“He has composed a Prom and scored Paul Thomas Anderson films. As he launches his own classical record label, the guitarist reveals how it all started with the humble recorder”
Jonny Greenwood is looking well, all things considered. There’s a thin triangle of stubble on his top lip that the morning razor has missed and a slight bleariness around the eyes, but it’s unlikely anyone spotting Radiohead’s lead guitarist in the corner of this London cafe at 10am would guess that he hasn’t been to bed for 24 hours. “No, not really had any sleep,” he mutters, running a hand through his shiny dark hair. “Hour, maybe?”
He’s here to discuss his new classical music record label, Octatonic, but at midnight he was taking a bow at the Albert Hall following a meticulously curated Prom. It was the culmination of his second life as a composer, a 16-year career that has seen him write for the London Sinfonietta, work as composer-in-residence for BBC Concert Orchestra, collaborate with the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and create remarkable scores for the films of Lynne Ramsay and Paul Thomas Anderson.
The Prom included three of Greenwood’s compositions, plus works by Penderecki, Steve Reich and Heinrich Biber (“That was well Radiohead!” surmised two lads in the bar at the interval) and ended with the world premiere of Horror Vacui, his 36-minute piece for 68 strings and solo violin.
“It was crazy,” he says, of hearing the work performed in public for the first time. “Totally different from recording with Radiohead. You’re planning for something that’s going to happen just once. The focus is on 30 minutes of performance, and that focus lasts for nine months. There’s maybe 20 bars I’d happily take out, but unlike a lot of things I’ve written this felt like there was more successful stuff in it than not.”
Greenwood is humble when talking about his music, and he’ll happily change the subject from himself to the performers (“real musicians”) and his star violinist, Daniel Pioro. “Daniel is superhuman. I first saw him when he was performing this Gerald Barry piece, Triorchic Blues, and it was the last time someone’s played something that has given me this incredible physical response, this insane rush. It’s a moment I’m still chasing. I’ve been obsessed with Daniel ever since.”
That obsession is evident in Octatonic’s first release. Although the series will mainly focus on contemporary classical music, Volume 1 features Pioro playing Bach’s Partita No 2 in D minor, one of the most beautiful – but most performed – pieces of music ever. Greenwood agrees. “It has everything, and with Daniel it sounds like a fresh piece of music.”
Named after his favourite eight-note musical scale (“Yeah, I know – nerdy”) Octatonic also plans to focus on intimate works by soloists or small groups. Volume 2 features Oliver Coates performing Industry, Michael Gordon’s work for cello and electronics, and pianist Katherine Tinker playing Greenwood’s Three Miniatures from Water.
The idea for Octatonic, explains Greenwood, came after a late-night visit to Bleep, the hip online independent record shop. “I was looking for the classical section,” he says, “and I realised there isn’t one. It’s not that I thought there’d be a massive interest in new classical music on vinyl, but I thought there’d be something.”