Monday, 26 March 2012

Today, I have mostly been listening to…

… the new recording of Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Polymorphia, which comes with Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver and 48 Responses to Polymorphia.

OK, it's a bit mean listening to a piece of music in the office which tries to reproduce the Hiroshima nuclear bombing using an orchestra - it's utterly brutal - but it does have a kind of tortured beauty too. What interested me about this CD was the Jonny Greenwood stuff. I've got other recordings of Threnody and am a fan, though I think the elegant later Penderecki, when he discovered religion, is actually rather dull. I'm no Radiohead fan (there, I said it), but Greenwood's been getting some serious props from his homeboys on Radio 3. Any good? Actually, yes. There's still a little fanboy element in his recreation of Penderecki's sound, but he's clearly a very gifted musician with a serious grasp of postmodernism. Popcorn is very indebted to Penderecki, but it's a piece by someone who really understands the liberatory potential of orchestral noise.

The really impressive piece is 48 Responses to Polymorphia. Penderecki's original is stunning piece for string orchestra, using odd techniques and incorporating encephelographs in its structure. In the finale, the composer follows several minutes of utter noise with a C major chord - the one used for beauty in classical music. I don't know if this is Penderecki announcing his return to tonality (a reactionary step) or if he's making some other point (perhaps mocking the pre-modernists for their presumption in asserting the possibility of harmony in a world of concentration camps and nuclear war), but it's a dramatic moment.

Greenwood takes this final chord and uses it as the starting point of his 48 tiny pieces, all variations on a rather pretty chorale, sometimes soothing, sometimes as brutal as Penderecki's original. It's formally a little experimental without being tonally particularly progressive, and it sounds wonderful. Perhaps he's making a point about the shared heritage of classical and electronic music? I have no idea. But I like it.

Some later Penderecki: seductively beautiful, but not intellectually challenging at all - it's all about surrendering to religious awe. But if you've played the clips above, you'll probably want some soothing aural balm.

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