Wow In Music – Burn The Witch
Editor | On 18, Jul 2018
Burn the Witch” is a song by the English rock band Radiohead, released on 3 May 2016 as the lead single from their ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool. Radiohead developed the song for over a decade, first working on it during the sessions for their fourth album, Kid A (2000). The song received enormously positive reviews, high placings in every end-of-year critics’ analysis and was nominated for Best Rock Song at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.
Unusually in the Radiohead canon, the song is heavily built around strings. And an orchestra. The orchestra on Burn The Witch consists entirely of strings. From the start, Jonny uses several techniques simultaneous for particularly complex textures (Principle 5, Merging). We get plectrums on muted strings tapping out every eighth note, forming the true foundation for everything else. Low pitched pizzicato F#’s are mixed in as well. Then we get a col legno “thwack” on every third beat (Principle 3, Local Quality). On the third beat of the first measure, we get a single pizzicator F#4, but in the second measure the players pluck eight notes starting on the the third beat and fade out quickly. There also seems to be a plucked C# on the off-beats (Principle 17, Another Dimension) of the first two measures which fades out by the third.
Then on top of this initial web we get small swells of higher pitch at 0:03-0:07 and again at 0:10-0:13, with a combination of both arco and col lengo crescendo’ing and decrescendo’ing over the course of two measures (Principle 19, Periodic Action). This is made particularly effective by having the arco players on one side (left channel) and the col legno players on the other (right channel).
When we get the same “swell” during the chorus (at 1:17-1:29), it is peaked with short glissando bursts. The bursts accent the first and fourth beats of every other measure – a particularly effective syncopation.
The climax (starting at ~3:10) is marked by the low strings playing a much louder arco rhythm while the violins go crazy with short arco bursts. Jonny likes to write separate scores for very single musician, and during this section there are several violins playing completely out of sync (Principle 13). One way to achieve this might have been a technique borrowed from Penderecki: the Polish composer frequently has several instruments play the same pattern – only offset slightly (Principle 16) from each other (see example video of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima). It seems possible that Jonny used this technique to make several violins stress the same note with seemingly at random. Another options is that Jonny gave each violin players an option to choose between patterns on each measure. By giving several players multiple patterns to choose from, they would almost always end up picking different patterns, and (if the patterns are written to enable it) would play at different times despite being in time with each other. We get an F# major triad at 3:23, but the pattern violins remain on F# until 3:34-3:36, when they join together to play B#* and then finish on C#.
The more conventional areas of the string arrangement (i.e. the bowed bits) are not without their intricacies too, however. When Thom Yorke sings “abandon all reason”, there’s a nagging cello mirroring his melody exactly (Principle 8), seemingly divorced from the rest of the string pack. Little details like this show just what an adept and deliberately weird composer Jonny Greenwood is.
As the song works through its second half, the strings appear to gradually disintegrate. The cellos and basses cling tightly onto that chorus chord progression, but above them is comparative chaos. As the Wicker Man-style pyre is lit at the end of the song’s accompanying Trumpton-based video, the violins become deathly, Herrmann-esque and quite horrid, a neat counterpoint to the comparative conventionality of the song’s structure and melodies.
So while Radiohead are often held up as denizens of doing it differently, ‘Burn The Witch’ is them working smart rather than working hard. They’ve set up simple confines, but within them they’ve experimented heavily and made something exceptionally strange, tonally speaking, and inventive to boot.
It’s an orchestral pop song, but the orchestra is taking cues from heavy metal, chugga-chugga-chugga-ing the entire time. No wonder: A room full instruments acting frenetically, insistently, and not quite in unison is as fitting an approximation for a bustling murderous mob as any music might provide. Radiohead’s post-Bends interest in fusing acoustic and electronic elements continues with a drum machine and big, dubby low end creating menace and groove.
The magic of the song is in large part from how it starts intense but still finds ways to intensify. The anxiety-making central sonic engine keeps thrumming along as the dynamics shift dramatically—higher, lower, quieter, louder. In the second verse, string melodies swoop in to play beautiful counterpoint to Yorke, who’s as mushy-mouthed but strangely catchy as ever. Everything froths together for a nightmarish crescendo at the end, and where, perhaps, the lyrical ‘low flying panic attack’ finally arrives. And the world is made anew.