Radiohead: Experimental and Electronic Music

V. Radiohead, John Cage and Electronics       


Let Me Hear Both Sides

Experimental composer Michael Nyman believes experimental composers are “outlining a situation in which sounds may occur, a process of generating action”[1] and the staggering rate of electronic development only broadened this conceptual horizon further because “until the arrival of the magnetic tape recorder, electronic music had only been a live performance medium”.[2]

The earliest pioneers of magnetic tape composition like John Cage were suddenly aware of the potential to place a sound at any point in time, complete with various fresh manipulation possibilities. In the modern age with the introduction of computer software, musicians are able to explore the realms of digital sequencers and audio manipulation usually all within a compact mobile laptop environment, a contributing and contradictory factor to Thom Yorke’s obsession with, but also lyrical topics of, alienation by technology and the social fragmentation of the 90s. (We already know Thom Yorke’s lyrical construction for the majority of Kid A was descended from the cut up technique Tristan Tzara coined, drawing words and phrases from a hat) As a direct influence on Yorke, Aphex Twin experimentally investigates such territory readily inserting the image of his macabre grinning face into spectrograms on the Mac based programme Metasynth, and returns them to audio signals.[3]

Spectrogram of a hidden image encoded as sound...

Spectrogram of a hidden image encoded as sound...

He has also experimented with circuit bending, by taking a simple electronic kids toy and rewiring the circuitry to achieve all manner of unimaginable sounds. John Cage’s innovative ‘Prepared Piano’ influenced Aphex Twin on the album Druqks that Yorke refers to as “aphex twins john cage piano stuff [sic]”.[4] However the most pronounced modern application of Nyman’s theory is towards the most advanced computer programming software like Max/MSP, an ‘audio development environment’ used by Radiohead, Autechre and Aphex Twin[5] where the user is able to create and manipulate audio and sound limitlessly, a steep learning curve for any ability.

Colin Greenwood notes that the Beatles “came up with a new approach every album – they listened to all this stuff then brought it to bear on their work. And that’s how we work, too. But of course they were at the beginning, inventing how it could be done.”[6] In terms of the song form, the Dada-esque ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ directly influenced ‘Paranoid Android’ in the way that “they take lots of different bits and they stick it together” and “we thought we’d have a bash at that ourselves and then ‘Paranoid Android’ was kind of the result of that.”[7] When Yorke is in the earliest stages of writing he “assumes that the half-formed words have the sounds [he] needs for the final words”[8]and is also the primary reason “Neil Young never goes back and rewrites”.[9]

We mustn’t ignore how Radiohead and the Beatles successfully fuse instrumentally divergent genres, whereas the Beatles took the idea a whole step further attempting to wholly emulate song styles through parody, imitation or extension on the White Album. George Martin’s method is to generally place the strongest tracks at the beginning and end of each side[10], whilst the members of Radiohead begin their records with the track that best summarises the album as a whole, simultaneously signified as the biggest departure stylistically from the last album.

Of course the two groups noticeably differ in the live environment where Radiohead’s acute self-awareness allows them to adapt the studio songs into reincarnations suitable for the stage set-up. Here we can apply John Cage’s belief that “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen”[11] where Jonny Greenwood can be seen utilizing chance procedures from his Korg Kaoss Pad in ‘Everything In Its Right Place‘, to the transistor radio for ‘The National Anthem’, randomly tuning into stations for a few seconds at a time to portray fragmented sense much like Shakespeare’s appearance in ‘I Am The Walrus’. Jonny Greenwood’s position within Radiohead as the most prominently trained classical musician and multi-instrumentalist, esteemed for his complex and innovative string arrangements apparent not just with the band, but in film scores for There Will Be Blood (2007) and Norwegian Wood (2010), and his avant-garde compositions for the BBC concert orchestra as composer in association can be compared with George Martin’s role in realising the Beatles’ songs as far more than a producer.

Despite obvious ‘experimental actions’, only the term avant-garde can apply satisfyingly to popular rock music since the idea is to communicate, and generally this is through the medium of language and the human voice. Although Thom Yorke has said in regards to I.D.M: “It was refreshing because the music was all structures and had no human voices in it. But I felt just as emotional about it as I’d ever felt about guitar music”,[12] it is just not plausible in the mainstream. But “if you sell a lot of records you should be given more freedom, that’s what the Beatles did and they went on to make better and better records”[13] and whatever the Beatles did, no matter how avant-garde, it did immediately become pop music. And with the size of Radiohead’s collective recorded output thus far a lot smaller, but exceptional in quality: “It’s clear that Radiohead must be the greatest band alive, if not the best since you know who.”[14]

by James Godwin – December 7th, 2010

[1] Nyman, p.4.

[2] Holmes, Thom, Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition, p.77.

[5] Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music and Culture, p.286.

[6] Marzorati, Gerald, ‘The Post-Rock Band’, New York Times, october 1st 2000

[10] Everett, p.67

[12] Eccleston, Danny (October 2000). “(Radiohead article)”. Q Magazine. Retrieved 2010-01-10.

[13] Mtv, 1995

[14] Brent DiCrescenzo, accessed on 08-02-2010

Copyright © 2010. James Godwin. All rights reserved.