And some acts were particularly challenging. Part of Big Ears’ charm is its inaccessibility (read: snobbery). Capps seems to want to open ordinary people’s minds to a crossbreed of the classical and the experimental, current and historical. But with many acts last weekend, it had the opposite effect: a weed-out festival meant to attract a very particular set of intellectual musical connoisseurs.
To Capps’ credit, there was always another act to check out when the one you were seeing passed the line from “Is this bad or am I just not getting it?” to “OK, I’m out.” And the headliners — Steve Reich, Television, John Cale, Ensemble Signal — were spectacular, winning over even the occasionally skeptical ears of younger attendees.
Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood was one such act, though he only played a sadly brief 20-minute set. Luckily, Greenwood was available to talk to the Cream about the beautiful “snobbery” of live music, the state of the classical genre and the “slow-moving animal” that is Radiohead’s next album. See our chat after the jump.
Had you heard of Big Ears before they asked you to play?
Never. I hadn’t heard of Knoxville.
No, it’s not fair at all. It’s been nice. It’s kind of interesting, this festival. I assumed it would be out in a field, under a tent. That’s my idea of a festival. But it’s nice how it’s in every venue in the city. I was in the art gallery watching Wordless Orchestra play "Shaker Loops," and it’s great bouncing around from venue to bar to restaurant. It’s a nice mix of music and fun.
How do you think your style of music fits into the experimental vibe of Big Ears?
I think the lines are very muddy now between people in bands and people writing what I suppose you have to call classical music. Most composers that I really like were in bands when they were kids. They grew up listening to popular music on the radio. You can’t think of classical musicians as living in a bubble outside of popular culture. That’s just not true anymore, and it hasn’t been for 40 years or more.
You’re kind of the embodiment of that.
Longer. You know, jazz music had a big influence on classical music back in the '20s, '30s. What am I trying to say? How does it fit in? I don’t know, this piece [Steve Reich] has written for electric guitar, and it’s interesting to use that instrument in this way. It makes me think about guitars in a different way. But yeah, frankly, it’s an honor to be asked.
When did you first meet Steve Reich?
In Poland, at a festival there. I played for the first time with him listening, and I was very nervous. But he’s a very warmhearted, encouraging person.
Had you listened to him before you met him?
Yeah, but since seeing his music live, it’s all fallen into place for me. I get very excited about it. I think you have to see the physical effort of how this music is made. ... Generally, recordings of modern classical music are very bad for classical music. I think a lot of judgments are made on recordings nowadays, which is a shame. When you’re in a room with a bunch of musicians who are sweating and concentrating their way through this kind of big animal and keeping it alive and keeping it going, you get a sense of that effort. It can transform how you think about music. I don’t know, I’m getting more and more obsessed with music as a performance and not really trusting recordings anymore.
How would you describe the music you try to create? The effect you try to go for?
It’s just being around orchestras like the Wordless Orchestra yesterday. Hearing what they can do with their instruments and realizing how exciting it is to have some say in what they play. It’s such a complicated thing. It's such an unrepeatable thing. You can have somebody play something twice and have it sound so different.
So, how does performing with Radiohead compare to composing film scores or doing your own work? Does it feel different?
I don’t think of it as doing my own work or music, I’m just part of the orchestra I’m playing with, or I’m in the band or I’m in partnership with a filmmaker, making music for his film. It’s not really much to do with me. It’s like writing a script for a film. Until you have good actors and a cameraman, it’s just a piece of paper with half an idea. It’s 50-50, at least.
How do you approach writing a film score?
I usually just write lots of music for the film without a definite idea of where much of it is going to go. So there’s usually lots and lots of music, more than is needed, and things are just chosen for certain scenes. Or at least, that’s how I did There Will Be Blood. Recently I’ve been trying to write music for an actual picture, which is an interesting discipline. I’m still learning really. I haven’t done a car chase or anything exciting yet. No gun play. So there’s a few things I’ve yet to get into.
How do you react when, for example, Rolling Stone puts you on a list of 100 greatest guitar players of all time? Is there a pressure associated with this reputation you have of being so skilled at what you do?
I never really liked guitar players, so I feel quite neutral about that stuff. Like, I used to pretend that it annoyed me. Because I think it’s not something I’d really aspire to. It doesn’t annoy me. But like I’ve always hated guitar magazines or people who collect guitars. I always think it’s instructive that you look at all the early photos of The Beatles, and they’re all playing brand-new guitars that they’ve gone to the guitar shop to buy. And now those guitars are considered the only ones — the most valuable and the best. I feel like if you make music today, that’s what you should do really. Or at least take a mixture of every style or every era music. There’s this sort of thing where it’s still like 1968, whenever you discuss people who are keen about guitars.
So how do I feel? It’s very flattering, of course. It’s very nice. I love playing the guitar, and I enjoy it, and that’s all good. But I don’t much feel like ... it’s like getting exciting about typewriters or something. I was always more impressed and excited with how guitars were used as part of songwriting. Like, I would never listen to a record with a guitar solo on it and feel like ... it’s like, unless what the guitar is doing is part of the song, I feel a bit ashamed or embarrassed for the record that has a guitar solo on it. And all my favorite guitarists have been part of a band. You listen to an Iggy Pop record or something, and the guitar playing is wonderful, but it’s part of a team, it’s not posturing and all that stuff, which is just a bit embarrassing isn’t it?
I talked to Steve Reich a little bit on the phone, and he had a lot of praise for musicians like you and Bryce Dessner from The National who are classically trained but also rock stars. Who do you see as the next generation of that? Who is the next yourself or Bryce Dessner?
I don’t know, I get more and more obsessed with younger classical players. There’s an orchestra in London called the London Contemporary Orchestra that I’ve started writing for and I just find that really modern. That they are obsessed with performance and playing their instruments and new music. I find that more strange than listening to recordings, and I think that’s my impression of now. The young me, God, that’s a terrible thought.
What’s the most important thing to you, like if it’s not about making lists of great guitar players, what makes all this worthwhile for you?
I enjoyed yesterday, because we arrived and just had a whole day of rehearsing with the Wordless Orchestra, because I’d never met them, and we just practiced all day and played a show that I really enjoyed. That sense of not knowing if anything’s going to work and as soon as the concert’s done it’s gone forever. I find that really peculiar. We’re so used to music being repeatable, the idea that it can be. I willfully want to write music for concerts and not recordings and just find that really exciting. I want to do more of that.
So, I feel like I have to ask. When are we going to have a follow-up to Radiohead’s 2011 album?
Well we’re meeting up at the end of the summer, and we'll make a plan. But, you know, we’re a slow-moving animal, always have been. I guess we’ll decide then what we do next.
And what’s next for you?
I’m going to keep playing concerts with the London Cntemporary Orchestra. It’s a bit exclusive obviously, because you’re sort of insisting that people have to be there. There’s a snobbery to that, which is a shame, but yeah, it’s funny, I’ve just stopped trusting microphones and speakers, and I don’t think it puts the orchestra in your room. When you start thinking like that, that live music is a very peculiar thing, it’s easy to forget. You think, I don’t need to see classical concerts because I’ve got my box set of Beethoven symphonies, so that’s that covered. It’s kind of interesting when you realize that’s not true.