From Penderecki to The Beatles to Radiohead: Connecting the Dots

While listening to NPR’s podcast of Radiohead’s August 28th Santa Barbara show, I couldn’t help but feel that the live version of “All I Need,” while sounding glorious in its own right, somehow does not capture the chaotic energy of the studio version, mostly because the band did not have a full string section playing the end. In the live version, the strings are replaced by glockenspiels. And they are played in a much slower tempo than the original song had the strings play at.

I really liked “All I Need” on the album; I’ll venture to say that it is probably my favorite song on the album, just because of the ending alone: the sheer white noise generated by the strings, the glockenspiels, and the cymbals somehow did not bury Thom Yorke’s voice, which just soars and soars and soars until it threatens to reach escape velocity. The first time I heard that song, I remember being positively entranced by that song.

But then listening to the NPR podcast made me think about where else I’ve heard that “sound,” and it dawned upon me that I’ve heard that elusive string sound in both Penderecki and The Beatles. The sound I’m describing is a sound that is created when a whole bunch of violin players play seemingly every note all at once for a sustained period of time, generating a kind of wave of sound that threatens to overwhelm the listener.

So, for a demonstration of what I mean, I’ve put together some samples to show the continuity of sound.

1) Penderecki – Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

Listen to the first minute of the song, which demonstrates the sound that I’m describing. If the sound of people dying from a nuclear blast could sound like anything at all, I’d imagine it would sound like the first minute or so of this composition.

2) The Beatles – A Day in the Life

This is the famous orchestral crescendo at the end of the first section, right before the alarm clock. While less harsh than the Penderecki composition, that section nonetheless employ a similar technique.

3) Radiohead – All I Need

That string sound comes in about one minute left to go in the sound, and again you hear it: it’s just that crazy, overwhelming sheet of string sound coming straight at you, blanketing you with its dissonance, but yet somehow it all comes together and does not collapse on itself.

In this New York Times story, Johnny Greenwood talks a bit about how he created that sound at the end:

The fact that “All I Need” manages to echo both Penderecki and The Beatles should come as no surprise to any devoted fan of Radiohead, as Jonny Greenwood has stated that one of his influences is Penderecki. Also, it’s not difficult to spot other Beatles influences, as the band itself has stated that “Paranoid Android” is like a modern day version of “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

But of course this is all a fairly nerdy way of listening music, and the beauty/emotional impact of all three songs is neither increased or decreased because of any “real” or “perceived” connection between the three. Indeed some might this kind of “construction” missing the point of listening to music.

Well, what can I say? I’m a nerd by disposition, and finding these connections, whether they are real or not, enhances my appreciation and enjoyment of the music itself. At the end of the day, “A Day in the Life” is just as good as it ever was, and Radiohead’s stature does not increase merely because of its possible belonging in a tradition of 20th-century classical music. The music stands by itself.

But life, at least for me, would surely be a little bit more boring with the mental masturbation.


One Response to “From Penderecki to The Beatles to Radiohead: Connecting the Dots”

  1. Matu Says:

    great post! although i think a day in the life is more likely a reference to Xenaki’s Metastasis… it’s an amazing effect created by xenakis where the whole orchestra plays in divisi… that’s all I wanted to say 😛
    sorry for my english…
    Matu, Chile

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