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A Meditation on Radiohead: The Bridge Between Classic and Contemporary Sound

The critically acclaimed sound of Radiohead is not one so easily defined. The U.K. band’s discography reflects their journey through genres, from alternative rock in the early 90s on Pablo Honey and The Bends to more experimental electronica on In Rainbows and, famously, OK Computer. Their ambiguous soundscape is the result of their masterful exploration of various mediums of music. An army of synthesizers, a jungle of pedals for their trademark brigade of guitars, and an orchestra of classical violins, piano—even the harp, in Kid A’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”—all meld together to forge genre-bending masterpieces. Their sound progressed through the exploration of electronica that swept early 2000s alternative scenes at a time when they converged their bare-boned guitar soundscape with the avant-garde conventions of jazz: irregular tempos, eccentric rhythms, and intricate drum patterns. With these trailblazing techniques, their music has stood the test of time. Unfortunately, their implementation of classical instruments is often overshadowed in their discography, as their pillars of genre-blending innovation speak for their ethos within the music industry.

However, an enchanting candlelit string quartet put everything into perspective—or rather, into its right place. The Listeso String Quartet, a guerilla music ensemble, spotlighted Radiohead at D.C.’s Miracle Theater through a passionate performance of their classic songs, featuring just three violins and a lone cello. Set in an old-Hollywood-style cinema, rich with burgundy velvet curtains and saturated by the warm light of its candlelit stage, the ensemble paid an emotional homage to the band’s pioneering early 2000s work. With a robust setlist containing some of the band’s most accomplished works of art, the night was a milestone in my experience with the artistic craft of Radiohead.

As the theater lights dimmed and the sea of candles warmed, the strings of each instrument itching to come to life, a silence fell upon the audience. Unbeknownst to them, a wave of erupting symphonies would soon push through the atmosphere, wrapping their senses in a fog of blissful harmonies. The immersive Radiohead experience commenced with the recent release “Burn the Witch,” from their 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool. Cascading symphonies and alluring ringing pulled by horsehair bows immediately entranced the audience. The mesmerized audience journeyed through the soft yet impassioned staccato sounds of “Fake Plastic Trees” to the silken hymns of “All I Need” with swelling and swaying full-bodied echoes of yawning vibrato. The drawing of strings rich with the pathos of Radiohead’s heartfelt craft replaced the deep aching of Thom Yorke’s yearning voice. The passion of these instruments spoke for themselves, taking up the absent space typically punctured by synthesized modulation and electronic warble. The rapturous harmonization of “Karma Police” reverberated throughout the room, buzzing in the chests of every audience member. This melodramatic night peaked as the cry of the violin in “How to Disappear Completely” pierced the air, pulling longing gasps from a hypnotized audience holding their breath in anticipation. As the masterpiece grew in intensity, tears began to fall in tune with the wailing of violins. The night drew to its conclusion with the notoriously intricate “Karma Police,” rich with layers of quivering violin strings and amplified with the roaring bass of the cello. The swell of the strings grew with fervor, crescendoing and crashing into one another like darkened ocean waves of a deep-sea storm.

As the quartet drew out the last breaths of Radiohead’s masterpieces with final pulls of their bows, the theater lights overtook the candlelight. The electrified audience leapt to their feet, erupting into thundering applause. The singing of strings still rang in my ears with every whiff of post-show Camel cigarettes outside the theater—nicotine and melodies swirling in the damp air, haunting a hazed crowd illuminated by light from dusky lampposts.

This unconventional performance of Radiohead’s most critically acclaimed works allowed the audience to engage with the material from an untraditional perspective: through the lens of classical instrumentation. The songs that had initially gained notoriety within the music industry for their mesmerizing layers of electronic and versatile instrumentation reached back to the roots of their sound: three violinists and a cello. The technical metamorphosis of their early alt-rock sound was retroactively stripped down to its raw, central core that classical instruments manifest—simple yet deeply powerful in its delivery. The familiarity of Radiohead’s sound was felt within the echoing tempos and layers of vibrato and then amplified by the full-bodied character of string instruments. The bridge between contemporary and classical music rested between the cello’s deep lulls and the falsetto cries of the violins, intertwining traditional soundscapes with the experimental musical structures of the contemporary band.

In a world of growing technological advancements that propel and rejuvenate the electronic genre, this dynamic performance reminded the audience of the foundations of synthesized music that engender such pioneering bands like Radiohead. Through bridging old and new generations of music, the quartet countered the sentiment that classical music is a dying genre in the modern age. This intimate remastering of some of the defining greats of the alternative genre prompted a re-exploration of the traditional, allowing audiences to develop a newfound appreciation of what the classical music world has to offer.

Now, if only I could find an orchestra to perform a full-length Radiohead homage…


Carolina Oxenstierna is a sophomore in the SFS majoring in Culture and Politics. They are a diehard Radiohead fan with a soft-spot for the classics, in a time where 100 gecs is allowed to perform at Coachella.


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