Music Interviews
1:03 am
Sat September 15, 2012

Radiohead's Guitarist Adapts To Life In Widescreen

Originally published on Sat September 15, 2012 12:47 pm

Reviews of the new film The Master have ranged from acclaim to disdain. Almost all the critics, though, seem to admire the film's music, composed by Jonny Greenwood.

Greenwood's story begins in the early 1990s, when he was playing the viola at Oxford University and not making much of an impression — even on himself.

"I was headed for the back of the viola section in some orchestra," Greenwood says. "If I practiced hard enough."

On the side, he played in a band that was hoping for greatness — and eventually found it after signing a record deal with EMI. By 1993, concert arenas and radios erupted with the sound of Jonny Greenwood on a different string instrument: lead guitar, for Radiohead.

By the early 2000s, Radiohead was one of rock's biggest acts — and that's just when the band decided to sideline its guitar-driven sound for one based in synths and samples. That gave Greenwood room to explore other instruments, and to write haunting, avant-garde compositions for orchestras.

"What I really enjoy about writing for orchestras is realizing that — and it's kind of self-evident — but the fact that they are 48 individuals," Greenwood says. "It's not, you know, a preset on a keyboard. It's all these people who have opinions and who are making decisions about how to play."

It wasn't long before directors started taking notice of Greenwood's new fancy. He composed the chilling score for 2007's There Will Be Blood. After that film's success, director Paul Thomas Anderson asked Greenwood back for his new film, The Master, saying he needed sounds for a cult-like atmosphere.

Today, Greenwood has a lot of options in his life to make music, including the guitar — or not.

"I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed to play guitar," Greenwood says. "There's something — I don't want to sound ungrateful — but there's something very old-fashioned and traditional about it. You meet kids today whose grandparents were in punk bands. It's very old and traditional, but then, so is an orchestra and so is a string section. ... [It's] is a contradiction going around in my head, and I can't really resolve it."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The reviews of "The Master" have ranged from acclaim to disdain, but almost all of critics seem to admire the film's music. It was composed by this man.

JONNY GREENWOOD: Hi, I'm Jonny Greenwood.

SIMON: And his story starts back in the early 1990s when he was playing the viola at Oxford University and not making much of an impression, even on himself.

GREENWOOD: I mean, I was headed for the back of the viola section in some orchestra, if I'd practiced hard enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: On the side, he played in a band that was hoping for greatness and it got it when...

GREENWOOD: We signed a record deal with EMI and that was kind of the beginning and end of my musical education really.

SIMON: By 1993, radios and concert arenas erupted with the sound of Jonny Greenwood on a string instrument, but not the one he's played at Oxford. He was the lead guitar, for Radiohead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Radiohead became one of rock's biggest acts and stage left, playing his practically abusive style of guitar was Jonny Greenwood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Radiohead sidelined their guitar-rock sound in the early 2000s, which have Jonny Greenwood the chance to explore other instruments, and to write haunting, avant-garde compositions for orchestras. Film directors began to notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: That's Mr. Greenwood's chilling score for the 2007 film "There Will Be Blood." Paul Thomas Anderson asked Jonny Greenwood to compose music for his new film, "The Master." He needed to suggest the atmosphere of a group of believers who become a cult.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENWOOD: Yeah, that's the sound of the strings playing with guitar picks while meeting the strings. What I really enjoy about writing for orchestras is realizing that it's kind of self-evident, but the fact that they are 48 individuals and it's not, you know, a preset on a keyboard. It's all these people that have opinions and They're making decisions about how to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Today, Jonny Greenwood has a lot of options in his life to make music, including the guitar - or not.

GREENWOOD: I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed to play guitar. There's something - I don't want to sound ungrateful - but there's something very old-fashioned and traditional about it. You meet kids today whose grandparents were in punk bands, really. It's very old and traditional, But then, you know, so is an orchestra and so is the string section. So, you know, this is a contradiction going around in my head, and I can't really resolve it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Jonny Greenwood of the band Radiohead and composer of the score for the new film "The Master." You can hear a selection from Jonny Greenwood's score for "The Master" at npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. This is a little creepy, isn't it? I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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