Krzysztof Penderecki

Radiohead: Art-Rock Innovation, Classical Inspiration

English rock band Radiohead has always carried a reputation for innovation in the world of popular music, but their art-rock sensibility owes a great deal to the influence of classical music. Guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood handles many of the compositional duties in the band, and his passion for classical music has been at the center of some of their most innovative work.


Olivier Messiaen

A violist as a teenager, Greenwood attended university to pursue a degree in music. He was only enrolled for three weeks, however, when Radiohead received a record deal from EMI/Capitol. Despite his limited exposure to classical training, he developed a strong affinity for the works of Krzysztof Penderecki and Olivier Messiaen, the latter of which made a particularly indelible impact on Greenwood.

The most tangible evidence of Messaien’s influence comes in the form of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument similar in function to the theremin (perhaps best known to fans of campy science fiction or The Beach Boys). Cellist Maurice Martenot invented the ondes in 1928 with the aim of designing an instrument that shared the cello’s expressive capabilities. The instrument’s pitch can be controlled either by a traditional keyboard or a sliding a metal ring worn on the finger, while the instrument’s sound level is controlled by a key that allows for smooth musical dynamics. With such a wide range of playing possibilities, the ondes is capable of a variety of timbres. Messiaen was an early proponent of the new instrument, first using it in a 1937 composition for six ondes. He also used it to lend an ethereal quality to perhaps his most famous composition (and Greenwood’s favorite classical piece), the Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Greenwood playing an ondes Martenot

Greenwood playing an ondes Martenot

While Radiohead’s 1990’s output saw them achieve considerable commercial and critical success, particularly with 1997’s OK Computer, exhaustion and disillusionment with touring led the band to pursue a different creative direction with their next album, Kid A. The result was a daring, innovative album that went on to inspire a glut of electronic music in the 2000’s. Though the album’s themes and textures are forward-looking, Greenwood returned to his classical roots to accommodate the band’s stylistic shift. Greenwood’s compositions on Kid A range from soaring string arrangements to dissident brass interludes, and the ondes Martenot lends the album a haunting, otherworldly tone, just as it had fifty years prior in the Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Classical music’s influence on Radiohead isn’t a one-way street, either. In recent years, Greenwood has carved out a highly successful career as a composer, particularly in the film world, where he has written critically acclaimed scores for several films, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. He has also served as composer in residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra and written several classical pieces that have been performed around the world (including a collaboration with his long-time influence Krzysztof Penderecki). Despite his considerable responsibilities as a composer, Greenwood continues to bring his unique vision to Radiohead. The video below shows an early iteration of one of their most popular songs, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” performed here with a chamber orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, and, of course, several ondes Martenots.

You can listen below to the ondes Martenot in a performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie (featured prominently in the opening two minutes and at 7:05), as well as in Radiohead’s performance of “How to Disappear Completely” from Kid A.

In its 2011-2012 Masterworks series, the South Carolina Philharmonic performed a Jonny Greenwood piece in an innovative concert under Music Director Morohiko Nakahara, who said, “If Radiohead ever comes to perform to Columbia, I will drop almost everything to hear them. In the meantime, I look forward to introducing Johnny Greenwood’s ethereal and magnetic string orchestra composition to you.” During that performance, Nakahara led the Philharmonic in Greenwood’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which you can hear on the Carolina Live website.