It's been eagerly awaited but we're delighted to announce that the premiere recording of Jonny Greenwood's seminal string orchestra piece, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, is now available. It's something of a coup for Canadian orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, who include the work on their first release under new Music Director, Edwin Outwater. It's on the Analekta label and also includes works by Nico Muhly and Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire fame).
"… the most important Radiohead-related release of the year, aside from their most recent album The King of Limbs…
Greenwood has been widely hailed as a compositional talent ever since he scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The guitarist drew on Popcorn Superhet Receiver for the Blood score, which led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to deem the work ineligible for Oscar contention (due to the inclusion of elements from a prior work). But if you think that you know Popcorn because you’ve seen Anderson’s film, you’re wrong.
Greenwood’s original composition is a three-movement work, lasting 19 minutes. The soundtrack to Blood, issued by Nonesuch Records, has 11 tracks, taking up just under 33 minutes. But only two tracks on the Blood CD have anything to do with Popcorn; the tense glissandos of 'Henry Plainview' and the slap-string pizzicato playing in 'Proven Lands' were clearly snatched directly from the earlier score. (The title track of the Nonesuch CD, 'There Will Be Blood', at first sounds related, as well, but it turns out to contain plenty of distinct compositional features.) The instrumentation alone on several parts of the Blood soundtrack—the Messiaen-like piano on 'Eat Him by His Own Light', and the use of a string quartet at other points—clearly separates most of the soundtrack from Popcorn, which was written for a string orchestra.
I count barely six minutes of overlap between the released Blood soundtrack and the full version of Popcorn. That doesn’t square with the Academy’s math, as presented to Variety back in 2008, which cited “15 minutes” of music from Blood’s “35 minute” original score as having come from the prior work. One particular passage from Popcorn does feature prominently in Blood. The moment in which a chaotic mass of strings migrates at once, in unison, to a single pitch becomes a leitmotif that signals intensity throughout the film. Perhaps this repetition was the score’s awards-season undoing; without access to the cue sheets provided to the Academy by Blood’s producers, we can’t be certain about how they got to their number. Regardless, the point remains that Radiohead fans have yet to hear most passages of Popcorn—and even the bits that did make it into Blood sound different in the context of the whole composition.
The opening two minutes of the piece—which figure nowhere in Blood’s soundtrack—are particularly seductive: as the violins sigh and slide from one ghostly tonality to the next, the basses are given shorter, more defined phrases that pace our listening as we wait for their reentry. This amounts to the inversion of a familiar Radiohead arrangement, post-O.K. Computer, in which Thom Yorke’s lullaby falsetto is apt to interrupt, and also counteract, the discomfiting clatter of the rhythm section. Greenwood’s alternative orchestral approach is every bit as effective, and frames the moments of Popcorn that are more familiar, thanks to Blood.
Greenwood has likened the sound of this first orchestral foray to his own memories of childhood car rides, in which the engine’s hum contributed a droning counterpoint to the cassette playing in the tape deck—or a radio signal that might be sliding in and out of broadcast range. The hair-raising moments conscripted for use in Anderson’s film suggest just a portion of this palette, but over the course of the full work, we can hear Greenwood twisting his own aesthetic dial to find and then linger upon those strange spots in between stations: where a lovely, blooming phrase can keen sharply, moments before dissolving into a spectral haze.
Listening to Greenwood’s orchestral writing also amounts to taking ear-training lessons that pay dividends when considering the Radiohead songbook. After absorbing the semisweet complexities of this piece’s debut recording, I found myself gaining new appreciation for a few of the subtler moves on The King of Limbs. Toward the end of Codex, a Radiohead ballad, the piano drops out and is replaced by violins that trill new notes over the bass line, modulating the key. The shift doesn’t announce itself with thunderous force, and lasts only seconds. When the piano comes back in, the strings go away and Codex continues as before. In its understated toying with texture, though, the brief pivot feels very much a Jonny Greenwood moment: gorgeous, strange, and distinct from the work of any other pop star.
Greenwood has only improved as a composer since he wrote Popcorn. Earlier this year, I reviewed the New York premiere of his second large-orchestra piece, Doghouse, for the Village Voice. That piece was also carved up to suit a movie soundtrack, this time for Norwegian Wood. But once again, some of the original work’s most interesting musical material was nowhere to be found in the movie, or its soundtrack.
Nonesuch, Greenwood’s label of choice, will be getting around to issuing its own full version of Popcorn next year, as part of a program that is set to include two early, classic pieces by one of his heroes, the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. (The CD will also feature Greenwood’s nod to one of those pieces, titled 48 Responses to Polymorphia.) Hopefully, Nonesuch will also give us a complete version of Doghouse in due course. In the meantime, the comparatively small Analekta label has beaten Nonesuch to the punch with this premiere. That is perhaps another reason why Radiohead’s completist fan base hasn’t heard much about the album; the Greenwood promotional machine could be holding its tongue in deference to the bigger label’s calendar. But I can’t imagine Radiohead fans being all that interested in waiting. Like Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil-drilling character in There Will Be Blood, they tend to pursue with rabid intensity any hint of the substance that compels them most deeply. "Slate.com (Seth Colter-Walls), 18 November 2011
"… what an extraordinary debut recording the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony has made under its fearless artistic director, Edwin Outwater…
Anyway, the CD is called 'From Here On Out', it’s on Montreal’s Analekta label, it encapsulates what Outwater is doing in Kitchener-Waterloo, and it stands as a rebuke to the conservatism of just about every other mainstream Canadian orchestra…
This is no pops album. It demands, and rewards, open ears and minds. I wrote about Parry’s For Heart, Breath and Orchestra in that first article two years ago. It requires that most of the musicians wear stethoscopes so they can listen to their own heartbeats and pick tempos to match. Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver was inspired by the white noise that jumbles a shortwave radio signal. Greenwood used parts of the composition, which is sometimes harrowingly atonal, in his astonishing soundtrack to There Will be Blood; Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote about that here. Outwater’s performance here with the K-W Symphony is the first full performance of Popcorn Superhet Receiver on record…
So much of the new music I hear in concert halls sounds dreary and dutiful. Outwater doesn’t seem to hear at those frequencies. He deserves more attention for the work he’s doing in K-W. "Macleans.ca (Paul Wells), 25 October 2011
As if that weren't enough for the countless Greenwood fans who have waited patiently for this release, a second recording will appear in the Spring. Nonesuch Records (who've already issued the soundtracks to 'There Will Be Blood' and 'Norwegian Wood') will release a disc of works by Greenwood and his long-time hero, Krzysztof Penderecki. It includes Popcorn Superhet Receiver, along with the first recording of 48 Responses to Polymorphia.