Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver

Notes by TŌN bassist Tristen Jarvis

The Composer and The Music
From recorder enthusiast-turned-violist to internationally renowned rockstar, guitarist/composer Jonny Greenwood, of the multi-platinum-selling rock outfit Radiohead, brings us his award-winning Popcorn Superhet Receiver for string orchestra, notably featured in the 2007 Oscar-nominated film There Will Be Blood. Deeply influenced by experimental 20th-century composers Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Arvo Pärt, Popcorn is dominated by dissonant, anxiety-provoking, microtonal clusters (evoking static from the shortwave radio catalog of an actual superheterodyne receiver), an infectious groove-based middle section, and familiar contemporary art-music atonality with occasional bursts of consonance for stability.

Creating Popcorn
Greenwood wrote the piece by playing many of its expansive tone clusters on the viola, then manipulating those notes using the industry standard audio-editing software Pro Tools, creating an orchestra of Jonny Greenwoods. Through the same process, he also multi-tracked an ondes Martenot (an early electronic keyboard from 1929 that sounds like a theremin) and transcribed his creation for string orchestra all by hand. “There’s nothing like sitting in a completely quiet room, and then the strings start up,” Greenwood comments. “It’s like when you go to the cinema— the first two or three minutes of any film are amazing because the scale of the screen is so big. Directors can pretty much do anything for those first few minutes. It doesn’t matter how many films you see, it’s still a big moment.”

A BBC Commission
Independently of his acclaimed work for Radiohead, Greenwood has established a growing reputation for himself as a composer of “classical” works, and as one of the most sought-after film composers working in Britain. In 2004, Greenwood was made composer-in-residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Popcorn Superhet Receiver was the first fruit of this association, premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra and Robert Ziegler in April 2005. Greenwood’s own comments on the piece are as follows: “This was my first commission for the BBC Concert Orchestra—and a chance to try out a long-held ambition to write something using large, Penderecki-style microtonal clusters. I wanted to start from white noise, treating it like a big block to carve up and distort . . . You can just do things with the classical orchestra that unsettle you, that are sort of slightly wrong, that have some kind of undercurrent that’s slightly sinister.”