This is a transcript from an audio recording of the broadcast. The interview was prerecorded, but might have been taped on the day of the broadcast.
Interviewer: "If you were asked to provide a musical soundtrack to the Chapman brothers' exhibition, the last Radiohead LP, or Hail to the Thief, might just do the job. Combining bittersweet melodies with harsh rhythms and juxtaposing lyrical images of childhood innocence with adult horror, the band share the Chapmans' darkly comic world view. Now Radiohead's virtuoso guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, has been asked to provide a soundtrack of his own – not for an art exhibition but an art film called Bodysong. The film is about a montage of images tracing the journey of life from cradle to grave featuring scenes of childbirth, work, sex, war, religious worship, and death. There's no dialogue. Instead, director Simon Pummel asked Jonny Greenwood to create a musical narrative to match the images compiled from the archives.
Jonny: "In a way it was a dream assignment for me because instead of having to – as in a normal film – leave room for dialogue and time everything to the last second and force players to play along with click-tracks – which is traditionally what you have to do – instead, I just had to provide three or four minutes of music and he'd cut the film to that. He'd send me twenty minutes of footage of a certain style and say that he was going to edit it to three or four minutes, and asked me to do some music. So I had a flavour and I could just write music to that. I'm sure a real film would be a lot more restrictive.
Interviewer: "And did you have an idea of the sort of soundscape that you were going to create? Because that's the best way I can describe it. It is a kind of musical journey, as well, in a way. It's not a series of songs or even motives.
Jonny: "Yeah I was very conscious that it would be very boring to listen to a whole hour and a half of music in one style, but at the same time if it was jumping style all the time, that can be quite exhausting, as well. It's a long time to be listening to one piece of music, so the way I got round it is that I wrote everything in the same scale, basically. So when I had the jazz musicians in, they were the only notes that they were allowed to play. When I wrote the string stuff, I was restricting myself to these certain notes, a certain scale. That's how it's meant to tie together.
Interviewer: "So there's a kind of harmonic unity to the whole thing.
Jonny: "Exactly, there's only certain chords you can get out of this mode and there's only a certain kind of colours, and that's what's tying it together, I hope.
Interviewer: "Did that make it easier or harder?
Jonny: "I think it was good because as soon as you have limits, then it's easier to start. You're looking for a way round things and ways of solving problems rather than just being, you know, floating free. Which I think I would find a lot more intimidating.
Interviewer: "But I presume you're working in a very different way to the way you work with Radiohead? Because you're not working with other people, you've working just within your own head and responding to those images.
Interviewer: "So these were the ideas that wouldn't normally arrive in the band format, then?
Jonny: "In a way it felt like a continuation of a Radiohead session. You know – it's in the Radiohead studio, using the Radiohead engineer, and some of the techniques that we've learned on our albums, of building tape loops and certain computer programming. I was very much looking to the others for advice all the time, and playing them the recordings. Thom even came up with some of the titles for me. So I wasn't in such isolation, and it would frighten me to be so alone, I think, working on music. You realise why it's so important to be in a team.
Interviewer: "What about the process of recording? Because I presume when you're in the studio with the band you're all playing together, laying down the basic track, but here you're alone. I know you are a multi-instrumentalist, but you were having to multi-track everything?
Jonny: "That's right. Occasionally it was quite comic! There's one track called 'Convergence' where it sounds like a drum troop all playing out of time, and slowly it all falls in-time. But the way that it was done, with lots of tape loops and just simply involved me sat on the floor like a child with one drum at a time, playing this very simple thing over and over again.
Interviewer: "That's you playing everything in that?
Jonny: "Yeah but it sounds, you know, sounds much larger, obviously.
Interviewer: "Well at the beginning of the track it sounds like one of those primary school rhythm sets.
Interviewer: "Where everybody's given something to bang.
Jonny: "I was right back there, yeah! I felt very much like a primary school musician for that, which I enjoyed.
[Clip of 'Convergence']
Interviewer: "But it does converge, as the title suggests, into this martial beat at the end. Then that music is cut to... I think images of conflict, is it?
Jonny: "That's right. Yeah, I mean, that was done for the fighting scene just because I couldn't think of how melodies and tunes could really tie that kind of footage together.
[Clip of 'Convergence']
Interviewer: "It's quite an organic album, isn't it? I mean, it's recorded... most of the instruments are acoustic instruments – you have a string quartet there...
Interviewer: "...at a time when Radiohead has, as a band, increasingly been exploring those electronic forms of music.
Jonny: "There are lots of computers involved, manipulating sounds. But it's true that most of them started with microphones and instruments. I just found that a revelation that you can... it sounds trite to say, but the fact that you can write melodies on paper and then hear a string quartet play them and the leap in musicality and the personality of the performer and all of those variables can make it an enormous piece of music. Whereas I'm used to... if you write four notes on a computer and ask that computer to play a keyboard then you will hear exactly what you've programmed, and there'll be no other input from anybody else or from the keyboard even.
Interviewer: "Was it a learning process for you, working with these, I suppose, classically trained musicians, in the same way that on that Radiohead Amnesiac album you worked with Humpfrey Littleton Jazz Band?
Jonny: "Yeah, very much so! I mean, there's so many sounds out there and so many instruments, and combinations of instruments. It's just a shame to ignore them and just go and look at new technology. I started to look at all these instruments as being just technology from different eras. There's one song, one track on this record, at the end, that is a string quartet but I'm also using this electronic instrument called a martenot, which is from the 20s, together with a vocodo, which is 1960s technology. It struck me that, well, string quartet is technology as well, from 500 years ago. But that kind of combination of things is what I'm most into at the moment, really.
[Clip of 'Tehellet']
Interviewer: "When you are having to evoke a musical sense of what we're seeing on screen, and it is the passage of life from child birth, and there's conflict, there's sex in there. Was it difficult to guard against what we now know to be musical clichés?
Jonny: "Yes, it was a problem because as soon as you see footage of mass graves and suchlike, you can nearly hear the sliding strings and the atonal clusters and the shots of the [??], and you can imagine music boxes. There are certain standards that you want to avoid, but then when you have lyrical things happening, you can't avoid the clichés for the sake of it. Strings are beautiful and there's nothing richer and warmer than the sound of them playing. So yeah, it is a balance. It's interesting.
Interviewer: "And frantic bebop jazz during the sex scenes?
Jonny: "Yeah, yes. I mean, it was kind of vaguely farcical and comical and I just thought that was the sound of it, really. I'm not sure why. I don't want to think about that too closely!
Interviewer: "Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. His music for the film Bodysong is released on the Parlophone label next week and the film is due for release later this year.