This article tells what happens in the arrangement of “Idioteque” by Radiohead and it’s for listeners who are not musicians who want to have a listening guide. If you are a musician, you already have the least trained listening skills, so you could judge this article too superficial. Do not tell me that I have not made mention of triplets, irregular groups or particular harmonic figures: this is not a structural analysis of the piece, it is only a description addressed to the final listener. That’s why, if you’re that kind of people, you can skip this article and avoid reading it. If instead you are a fan of Radiohead and you want to understand what happens in the instrumental part, turn on the speakers or put on the headphones and follow me in this new adventure.
Idioteque is a song taken from the album Kid A produced by Radiohead and Nigel Godrich in 2000. The instrumental part is apparently complex and could be difficult to a poorly trained ear, but let’s untangle the skein. The speed is 137 beats per minute, so it has a rather decisive rhythm. But let’s press Play on our player and start.
The song starts with an electronic drum loop, made quite aggressive both because it is slightly distorted, and by a marked use of a compressor (a machine that processes the input signal limiting its dynamics), and a very special sound, which is a little the fulcrum of this track. It is a sound sampled directly from a song recorded in 1973 by Paul Lansky, “Mild Und Leise“, using an IBM 360/91, a mainframe computer, the only one that the campus of Princeton University had available at the time . Radiohead asked Professor Lansky to sample the chord progression contained in the song and he accepted. You can go here to get some more details directly from the words of Paul Lansky. Naturally, the sample was processed and adapted to the tone of the piece (which runs around the B-Flat/G-minor). The interesting thing is that both instruments (the electronic drums and the sample) are placed at the centre of the stereo panorama, as if it were a monophonic song.
Here a percussive sound is introduced into our right ear, creating a further subdivision of time and increasing the pathos.
This sound disappears leaving for a moment the drums alone, quiet created specifically to amplify the impact of the entry of the vocal.
1.00 [Verse 1]
Thom Yorke begins his singing, while the whole world is at the center of our listening, nothing on the sides: voice, drums and Lansky’s sample. While Thom pronounces “I’ll swallow until the bursts” enter additional voices of the same Yorke, one completely to the right and the other more central, then remain only the main voice and the second one in the middle. Nothing has happened yet in our left ear. Again the voice on the right comes on “Woman and children first“.
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Thom completely changes the melody and course of both central vocal tracks, while the instrumental part does nothing to emphasize that we are in the chorus of the song.
1.52 [Verse 2]
You return to the initial melody, but this time the sample disappears, leaving the place to percussive sounds obtained with various synthesizers that mark an increasingly frenetic time. These sounds are all on the left and with a lot of reverb effect.
“We’re not scaremongering“, and the second voice is inserted to support the main one. “Take the money” and a weird sound, obtained probably by exasperating a synth LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) filter to drive the modulation, introduces the second chorus.
2.35 [Chorus 2]
This time the sound of the IBM of Princeton is heard, along with an additional voice in our right ear and those percussive synths on our left. Thom plays with the main voice and another voice at the middle of our stereo panorama to create interesting harmonies (“Here I’m alive, here I’m alive, everything all the time“).
Other sounds are subtly inserted to change the time to give a sense of emotional growth until reaching the instrumental part.
A very strong manipulation changes the cards on the table to the initial sound, adding also a lot of reverb to push it back, compared to the spatial perception of the listener. For a moment, what in the electronic drum acts as a snare, is played in reverse, then returns to normal immediately after, with a sound that reproduces a single fixed note. Immediately after the sounds of Lansky are manipulated to the point of being suspended, full of reverberation that spreads throughout our stereo field.
The sounds we have already met at 0.37 come alive, and then add to the left too. A few seconds and only those left are here and gets transformed from chaotic to well-scanned, underlining a time that becomes comprehensible again.
In this context the sampled sound reappears, well positioned in the middle. A voice, on our right, sings “And first, and the children“, while some manipulations make the longer and more disjointed kick drum for a few moments.
A short synth sound tells us that the atmosphere has changed. In fact, the drum loop stops and only the heavily manipulated sampled sound still remains, like something that never stops.
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