This is a transcript from the radio broadcast. The interview was pre-recorded, but could have been taped during the day of the awards.
Anonymous 1: Well in the second half of tonight's concert...um...were gonna be hearing Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver. Which is a piece inspired by white noise. But what exactly is white noise? In tonight's interval feature, Robert Sandal quizes Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, Chris Watson, who's made an art out of recording the sound out of the natural world, and also Prof. Eric Clark, about this unpromising source of Music
Anonymous 2: White noise makes me think of being in a tropical rain forest and hearing little insects making Noises. And just a whole bunch of noise, all coming together and turning into a hiss.
Jonny: To me it's an output on the synthesizers we often use to generate white noise. And its the hiss with which you would build lots of other things. It's in the...the air conditioning, and the hard drive in the computer, and the fridge. And it's finding music in that beauty.
Prof. Eric Clark: White noise is a sound in which all frequencies are equally represented. And this gives it the completely undifferentiated WASH sort of quality to it.
Chris Watson: This insect chorus in the Congo, that I keep returning to (laughs) here tonight, with a gin and tonic. because I just love it. Which is one of the particularly strong elements of sounds from the natural world that I fail to get in music. That really exciting buzz.
Robert Sandal: Various reactions to white noise, which illustrate how suggestive and inspiring this rather unpromising sound material can be. The saturated buzzing of the natural world has inspired many of Chris Watson's CDs. While the man made hiss of an old analogue radio was the creative starting point for Popcorn Superhet Receiver: Jonny Greenwood's first commission as resident composer for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Like the rank outsider in a horse race, white noise has been slowly moving up the sound field over the past 50 years. JG and his colleagues have started regularly using it as one of the building blocks of their concerts. It's quite appropriate that Jonny's band is called RH.
Jonny: Whenever we play live, we use the radio as an instrument quite often...to...i suppose partly connect with the city we're playing in so you can get some of the local languages and music being kind of incorporated into the noise we're making. And quite often there's no reception and instead you just get this sort of howl and hiss of noise. And that can be good too. We have made lots of recordings using short wave radios because things tend to be a lot more beeps and howls. Something about FM is very clean and precise. We had one thing where we built...um...some software that recorded a few seconds of radio over the course of 24hrs. And so we had just a short wave radio and just were...were turning the dial occasionally. And after a 24hr period then you've got a series of samples from the whole..the whole moment that we could spread out over the whole week. So, yah, we keep coming back to the radio, it's fun...
RS: So that's how white noise feels to Jonny Greenwood, but what is it? To get the scientific low-down, I approached Prof. Eric Clark of Sheffield University. A music graduate and some-time member of an amateur string quartet, who has developed an interest in psycho-acoustics. Which is, broadly speaking, the science of how, what we listen to effects us. So, Prof. Clark...White Noise?
PEC: It's kind of like the equivalent of all colors being simultaneously available giving this...and...and it's because white, in light, is all color frequencies represented together. And I suppose that's the reason why they've used it for noise.
RS: There are various other colors of noise, aren't there? I...I've learned "Pink"
PEC: Yes! What these other "colored" noises are, are types of noise, in which, a certain amount of filtering has meant that some frequencies ranges are more represented than others.
RS: Can you understand how somebody would be actually musically inspired by white noise. Can you just, sort of, meditate on that for us?
PEC: Yah! Noise is an interesting phenomenon in various respects. One thing that studies of human perception have shown, is that if people are exposed to these very undifferentiated kind of stimuli like white noise, or the kind of snowy effects that you get on an untuned television, or...the things like that. Because our perceptual systems are essentially adapted so as to pick out structure in everything that we hear and see and feel and touch and so on...We get these curious kinds of illusions, within noise, that when...when people are actually hear noise, they may have the illusion that they're hearing all kinds of things going on in it. And white noise is perhaps a bit like that. That we can hear all kinds of illusory things going on, so I can see that, from that point of view, noise might be quite an interesting material to start with.
RS: Because of course, it's enormously complex, isn't it?
PEC: On the one hand, it's complex. On the other hand, actually it's very simple, because the thing about white noise is there is no structure in it. The fact that every frequency is present, and to the same extent, means that there is nothing there in a sense. Everything...there is everything and nothing...(laughs) um...paradoxically. Again, it's a little bit like the famous Rorschach Inkblot, that if you take a blot of ink, put it in a bit of paper and fold it over, you get this random, kind of, blobby thing. If you show it to people, they will say they can see all kinds of things in it. Which, of course, aren't, in any objective sense, there.
RS: For Jonny Greenwood, the power of white noise lies partly, not just in it's role as a pure imaginative stimulant. There's some personal history in there as well; rooted in the lo-fi musical experiences of his childhood.
Jonny: Family(...?...)there were only ever three or four cassettes, and they were always the same ones. There was some Art Garfunkel being played by two cover artists. It was very popular in the late 70s. Ford Wallace(?) had these cassettes that were famous recordings done by other people, and so it was slightly cheaper. And so he could get, sort of, the English fake sounding like Art Garfunkel, which we had, and there was (..?..) Concerto, and there was Flower Drum Song in the car, and you'd hear them so often that eventually, even when they weren't playing, and you could hear the car engine instead, you could hear the songs, and hear the music, you could hear every detail of it as well...and it would be passing in your mind in real time. And, this idea of submerging things behind the noise, and then having them slowly revealing is just...just appealing, really. It's certainly easier to recall music, in that kind of detail, when there's that noise in the background. But in...in a silent room like this, it would just be impossible for me to actually follow any song through in real time, and actually hear the detail and how it sounds.
RS: Jonny Greenwood started out as viola player in a youth orchestra. And, while a teenager, his love of experimental indie rock bands merged with an interest in contemporary classical music. After school, he signed up for a degree course at Oxford Brooks University.
Jonny: I managed to do four weeks of a music course when I was 18/19, before we signed to EMI. And one of the few lectures we had was on Penderecki. And..um..the piece for Hiroshima. And it just stuck with me, this idea that you could make...you could make white noise with...with just stringed instruments. And the one Penderecki concert I saw...you just thought there were more things on stage than the 24 violins, or whatever it was. It just sounded like there was much more going on. That there were electronics involved, but there aren't. It's just...he's just doing wonderful things with these textures and frequencies...and using such old technology. It was a very inspiring concert.
RS: Penderecki's 'Threnody', a particular favorite of Jonny Greenwood's, partly because of its total occupancy of the sound spectrum. His own first long form composition, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, has like wise been constructed as an orchestral wall of sound.
Jonny: So when I came to write my first piece for the BBC, I just wanted to see what else I could do with that. Some things really didn't work. I wanted to have, you know, lots of early drum machines are all based on, obviously, electronics, rather than recordings of drums. And many of them begin with a building block of white noise that's filtered, and has an envelope on the signal as well, which means you get a representation of a high-hat or a snare drum. So I kind of put two and two together and thought: Therefore I can make an orchestra who are playing white noise, into a drum machine. And I can make the violins sound like a high hat and a snare if I find the right frequency for the violins to play...and a bass drum...and that didn't really work, unfortunately, because you have to be so precise. You have to have...all the frequencies have to be played at the same level. And if they're not, then, obviously, certain notes poke out. And so what happens is you've just got a very loud, out of tune chord being played over and over again. And there was no...um...there was nothing neutral about it. I'm very bad at writing any sort of silence in any of this music. It doesn't stop. I feel very awkward. If, whenever I see scores, I see people, you know...you...you write a chord, or you...you make a point musically, and then there's a moment of, sort of, silence...and that makes me feel very awkward. I don't know why. It's a bit like social embarassment...it's...it's..silence occurring during a conversation. I just feel that that's, somehow, wrong. And so, in...in this piece, it's all about avoiding that really. And even when there are melodies and chords and textures, they're emerging from this, sort of, snow. And its quite a, sort of, sparkling sound to orchestral white noise, because all the imperfections in it, and the fact that its...you're relying on...on all the individual players to play together and play evenly. And obviously they can't and they won't. There'll be little variations. That can create some really lovely colors.