Where Radiohead ends and Christopher O’Riley
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.
CHRISTOPHER O’RILEY: On both sides.
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
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
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.