous venue, shifting uncomfortably in creaky pews, valiantly wrapping our heads around the premiere of the Radiohead dude’s orchestra. There is nervous chatter, here and elsewhere, that the Wordless Music Series inadvertently misled folks to believe that Mr. Greenwood himself would be in attendance tonight. He sha’nt. Most likely though he would’ve just waved politely and inadvertently scared any small children.

Our program this evening, performed by the black-clad Wordless Music Orchestra, begins with Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic, which as you perhaps recall is very specifically about the sinking, not the crashing or the blowing up or what have you: It’s a long, slow, gorgeous underwater descent, the orchestra bathed in calmly pulsating aquamarine light, waves of lilting violin passages adorned with found-sound tapes of bells, banging pots & pans, crickets, chattering survivors (one breaks into “Nearer, My God, to Thee”), and, in the respectfully silent church, clicking camera shutters and groaning pews. Three ethereal vocalists occasionally rise above the gentle din. Fabulous. “That was 8,000 times better than Sigur Rós,” my associate proclaims. Yes.

After intermission and a shorter, less enthralling interlude of John Adams’ Christian Zeal and Activity (Brad Lubman now conducting, carving long sighs and daintily plucked footsteps out of the orchestra over a taped evangelist ranting about “the withered hand,” the backdrop now blood-red), it’s time for Popcorn. In the program, Greenwood imagines his work as an attempt at white noise as generated by “a room full of breathing, shuffling, occasionally distracted players”; the result isn’t as shrill or bombastic as you’d immediately expect, but there’s a lurking, disquieting, mechanistic hum as thirtysomething strings saw ominously back and forth. (Listen to the last 30 seconds of OK Computer’s “Climbing Up the Walls,” that throbbing, symphonic decay.) Occasional one violin or cello or viola bursts out of the din, the player’s head bobbing forward violently.

Then, a sharp break in the cacophony: The violins now violently plucked like guitars, the cellos now lumbering downhill, the basses blurting out a boom-boom-bash beat that almost recalls “We Will Rock You”: horror-movie chase-scene shit. (Part of this is actually on Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood soundtrack, the “Proven Lands” track.) And the switch back to the mechanistic hum is even more exhilarating, a long silence broken by creaking music stands, flipped pages, violins tucked back under chins—a protracted, clattering inhalation. Another wild, cacophonous flourish, and we’re done. Standing O, etc. I’d hoped, though, to ask the elegant, appropriately dressed woman what she thought, but she’d long since blended into a crowd much larger and scruffier than she was used to. I hope she didn’t mind us.

Popcorn Superhet Receiver will be performed again tonight (January 17) at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, wordlessmusic.org

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