Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood with the AUKSO Chamber Orchestra
Yo Zushi is awestruck at the Barbican by a Polish avant-gardist and his rock-star disciple.
Some time in 1969, the guitarist Robbie Robertson came across the music of the Polish experimental composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Robertson was a member of the Band, perhaps the most respected folk-rock group of the era, and his best songs - from "The Weight" to "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" – had introduced new sophistication to the genre.
But Penderecki was something else. His music was "weird", Robertson later recalled, but it was dazzlingly inventive, too. For the next few months, a spellbound Robertson worked on his own avant-garde opus, even becoming pen pals with his new idol, but the project eventually, or rather, inevitably, fell apart.
Now, another guitarist, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, has attempted a pair of orchestral works inspired by Penderecki. But this time the match makes more sense: Greenwood is classically trained and Radiohead's enthusiasm for glitchy beats chimes with Penderecki's roots in early electronic music. Despite their differences in approach, both composer and band are interested in exploring what the former has called "noise as sound as music": testing their respective forms with unfamiliar sounds and discordant elements. This taste for dissonance was on ample display at the AUKSO Chamber Orchestra's presentation of Greenwood's and Penderecki's works at the Barbican on 22 March.
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961), the first piece of the night, is an otherworldly sound mass, in which aural textures and dynamics usurp individual pitches to create a controlled cacophony. Over half a century since it debuted, Threnody still pulsates with vigour, so much so that I wondered whether the pleasure it evokes through its sheer brilliance was not at odds with its theme. I was awestruck by the virtuosity of the chamber orchestra, transfixed by Penderecki's grace as a conductor and yet perturbed by the excitement I could feel for a memorial to mass murder.
Such anxieties were absent from the first Greenwood piece, Popcorn Superhet Receiver. A homage that wears its slightness on its sleeve, Popcorn is an enjoyable ramble through the Penderecki-esque. The Polish composer's influence is most apparent in the segues that join the piece's stately interludes – dissonances here resolve into sweeping, melodic strains, played on violin. Greenwood's sure hand keeps things interesting but things take off too late: a percussive breakdown towards the end reminded me of how great this could (and should) have been.
Then it was the turn of Polymorphia - a wonderful summation of Penderecki's experimental early-1960s period. Its title means "of many forms" and within its simple ABA structure, it twists and turns in all directions. The most startling moment is its ending: after microtonal clusters and washes of insect-like sound, it breaks into a sustained C-major chord. The context renders this conventional gesture an absurdity, and it's both comical and powerful.
Concluding the evening was Greenwood's 48 Responses to Polymorphia – an altogether more successful piece than Popcorn – which thoughtfully and analytically engages with Penderecki's original. Where the C-major served as Polymorphia's conclusion, Greenwood uses it as a starting point, enacting in reverse the struggle between music and noise.
Greenwood left the trappings of his day job (guitars, effects pedals) out of his arrangements but I suspect that his remoteness from the classical orthodoxy gave him license to be so unselfconscious. It was exhilarating to see a connecting line drawn between these noisemakers.