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Christopher O'Riley In Good Hands

Where Radiohead ends and Christopher O’Riley begins

Classical pianist Christopher O’Riley has lately made his mark with a series of albums on which he covers –– sorry, inadequate word –– enlarges the songs of pop artists including Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Portishead, Pink Floyd and Nirvana, among many others. And already you’re groaning, because, let’s face it, the notion that rock music needs refining and “interpreting” in a classical vein just sounds very, very corny. Yet it was with major gratification that I discovered upon hearing O’Riley’s work that it is possible to use “simple” pop music’s density of ideas as a springboard for purely musical expansion, at least when done with the intelligent modernism of a forceful, probing artist such as Christopher O’Riley.

O’Riley’s new release is called Out of My Hands, which further explores the classical-pop correlatives in, well, magnifications upon more songs by Radiohead and Elliott Smith as well as Cocteau Twins, Tori Amos, the Smiths and others. As he points out in this conversation, the tradition of classical musicians drawing upon popular music for inspiration goes way back, to the 14th century or so. There is, he says, always room for something new.

BLUEFAT: You know of course that you court disaster by mingling classical music and pop tunes. And you’ve probably gotten your fair share of abuse for doing it.


I confess that I was among the skeptical when I first heard about what you were doing. But I was appreciative after I’d sat down and listened to it. It’s much more complex than I would’ve predicted.

The first time I met Colin Greenwood of Radiohead, I impressed upon him that it wasn’t my intention to “classicize” their music. It wasn’t my intention to take something like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and do a Debussy version. You know, jazz pianists are sometimes very much shaped by their physical, idiosyncratic relationship with the instrument, which is their patternings, and how they improvise, and I think to a large degree classical composers are the same way. My advantage has been dealing with dozens of different types of musics I like so that my hands are shaped by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, all these people.

            Even if I don’t intend to make a classical version of these pieces, there are some patterns that work to create a sort of sound texture that I subconsciously take from my classical training. And sometimes it comes out in really odd ways, such as a left-hand ostinato where I might get a sense of a fast guitar line like in the Radiohead song “Think About You.” And I try not to do a Jerry Lee Lewis, you know, pumping out the harmonies, trying to get that fingerpicking sort of thing. So I come up with an ostinato in the left hand and basically deal with the melody in the right hand, but the left hand is always moving. And it turns out that the configuration in my left hand was very close to Chopin’s G Major Prelude, which had this very rolling feel – but it’s the same key, also.

These things happen at least subconsciously. At the same time, I think I’m drawing on a lot of vocabulary in trying to accommodate the feeling of the jangliness of an acoustic guitar, not just the distortion that’s involved with trying to get a sort of grunge sound, but even the overtones of an acoustic guitar and drums and bass.

The piano is capable on its own of sounding like an orchestra.

Franz Liszt, very famous as the romantic pianist and composer, also arranged all of Beethoven’s symphonies for solo piano. And part of it was just that he was enthusiastic about other people’s music, and he had one of the biggest careers ever in the history of classical music, and he was out there proselytizing on behalf of these people. But the other part of it had to do with “Look what the piano can do, look what I can do.” As with Beethoven’s sonatas, there’s also the idea that the piece is written for piano, yet when Beethoven writes for piano, the sense is that he’s trying to get 20 percent more sound out, 20 percent more technique than you can actually get out of the instrument.

The idea of trying to stretch the boundaries and capabilities of the instrument is something that still goes on with composers, with Stravinsky making piano arrangements of his own orchestral pieces, Prokofiev doing the same thing, Liszt using Hungarian folk music. It was a sort of incorporation of the pop aspect. Crossing genre lines goes back hundreds of years, it’s not something new. The problem now is that it smacks of opportunity, because if you’re looking at it from the standpoint of making records, you’re dealing with classical piano all of a sudden selling more records than the greatest A-list orchestra, and so the classical folks don’t really care for that. They feel that I’m slumming it, and they don't like that young listeners are brought into the classical pantheon through the back door.

At the same time, I don’t think there’s a better time than the present to tap into the fact that people want to listen to all kinds of different things, and that there are some things that work. I mean, I wouldn’t begin to imagine trying to play the great pop music of the Middle East — there are some things that wouldn’t work on Western instruments at all. But for those things that do, I think this is a nice way to do it.

The other part of what I do has to do with, basically, what classical piano playing has been all about. I’ve never been a composer per se; when I was playing jazz, I used to write my pieces, but I don’t really write original material. There is a lot more original content in my arrangements than just putting the melody and harmony out; it’s the idea that a song or a symphony or a sonata is a piece of music that can stand well on its own, that can be interpreted, can be seen and heard through different lenses.

How much does an audience need to know about the pop or classical reference points in your music in order to fully value them?

I was playing a Schubert sonata recital in Vienna 20 years ago, and I was very conscious of the audience, and I felt like they were very supportive, and the applause was great, but while I was playing I felt like there was a concentrated sort of silence, as if they were really listening to the musical rhetoric of what I was doing. And I realized that they know how the Schubert piece goes, I mean they’ve heard the piece a hundred times. They knew the piece as a lexicon, as a vocabulary, as a piece of literature, and they were listening and seeing what I’m doing with it. Because the Schubert pieces are great music, I can play it and 20 other pianists can play it, but they’ll all bring up different things about it.

Now fast-forward 20 years, and I’m playing my first Radiohead recital at UC Berkeley, and usually the first 10 seconds of every song it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s `All I Need,’” and then there’s dead silence because they know what the song is, and they’re very interested to see what I’m going to do with it.

There are Radiohead pieces that they haven’t released yet, for example a song called “Lift.” “Lift” was originally from the early ’90s; the most famous recording of it is from the band’s performance at the Pinkpop Festival in Holland — that was the version I used for my own arrangement of the piece. And then 10 years later they made a new version of it, though they’ve still never commercially released it. So when I sent the masters of my second Radiohead album to their management, they said, “Well, thanks for keeping us up to date with what you’re doing, but you can’t release this.” You can do arrangements for a small fee once the piece has been commercially released, but if not, it’s not fair game.

It’s interesting, because at that point I was doing my book of Radiohead arrangements, and I said, Well, you may be interested to know that your publisher has allowed me to include “Lift” as one of the pieces in the book. There was a flurry of emails, so I took it out of the book and put a couple of new ones in that were fair game.

That’s all to say that even Radiohead are making versions of their songs, and people will argue about them, but there’s still a respect and acknowledgement that they’re great pieces. And the fact that they can exist in various permutations and different interpretations makes them worth listening to in different circumstances.


Photo: Wendy Lynch