As classical musicians, we just never get to play this repertoire, and we think it’s some of the best music ever written. Aoife Ní Bhriain
Working as a session viola player with the London Contemporary Orchestra while touring Jonny Greenwood’s string music and recording Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, Scottish violist Ian Anderson enjoyed first-hand access to the musician’s working methods. Jonny Greenwood’s novel approach to string arrangements in particular led to the formation of Wooden Elephant as an experimental contemporary classical string quintet specialising in re-creating and performing entire classic records for string instruments only.
“We don’t play songs. We play albums” reads the string quintet’s tagline. In keeping with a fondness for the Long Playing format, the quintet has already reworked, arranged and performed live Björk’s Homogenic in 2017, Radiohead’s Kid A in 2018 and Beyoncé’s Lemonade in 2019.
Alongside Ian Anderson (who also plays guitar with his band yllwshrk) on viola, Wooden Elephant features a European cast of musicians comprising of Aoife Ní Bhriain (RTÉ Concert Orchestra / Tunes from the Goodman Manuscripts) from Ireland on violin and already featured on this blog with Neil Ó Loclainn’s Cuar, Hulda Jónsdóttir (The Royal Danish Orchestra) from Iceland on violin, Stefan Hadjiev (Neue Philharmonie München / The International Mahler Orchestra) from Bulgaria on cello and Nikolai Matthews (co-director of the Krantz chamber music series in Oslo) from Norway on double bass.
Originally premiered at Podium Festival in Esslingen, Germany on 3rd May 2018 last, Wooden Elephant’s Landscapes, Knives & Glue – Radiohead’s Kid A Recycled was recorded over five days at RecPublica Studios in Lubrza, Poland, produced, mixed and mastered by Johann Günther and released on Berlin-based label Backlash Records on 4th June 2021 last.
Released twenty one years ago, Radiohead’s Kid A is undoubtedly a pivotal album in the band’s discography which enthused music lovers but also confounded traditional rock critics. Following the (perhaps overwhelming) global, critical and commercial success of OK Computer, band members and Thom Yorke in particular found themselves at a creative crossroads.
On its release, Kid A signalled a radical move away from guitar-based rock music, abandoning the conventional verse-chorus song structures in the process. The album was also released without any promotional single or official videos, preferring to leverage early streaming channels emerging on the internet in the early 2000s, even encouraging peer-to-peer sharing on the pioneering Napster platform.
The landmark recording (whose fertile output spilled over its companion album Amnesiac in 2001) witnessed an injection of classical strings, brass instruments, samplings, synthesisers as well as the introduction of an early electronic instrument such as the Ondes Martenot. As well as that, Radiohead ventured into new territories by embracing alternative recording techniques borrowed from ambient, experimental, orchestral jazz, Intelligent Dance Music and electronica with nods to the musical output of artists as diverse as Aphex Twin, Can, Alice Coltrane or Björk.
As hinted by the name of the album’s lengthy byline, Landscapes, Knives & Glue is not a cover album but rather a physical “recycling” process, a sonic re-imagining which involves the “playing” of a wide array of unusual objects and utensils to complement or interact with the strings. The album title refers to the name of the mixed media artwork used for the original album cover which was painted with knives and then photoshopped.
Classical and electronic music are often and erroneously presented as polar opposites on the genre spectrum. But a closer look at the history of contemporary music shows the two art forms converging ever closer. Ever since Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises and the musique concrète experiments from the 1940s onwards, composers like Edgar Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen among many others have embraced the emerging new sound technologies and integrated early electronic instruments into their work as a way of adding new colour to their music.
A string quintet revisiting a mainly electronic repertoire is also consistent with how jazz musicians naturally ignore boundaries when taking on existing songs – note American pianist Brad Mehldau’s keen interest in the Radiohead repertoire for instance.
The use of non-musical objects to make music has also a proved a resourceful research field over the years. In the hilarious 2001 Sound of Noise’s short, six “anarchist” drummers break into an apartment and launch into four musical movements (kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living room) using everyday objects such as glasses, blenders, press doors, light switches, sprays, brushes, hoovers or books. The experiment even turned into a full length feature film in 2010. Sylvain Chomet’s animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville (Belleville Rendez-Vous) also featured a club performance involving newspaper shuffling, a hoover, a fridge and a bicycle wheel.
In an effort to capture Kid A’s electronic sound palette (including Thom Yorke’s iconic falsetto) with an “everything is an instrument” approach – and perhaps summoning up inventive prepared piano techniques in the process – Wooden Elephant introduce a glorious arsenal of eclectic objects such as milk frothers, plectrums, ebows, custom made toy archery bows, bathroom sink plug chains, power drills with cable ties or squeaky pig dog toys. Yet, Wooden Elephant’s objective is not exclusively rhythmic per se but textural and impressionistic.
As well as that, toying creatively with the unique format of the band, Wooden Elephant is both a classical string quintet (in the slower and bowed songs) and a string quartet plus double-bass (in the more upbeat numbers) thus lending the chamber music ensemble a binary rock edge.
Rather than trying to replicate sonically the synthesiser introduction to “Everything in its Right Place”, the riff is suggested by the string arrangement. It is interesting to note that American minimalist composer Steve Reich also reworked the song alongside Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling into Place” (2007) for a small ensemble and integrated it into his 2012 Radio Rewrite – alongside a performance of “Electric Counterpoint” by Jonny Greenwood.
“The National Anthem”’s bass-driven pulse is magnificent on strings while the concluding brass mayhem is not replicated note for note either but elegantly distorted and suggested with effusive glissandi and party blowers. “How to Disappear Completely” becomes a superb slowed-down ballad with the eerie sound of the Ondes Martenot evoked by the drone of rubbed wine glasses. Halfway through “In Limbo”, the thrilling bass line takes on a prominent role, almost emulating a Dub-style version of the song. A milk frother with elastic bands and a power drill with cable ties against the strings help suggesting the IDM-inflected skittering beats on the original “Idioteque”. And with the string quintet once again asserting their creative DIY skills, the pedal organ and harps on the concluding original “Motion Picture Soundtrack” are elicited by harmonicas and music boxes to great effect.
As a result, Wooden Elephant’s Landscapes, Knives & Glue is a wonderfully creative musical translation of a landmark post-rock album, a clever lateral re-creation that showcases the tireless versatility of a masterful string quintet. According to the band’s website, a rethink of Aphex Twin’s 2001 experimental Drukqs album is currently in the works.