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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.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99)

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis