Polymorphia and 48 Responses to Polymorphia

Jonny Greenwood never wanted to be a rock musician; he wanted to be a Renaissance man. Surrounded by his standard rock instruments like guitar, keyboards, xylophones, transistor radios, and synthesizers, Greenwood is known for his ability to play the ondes Martenot, one of the earliest electronic instruments. He is one of the fewer than one-hundred people in the world who have mastered it, which he has incorporated not only into the music of Radiohead, but in his soundtracks and pieces.

Although Greenwood started an undergraduate degree in music and psychology from Oxford Brookes University, he dropped out after three weeks, when a recording label signed Radiohead. Greenwood studied basic music theory before his brief stint at Oxford Brookes, learning just enough to harmonize Bach chorales.

His inexperience with theory and traditional composition did not deter him from pursuing a career in music; on the contrary, Radiohead was immediately pinned for its innovative sounds in rock music, using minimalist techniques for a crowd that was unfamiliar with minimalism.

In 1997, Radiohead’s album “OK Computer” dropped, which includes a song called “Climbing Up the Walls.” Greenwood exercises his knowledge of western 20th century music here in the form of instrumentation. A group of sixteen stringed instruments plays one-quarter tone apart from one another, a technique first used by Charles Ives and later used prominently by the Polish composer Krzyzstof Penderecki.

Radiohead’s next album after “OK Computer,” entitled “Amnesiac,” experiments with different electronic instruments, including Greenwood’s beloved ondes Martenot. “Amnesiac” is a point of departure for Greenwood; this is the first full album where his sound is considered “experimental,” though every element a non-musician might consider experimental are borrowed from minimalists and other 20th century composers.

While Greenwood usually says that his biggest influences are Penderecki, Olivier Messiaen, Miles Davis, and Steve Reich, he also draws influence from Arvo Part, Aaron Copland, George Crumb, and many others. Greenwood composed the music to the film There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson. The opening track, entitled “Open Spaces,” sounds like something ripped from the bones of Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber, matching the premise of the film, which is based loosely on Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil!.

Several other film scores were composed in the years following, such as The MasterWe Need to Talk About Kevin, and Inherent Vice, but in 2011, Greenwood composed a piece in response to Penderecki’s Polymorphia, entitled 48 Responses to Polymorphia. This is the first piece that Greenwood references another composer outright; although his previous works certainly have influences, 48 Responses to Polymorphia is a reaction to Penderecki’s 1961 composition.

Polymorphia is from Penderecki’s sonoristic period, in which he composed based on timbral organization. Although the piece has no tonal center or even, in many parts, meter, the most striking attribute to this piece is the fact that it finishes on a sudden, unexpected C Major chord. The sudden change in tone that should draw the piece to a close instead grows a new crop of questions, forcing the listener to do a double take, thinking of the piece backwards to make sense of the sudden change.

Penderecki calls this moment a point of departure for that exact reason: it is impossible to listen to the piece on one hearing and fully understand, particularly with such a startling end result. Greenwood treats his Responses with a similar effect: he begins his piece with the same chord that Penderecki ends his, treating the C Major chord as a beginning to a Bachian chorale, reminiscent of Greenwood’s past (and only) analytical experience, as shown below.

The movement, entitled Es ist genug, translates to “it is done.” This refers to Bach’s Chorale “Es ist genug, Herr, wenn es Dir gefällt,” on which Greenwood’s chorale is loosely based, but more importantly, it refers to the phrase “it is done.” Penderecki’s piece finishes with a whopping C Major chord, announcing the end. Greenwood’s piece starts where Penderecki leaves off, but the fact that he writes “done” shows that he is also treating the beginning as an ending.

As Greenwood’s theme develops, you can hear that some instruments stay stagnant and blur with the harmonies, expanding the strict tonality into a timbral unfolding. Greenwood treats Penderecki’s C Major chord as a point of departure, just as it was originally intended, in addition to the idea of being “done.” He treats much of the piece in this way; the entirety of the piece, although meant to be responses to Penderecki’s piece, is, in essence, theme and variation form. The theme is simply Penderecki’s C Major chord, unfolding into different ideas. Frequently, the same Baroque theme is restated, but there are quite a few movements where this is not the case.

Greenwood does not adopt a traditional theme and variation form for two reasons: the piece is not truly meant to be a piece called Variations on a Chord by Penderecki, and Greenwood is mostly a self-taught musician who likely does not map out pieces based on structure and form. Therefore, the Response title really does “fit the bill,” so to speak. Additionally, the responses emulate a mirror image of Polymorphia: Penderecki’s composition starts with dissonance and ends with harmony; Greenwood’s responses start with traditional harmony and expand into dissonance.

Visually, the two pieces could not possibly be more different. Penderecki embraces graphic notation to more clearly express his demands for the performer; Greenwood uses a traditional staff and traditional notation. This is to be expected: again, Greenwood is not a classically trained musician, and so a more abstract approach to composition and notation may not be inherent.

The most striking difference between the two scores is its use of tone clusters. While Greenwood spells out each individual pitch for each instrument, making his intentions of sound and pitch strictly clear, Penderecki tends to simply write gestures, as indicated in the score excerpt below. Pitches are determined in each individual instrumentalist’s score so that every pitch of the chromatic scale (and, in some cases, ¼ and ¾ tones) sounds, but Penderecki does not specify how quickly these tones are played or for how long outside of carefully planned rehearsal numbers.

Polymorphia copy

Greenwood’s clarity of pitches is not necessarily a trait that he gave the Responses knowingly. Penderecki’s style of notation looks much more complex on the page, but it also encourages the freedom that the piece employs. The effect sounds complex, but in practice, it is a freer approach to playing and a useful compositional technique. It is possible that Greenwood does not have the same grasp on graphic notation as Penderecki, as every single one of his flourishes and clusters in his score are outlined with specific pitches.

The exception to Greenwood’s lack of understanding of notation is in his movement called “Ranj.” Ranj contains a fair amount of indeterminacy, or the act of composing music that is left open to chance or to the interpreter’s free choice, as you can see on page five in your handout. Greenwood lets each instrument choose which pitches it will pay at what time, providing baton sweeps, a range of pitches, and necessary articulation as a guideline for when to switch pitches (meaning that the only indeterminant is pitch).

However, this is not a compositional technique that Greenwood learned from Penderecki. Penderecki is not famous for his use of indeterminacy, but it is very likely that since Greenwood touts works of Steve Reich, he also may be familiar with John Cage and Terry Riley. Ranj even looks very similar to Terry Riley’s In C, as seen on page six of your handout, which is a study in indeterminacy using a closed form. Riley’s style is a structured approach to indeterminacy, specifying which patterns should be played and in what order, but the performer chooses when to move on to the next pattern. Greenwood’s style is similar to Riley’s in that there is a means to an end to each pattern of pitches, but he is giving the performer much more freedom and choice in this movement than any other.

This is also not the only influences of other composers that Greenwood uses in 48 Responses. In the first movement, Greenwood uses not only traits from Bach but a practice from George Crumb, where he instructs the instrumentalists to whisper their names. George Crumb does this in his first movement of Black Angels, where he instructs the instrumentalists to call out numbers in different languages. Greenwood takes his Americana sound from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, with vast quartal and quintal harmonies dotting the score. The overall color of Greenwood’s movement entitled Overhang is taken straight from Bernard Herrmann’s score to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. The last movement, Pacay Tree, sounds more like a percussive rock song than an ode to Penderecki.

Nevertheless, Greenwood uses influences from Penderecki to create his score, paying homage by writing a score completely based on oak leaves. Penderecki is famous for his obsession with trees, which Greenwood notes by ever so casually composing movements based on oak leaves, although Greenwood has written a different score for musicians to follow.


While what Greenwood is attempting to achieve is a valiant effort, it is admittedly also short-sighted and lacks any real depth. Had Greenwood had a better understanding of modern graphic notation, orchestration, and fundamental compositional skills, the Responses could be a serious approach to a reflective piece. However, given Greenwood’s background, the structure and integrity of the piece comes off more similarly to a film score that is less dominated by structure and more influenced by character.

Greenwood’s trek into classicism is perhaps more successful than his predecessors, such as Paul McCartney, who insists on composing classical works that are more self-congratulatory than impactful. The true mark of a good work of art music is its awareness of history and progress, which Greenwood provides on a very shallow level. While Penderecki’s Polymorphia will stand the test of time, Greenwood’s Responses lag behind on a thin rope, standing as a true “fan boy” approach to 20th century methods.


Listen to the entirety of 48 Responses to Polymorphia on Greenwood’s record “Threnody/Popcorn Superhet Receiver/Polymorphia/48 Responses” by Nonesuch on Spotify here.


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