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

Jonny Greenwood talks about the two aspects of his life: being lead guitarist for the band Radiohead, and writing film scores for directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Jane Campion. He recently wrote scores for their films 'Licorice Pizza' and 'The Power of the Dog.'


Other segments from the episode on February 7, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 7, 2022: Interview with Jonny Greenwood; Review of Connie Smith album.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When my guest, Jonny Greenwood, was primarily known as the lead guitarist and keyboardist for the rock band Radiohead, screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson asked Greenwood to write the score for his film "There Will Be Blood." It was an unexpected turn for Greenwood, but he was immediately noticed. The score was described in Rolling Stone as a sonic explosion that reinvented what film music could be. Greenwood wrote scores for Anderson's subsequent films, including "Phantom Thread" and "The Master," which opened like this.


GROSS: That's a pretty great way to start a film. Greenwood also writes a lot of film music that's 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. Now you can hear his music in three very different new movies - Anderson's "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.


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 (laughter) 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 Copland-style 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...

GROSS: Right.

GREENWOOD: ...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: (Laughter) Yes. I wrote one cue for the Lynne Ramsay film "You Were Never Really Here." We're 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.

So yeah, I might get all - you know, all very excited and fanboy about string players. I mean, whenever I see somebody, you know, walking into Abbey Road, and they're carrying their cello and going to do a string session, I just know how many hours and days of their life they've spent rehearsing, you know, every day for four hours, three, four, five hours, and then you get to hear the results of that. And it's very daunting. And I admire the musicians who give their life to that, really.

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 on. I thought of you because it seems to me you want to make old instruments sound new by messing 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 dissonances, the number of instruments you use. So do you 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 or 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 a tuba, that 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 she's cooking more of those poisoned mushrooms (laughter). 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. And he's really referring to the woman who's poisoning him (laughter) when he says that, although he doesn't know that she's poisoning him. 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.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. By the way, thank you for that music. I really love it (laughter).

GREENWOOD: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: So let's take a break. My guest is Jonny Greenwood. And he - you probably know him from his work with the band Radiohead and also for his film scores. He has three current film scores for "Spencer," "Licorice Pizza," a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and "The Power Of The Dog." And he's written film scores for Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," "The Master" and "Phantom Thread." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jonny Greenwood. He is a composer and musician who you probably know from his work with Radiohead, but also from his film scores. He's done several film scores for Paul Thomas Anderson, including "The Master," "There Will Be Blood" and "Phantom Thread," and now he's written some of the music for "Licorice Pizza." And he also has two other new movies that he's done scores for in addition to "Licorice Pizza." There's "Spencer," about Diana Spencer, Princess Diana, and "The Power Of The Dog," Jane Campion's new film.

You started writing film scores because Paul Thomas Anderson asked you to write music for "There Will Be Blood." What was your first reaction when he asked you to do something you'd never done before? Had you ever thought about doing film scores?

GREENWOOD: No, I hadn't. I - my reaction when Paul asked me was just excitement that I was going to get access to musicians and be able to write music for someone, and the fact that it was for a film. I didn't really, up until that time, pay that much attention to film music, really. And I just thought, this is going to be a bit like being in a band with somebody, except I'm in a band with Paul and the people who are making this film and going to be contributing music to it and - as a way to disassociate from it, I suppose, and feel like it's not really to do with me. And when I started thinking like that, I just found it really enjoyable and fun to throw lots of music in his direction.

GROSS: Do you find it helpful to know that I have to write music that fits this mood or that fits this scene and there's a purpose that defines what the music has to be? Is that helpful in digging out, you know, music from your brain, to know what it's for?

GREENWOOD: It is, but, I mean, there's a few cues in "Phantom Thread" that were written specifically for the scene they're in. But they're the minority, really. It's - it was - it's usually more a case of writing music about the characters or the scenery or the story itself. Like in "There Will Be Blood," I remember being really taken with the story of H.W. and this sort of abandoned boy being taken. And I enjoyed writing quite a lot of, I suppose, quite sentimental music for that. And, you know, I enjoyed that easily as much as writing the more atonal and stranger - you know, relatively stranger orchestrations and things.

And I try and avoid things like click tracks. So quite often, the players are just being asked to play two or three minutes of music, and the poor editor or director have to just, you know, put up with something that might not fit the picture or even move the picture around so it fits the music. But this is partly from just trying to avoid computers as being the arbiter in how music is played and how, you know, how tempos are conducted. And we'll just ask the players to play something, you know, in three or four different tempos, and then do the work in the edit into making things work with the film itself.

GROSS: When you write for a movie, are you seeing the footage of the scene you're writing for before you compose it, or are you composing it before it's even shot?

GREENWOOD: Usually, a lot of it gets written when I see the first test footage or just see early footage of - like, with Jane Campion's film, it was seeing all of the footage of New Zealand that was standing in for Montana and just seeing the colors of the film and understanding the script and the characters. And that's - I mean, that's already lots of really, you know, fertile ground to start writing music. And I'd rather write twice as much music as needed and just keep going rather than panic about, you know, dropping the level of the music at the right place so a line of dialogue can be fitted in exactly in the right second. And so I'm very indulged in that way, in that I'm allowed to start at work very early while films are being, you know, shot or even before.

GROSS: You started studying classical music when you were a child. How did you go in that direction? Was it through school? Were you assigned an instrument? Did your parents listen to classical music?

GREENWOOD: No, we - there was never really music playing in the house other than by - for my older sister, Susan. But in terms of classical stuff, I think it was just because I was given a plastic recorder when I was 6 as a surprise present, and then I had five years where I was at a primary school where I was told that no one was allowed to play the recorder until they were 11. And this just became this instrument of total, you know, fascination and frustration. It's like, why can't I - I just couldn't wait to start. So I think it was just that old story of, you know, of denial making something seem just, you know, all the more delicious. And once I started playing recorder, I - you know, I kept at it seriously till I was 18. You know, I still play it now.

GROSS: OK, a recorder is a wind instrument, but you had a plastic one. Now, I had a plastic one in sixth grade because we all had to play ensemble plastic recorders, which were known as flutophones. And, you know, the ones we had - I don't know about yours, but the ones we had, it was as if a wooden recorder mated with a kazoo and came up with this kind of annoying sound that was only heightened when there were 30 of them playing ensemble (laughter). So was yours a flutophone or a recorder? Like, how did it sound?

GREENWOOD: I mean, I'm sure it sounded gruesome, but I was impressed with myself enough to sit in my room playing it all day. But, yeah, it was just, a - you know, a baroque-style recorder made of creamy yellow plastic by the Hohner Corporation in 1979 or whenever it was.

GROSS: So I know you love baroque music. You've loved it since childhood. Is there an example from one of your scores in which you feel you especially drew on your love for baroque?

GREENWOOD: I mean, I keep doing it is the brutal truth. Like, even in "Spencer's" score, there's lots of things that are very, you know, influenced. And I'm using influence in the same way that, you know, a bank can be influenced by robbers, I think. So it's very...


GREENWOOD: So, yes, you know? But that's only because all of that stuff, all of, you know, Bach and Handel and Haydn, it's all chord sequences and - that are still being used today. And it's that thing where, you know, music changed after that, but it didn't necessarily do anything too different.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that section of the score? And this is Jonny Greenwood's music from the film "Spencer" about Princess Diana.


GROSS: That's music from Jonny Greenwood's soundtrack for the new film "Spencer" about Princess Diana. Jonny Greenwood is my guest. And he wrote the score for "Spencer," and for the new film "The Power Of The Dog." He's done several Paul Thomas Anderson films, including "Phantom Thread" and "The Master," "There Will Be Blood" and the new film "Licorice Pizza," which also has a lot of music of the period that the film is set in, pre-existing music. We'll be right back after a short break. 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."

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 - 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 them, 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 because 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?

GREENWOOD: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: And so you were fingering the keys, but no sound was being emitted because this was 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 Thom 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 because 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. And 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 "Beethoven: Violin Concerto" is a great piece of music. So you go onto 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 and very little - and plus, you're made to feel like it's just - you know, that it's somehow beyond you and it's - which is really sad, I think. 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 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: Yes. 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. I call 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 I have keys that reproduce the sound of birds singing. And if you look inside the organ, it's these little boxes with water and that blow air through them.

And these instruments, are you know, 400, 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 sort of enjoyment to be had with that kind of music, I think.

GROSS: You've kind of made these organs sound like synthesizers, you know, with, you know, microtonal possibilities, bird sounds. Yeah.

GREENWOOD: Sure. Well, you know how - I don't know what you know about music notation. I don't want to patronize you at all. But you know that, like, F sharp is a higher note than G flat, even though on a keyboard, it's the same black key. But when you play in a different key, that note really should be slightly higher. And when you're in the previous key, it should be slightly lower. So when you're playing in, like, E major and you have your D sharp, that's a higher note than any flat in C minor. So that fluidity is something that these early organs try to get past by having these - by doubling up the keys. So you use one of the black keys when you want to play an E flat and the other black key when you're calling it a D sharp, for example.

GROSS: What you said was definitely not patronizing because I had no idea that there'd be a difference between a D sharp and an E flat. On the piano, it's the same black key. So I always think of it as being the same.

GREENWOOD: Sure. But string players are always taught that, you know, you push the second finger higher for your F sharp. And F sharp is very nearly a G when you're playing in D major. But, you know, if you're playing in a minor scale or a minor key, then you put your finger in a slightly different place. Yeah, it's strange. It is bizarre, isn't it? It is very strange. But for whatever reason, you know, it totally works when you hear it.

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.

GROSS: Jonny Greenwood wrote the scores for three new movies - "Licorice Pizza," "The Power Of The Dog" and "Spencer" - and is Radiohead's lead guitarist. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review new and reissued music by country music star Connie Smith, who Ken describes as an extraordinary singer. This is FRESH AIR.


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