Jonny Greenwood and Damon Albarn: Musicians as Dramatists
They’re not just both British. They’re not just pioneers of two of the most exciting bands around. Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist and a key songwriter of Radiohead, and Damon Albarn, the singer/songwriter behind Blur and Gorillaz, each share a keen, awe-inspiring sense of the serious, even the menacing, in music. Listening to such pieces as “Preparation” off Dr Dee (2012), Albarn’s opera about a famous nineteenth-century scientist, or “Able-Bodied Seamen” off Greenwood’s soundtrack to The Master (2012), one may be unsettled, even downright scared. It’s as if there is a sense of underlying tension, even tragedy, within all of the quick, tumbling drums and sharp bass plucks, as if whole stories live in these pieces.
In light of Albarn’s more serious musical pieces, it’s not so surprising that he attended drama school for a bit and has appeared in some movies. Maybe such experiences have in some way worked on Albarn’s subconscious and resulted in other dramatic pieces as “Sunset Coming On” off his collaboration album with Malian musicians, Mali Music (2002) or the title track of the Gorillaz’s Demon Days (2005). And it makes sense that Greenwood could bring out the rage in Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007) and the tension in Freddie Quell in The Master (2012) since he is a composer himself, having worked with British orchestras and the Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki. These men aren’t using words, not using characters or gestures. Instead, they are creating drama out of mere sounds: propulsive drumming, sharp piano keys, winding horns. Just as in a movie or play, there seems to be a structure in their compositions, a deliberately planned order, and a striving towards a tone or mood.
It’s serious stuff but, like the compositions of the late jazz bassist/composer Charlie Mingus, the sounds of Jonny Greenwood and Damon Albarn demand listening: