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For Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, there are no rules to composing for film


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. Today we feature interviews with two people nominated for Oscars for their work on the Jane Campion film "The Power of the Dog," composer Jonny Greenwood and actor Benedict Cumberbatch. The film is nominated for 12 Oscars in total.

First, we'll listen to Terry's interview from last month with Jonny Greenwood. He was known as the lead guitarist and keyboard player for the rock band Radiohead when screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson asked him to write the score for his film "There Will Be Blood." That score was described in Rolling Stone as a sonic explosion that reinvented what film music could be. Greenwood wrote the scores for Anderson's subsequent films, including "Phantom Thread" and "The Master," which opened like this...


BIANCULLI: Greenwood also writes a lot of film music that is more avant garde, but some of the avant garde music is influenced by his love of baroque. He studied classical music when he was young, played in a youth orchestra and has been a composer in residence at the BBC Concert Orchestra. You can hear his music in three very different recent movies, Paul Thomas Anderson's newest film, "Licorice Pizza," which is set in the '70s, "Spencer" starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, and "The Power Of The Dog," which is set in Montana in 1925. In the beginning of "The Power Of The Dog," two brothers who own a large cattle ranch are herding the cattle to market. This is the music we hear.


TERRY GROSS: Jonny Greenwood, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your music. It's a pleasure to have you on our show. So that music that we just heard from "The Power Of The Dog," it starts like it's going to be very Western-ish, but not quite. And then there's other potentially menacing music intruding on it. It's a buzzy, ominous-sounding melody interfering with this Western-ish kind of sound. So - and it lets you know that this isn't going to be a conventional Western, even though they're herding cattle. And it also lets you know that bad things are going to be interfering. What's happening musically? What are you doing musically?

JONNY GREENWOOD: I think Westerns have a traditional sound, which is big, sweeping strings and sort of Copeland-style harmonies, which are not only beyond me but wouldn't have really suited the darkness of the film, I think. So the approach to this was originally to try and write music for banjo and string quartet because I'm a big believer that the banjo can be a great, dark, sinister instrument. I mean, I grew up listening to things like the Violent Femmes, and they managed to do that sort of country death song style, you know, banjo, as you know, the opposite of the Steve Martin, you know, routine about how banjos just make you smile, which is true. And, you know, and all that stuff is wonderful music. But there's also a dark side, I think, to that kind of music.

Anyway, I persuaded her to let me try and write something for banjo and string quartet. And it was awful, as you might imagine, and just sounded wrong in every way. So on the rebound from that, I just started trying to play my cello like it was a banjo, so doing the rolling fingerpicking thing on a cello instead.

GROSS: So with the strings that kind of interfere with that plucked cello sound, making this sound even more unconventional, what did you do to get that kind of menacing sound from violins or violins and violas?

GREENWOOD: So I had them play with no vibrato. And, you know, that's a really beautiful effect in a way. I think the danger with writing music not on paper and relying on computers and demos is that you start to get used to how some string sounds and then just look to replicate that. Whereas the variety of color that, you know, one player can make with a string instrument is - it's already - it's quite mind blowing. And just a combination of a whole ensemble and all the directions it can go, it's really exciting and daunting. And it's like - it's easily my favorite day of the year is when the string players turn up for an afternoon.

GROSS: Do you want the strings to be perfectly tuned or do you want them to be just slightly off?

GREENWOOD: Yes. I wrote one cue for the Lynne Ramsay film "You Were Never Really Here" where - asking them to have - half the players tuned a quarter tone flat. So just a little bit out of tune, but all as out of tune as one another, if you see what I mean. But because they're playing with their ears, it's very hard to do. So they're still making their fingers go to where their ear wants to hear the right note. So even though it was difficult to do and they were sort of - weren't doing it properly, it was one of those things where you just end up being even more impressed by what they can do and how they're playing and thinking and making these sounds.

GROSS: One of your influences who you've also worked with is Krzysztof Penderecki, an avant garde composer who once said that we have to use instruments which were built 300 years ago or 200. And the newest instrument in the orchestra is the saxophone. But that's at least a hundred years old. And he said in the century of landing on the Moon - he said this during the 20th century - we still have to write for very old instruments, museum instruments. I think this is the problem. It became the problem in the second half of the 20th century that there's not much progress because of the lack of instruments, of new instruments.

And I thought of you when I read that. And this is quoted on an album that you collaborated with him in on. I thought of you because it seems to me you want to make old instruments sound new by mixing them up a little bit, by doing unusual things with them or having them do unusual things with each other, whether it's their tunings or their dissonance is the number of instruments you use. So do you relate to that quote about using old instruments for new music?

GREENWOOD: I do, because I've always found acoustic instruments, certainly orchestral instruments to be capable of much more variety and strangeness and complexity than, you know, nearly all of the software I've used in the past. And I think that's maybe why, to me, music by people like Penderecki and Ligeti and - it just still sounds very strange and contemporary. And they still sound like the music of the future to me. Whereas lots of the electronic stuff that was done in the '60s and '70s, you hear it now, and it's just - it's sort of its time.

GROSS: Oh, that's so true (laughter). That is really true.

GREENWOOD: And I think that all instruments are just technology, however old and new they are. And the ideal situation is where you can just regard them as being all on the same level of importance and interest and - whether it's a, you know, a piano or a laptop or an electric guitar or tuba. They're all hugely exciting things, you know. And, you know, I remembered - as a 10-year-old, whatever, whenever my mom was driving us around, if we went past a music shop, my daydream, as we drove past, was never imagining being able to go in and buy a guitar or whatever. It would be imagining being able to go and buy a flute or a trumpet. I was just fascinated with all these different colors and ways of making music and making sounds. And in a really tragic, middle-aged man kind of way, that's sort of what I've turned my life into...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: ...As I'm sitting, talking to you, surrounded by lots of, you know, those kind of instruments.

GROSS: But I'm wondering - getting back to that Penderecki quote, I'm wondering if you try to make old instruments sound just a little bit unrecognizable and use them, like, in a way that sounds new even though the instrument is old, you know, that sounds like a new sound that you're getting from it.

GREENWOOD: So I was very lucky when I was in elementary school, age 9, 10, that we were sitting with our teacher, and he had everyone bring in their instruments, whether it was recorders or violins. And he said, OK, everyone, try and make a new sound with your instrument; try and get a different noise out of it. And that really stuck with me, and that was just something that fascinated me then and is probably, you know, still in my - it's still in my - how I work today. So yeah, just very grateful to have, you know, a great music teacher at an early stage in my life.

GROSS: Do you remember what you did to get a different sound?

GREENWOOD: I think I put the bow under the strings and played the bottom string and top string at the same time, (laughter) as I remember. But just realizing that there were really no rules, and if it makes a sound, then it's musical. And you can just look at an instrument and think about it in any way you want to.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonny Greenwood. You may know him from two different musical areas of his life - one is in Radiohead, and the other as a film score composer. And he wrote scores for three current films - for "Spencer," "The Power Of The Dog" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza." He's also done the scores for Anderson's "Phantom Thread," "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jonny Greenwood, who you probably know from his work with the band Radiohead but also for his film scores. And he has three films he wrote scores for, three new ones - "Spencer," "Licorice Pizza" and "The Power Of The Dog." And "Licorice Pizza" isn't by far the first film he's done with Paul Thomas Anderson. He scored Anderson's films "Phantom Thread," "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood."

I want to talk with you about the music for "Phantom Thread." There's three versions of what's basically, like, the theme of the movie. And I want to play two of those versions, and we're going to start with version 2. And I should say, at this point - the movie is about this very kind of classical fashion designer who is both obsessive and very set in his ways and very temperamental. And he deals - you know, he does, like, gowns and other evening dresses for, you know, high-society, wealthy women. And so - and when we hear this music, his muse-dash-girlfriend is about to start poisoning him with mushrooms because when he isn't feeling well, when he's vulnerable, he becomes more accessible and more affectionate and needy, and that puts her in a better position, she thinks. So this is a duet with you at the piano and Daniel Pioro on violin.


GROSS: I think that is really just a beautiful theme. And just - everything is, like, just a little bit off. I'm wondering if the piano that you're playing there is prepared in any way 'cause the notes sound imperfectly tuned and a little bit muffled maybe. So what have you done with the piano? (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: There's a roll of felt laid between the hammers and the strings, which is why it sounds like that. And it's a little bit out of tune just because I'm a bit lazy with my booking the piano tuner, I'm afraid. But (laughter) that's the - yeah, that one...

GROSS: It's not because you like the sound? It's because you're lazy?

GREENWOOD: It's (laughter) - well - it's because I like the sound, yes. And I'm lazy.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you have felt under the lid, like, on the strings, as opposed to, like, on the keys. They're on the - felt is on the strings.


GROSS: And the violin - it's almost like you asked him, I want to hear the friction of the bow on the strings.

GREENWOOD: Well, that's - Daniel is a very physical player indeed and is interested in every possible color and texture. And I also love a recording where you can hear the physicality of what's happening, whether it's the breathing of the player or the - just, you know, the effort involved in making the music, you know? And I know it drives some people crazy, but things like Glenn Gould singing along and all of that reminder that there's all this muscle and physical effort behind the making of the music. I just - makes it, you know, more exciting to me. I think that stuff is quite often clinically stripped out in most people's consumption of music, and especially classical music.

GROSS: So let's hear another version of the theme that we heard from "Phantom Thread." And this happens as the fashion designer is really feeling the effects of the poison. And so he's been talking to his sister. And he's been complaining about his muse. And he doesn't realize he's being poisoned by her. But he says, there's an air of quiet death in this house, and I do not like the way it smells. So here we go. This is a more orchestral version and a more dirge-like version of the theme that we heard. This is from the "Phantom Thread" - music composed by my guest, Jonny Greenwood.


GROSS: I just love that (laughter). And I'm not sure exactly what to ask you, but can you talk a little bit about shaping it into that version of the theme?

GREENWOOD: Sure. I mean, I'm a big fan of these historically very inaccurate recordings of baroque music that were done in the '70s - '60s, '70s, '80s even - before the, you know, the authenticity police stepped in and made everyone play with the right size of orchestra and the right kind of violins and - because it's sort of glorious hearing this baroque music done with big, romantic orchestras for all that it, you know, would never have sounded like that. So that was a reference I sent to Paul. And he was also talking about that Kubrick film, "Barry Lyndon," that has some big, baroque, orchestral things in it. And it was just, you know - I mean, on one level, another excuse to get in a room with an orchestra and just revel in that beautiful, big sound they make.

BIANCULLI: Jonny Greenwood spoke with Terry Gross last month. He's nominated for an Academy Award for his film score for the Jane Campion film "The Power Of The Dog." After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And we'll hear from another of this year's Oscar nominees from "The Power Of The Dog," actor Benedict Cumberbatch. And I'll review "Winning Time," the new HBO series about the Los Angeles Lakers basketball dynasty of the 1980s. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last month with Jonny Greenwood, best known for his work with the band Radiohead and more recently for his movie scores. He's nominated for an Oscar this year for his score for the Jane Campion film "The Power Of The Dog." He also scored Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie "Licorice Pizza," as well as Anderson's "Phantom Thread," "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood."


GROSS: So before you were with Radiohead, my understanding is you were in a band with Thom Yorke's younger brother. Thom Yorke is the lead singer-songwriter from Radiohead. So your older brother was in a band with Thom Yorke. You were in a band with Thom Yorke's younger brother. Do I have that right?

GREENWOOD: You do. That's right.

GROSS: So how did you end up playing with Thom Yorke and forming Radiohead?

GREENWOOD: Well, they had a keyboard player who - it's Thom's band - had a keyboard player, which I think they didn't get on with because he played his keyboard so loud. And so when I got the chance to play with him, the first thing I did was make sure my keyboard was turned off when I was playing. And I must have done months of rehearsals with them with this keyboard that was just - they didn't know that I'd already turned it off and was just - they made quite a racket, quite a noise. It was all guitars and distortion.

And so I would pretend to play for weeks on end, and Thom would say, I can't quite hear what you're doing, but I think you're adding a really interesting texture that - 'cause I can tell when you're not playing. And I'm thinking, no, you can't because I'm really not playing. And I'd go home in the evening and work out how to actually play chords. And cautiously over the next few months, I would start turning this keyboard up. And that's how I started - you know, started in with Radiohead.

GROSS: Wait a minute. I want to make sure I understand this correctly. So the first period that you were playing with Radiohead, you turned off the keyboard?


GROSS: And so you were...


GROSS: ...Fingering the keys, but no sound was being emitted because this is an electric keyboard, so...

GREENWOOD: Exactly, yeah.

GROSS: Nothing was coming out, and nobody noticed.

GREENWOOD: Yeah. I mean, you know, we were kind of noisy garage band, I suppose, in a small rehearsal room. And I remember the first few songs when I did start playing melodies. And Tom liked it, and it was very exciting.

GROSS: So since you've had a foot in classical music and in rock for so long and have been important in both worlds, I think the division has melted away for a lot of classical performers but not so much for other people 'cause so many people don't listen to classical music at all anymore. It's just not - I think it's become more and more of a niche, with the exception of film scores. That's one of the great things about film scores is that it brings a different kind of music often into - you know, into people who otherwise wouldn't hear it.

GREENWOOD: I think streaming has been quite bad for classical music because if you are keen to find out more about classical music - you might have heard that the Beethoven "Violin Concerto" is a great piece of music, so you go on to Spotify or whatever. And when you search for it, you're presented with 500 recordings. And it's just - I think it's just a bit of a sort of daunting and off-putting thing. There's very little curation. I do sort of mourn the days when you used to listen to a record hundreds of times and get everything you could out of it.

And I'm the same. I'll - you know, I'll listen to a Miles Davis record on Spotify, and then rather than play it again, I'll move on to the next one. And there's just none of that sort of obsession. And I think classical music especially suffers with that because if you can, you know, live with the same piece of classical music for a few weeks, you know, it'll reveal itself to you. But it's about having the patience to do that.

GROSS: I know you like performing in churches and listening to music in churches because often the period of music that's being played is from the period that the church was built in. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but can you talk a little bit about that, about the experience of being, like, in an old church or cathedral and playing or hearing music there?

GREENWOOD: Yeah, so I've - spending a lot of time in Italy at the moment, and the churches there have just some glorious and strange organs that I've been really lucky enough to play and write a few things for. That's opened up a whole side of classical music I didn't know about, like all these early organs that have two sets of black keys so that you can play the notes in between the notes a bit like Penderecki, I suppose. And they have keys that reproduce the sound of birds singing. And if you look inside the organ, it's these little boxes with water in them that blow air through them.

And these instruments are, you know, 400 or 500 years old. And it just occurred to me that when you're sitting, hearing one being played, you are hearing an actual, authentic performance from - that would be identical to someone sitting in the same chair 500 years earlier because the walls are the same and the pipes are the same and the organ is the same. And this is what it sounded like, and that's - there's a sort of exciting time traveler-y (ph) sort of enjoyment to be had with that kind of music, I think.

GROSS: Jonny Greenwood, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for your music. And I'm expecting one or more of your scores to be nominated for Oscars. So, you know, I don't know if you care very much about awards, but I wish you good luck in awards season.

GREENWOOD: Thank you. Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Jonny Greenwood speaking to Terry Gross last month. He's nominated for an Academy Award this year for his score for the film "The Power Of The Dog." After a break, we'll hear from another Oscar nominee from that same movie, lead actor nominee Benedict Cumberbatch. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "WEST ALONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.