Christopher O'Riley is a classical pianist and host of NPR's "From the Top" program. Mr. O' Riley has arranged and recorded songs by rock 'n' roll musicians like Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, and Nirvana for the classical piano.
Epilogue: I was one of those kids who had an “everything Radiohead” phase in high school so that’s how I first came across your stuff.
Christopher O’Riley: What is your favorite arcane Radiohead release? Because I’m totally there with you. What was the Japanese release that has the only version of “Stop Whispering” that I can abide? They call it the “US version” and it only appears on one of those EPs…check it out because I think it’s phenomenal but it reminds me of nothing less than a total U2, and it wouldn’t be a Brian Eno U2, was it Steve Lillywhite who did U2? It sounds like a U2 production. It sounds very opportunistic. But it really kicks ass.
The only version of “Stop Whispering” I have is on the On a Friday demos.
I didn’t even know they had it as an On a Friday demo!
What’s your philosophy in terms of approaching your music and your life?
I’ve been open to a fair amount of, a fair range of styles and ways of playing over my lifetime. I started out really young playing classical piano and then really opportunistically when I realized that I was not a popular kid in fourth grade (and I kind of wanted to be) and piano was not the way to do it. But being in a rock band maybe was. I started listening to, and, you know, God help me, this was the era in which keyboards had no place in rock music. I’m going to be embarrassed—Emerson Lake and Palmer, they were like my idols. Iron Butterfly, the Doors. My first amp, which I’m sure bought hot, from this guy who said that if I would teach him the solo to “Light My Fire” I would be getting a deal on the amp. So, things like that. And then I got interested in modern jazz, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, all the time I’m keeping up with classical stuff, but really getting interested in that. So by the time I’m finishing high school in Pittsburgh I was playing with a really cool sax player in town, Eric Kloss, and we were doing original stuff, and it wasn’t like a lounge band it was like a real jazz thing, in Pittsburgh, like regular.
But then when I went to music school—I went to New England Conservatory where Gunther Schuller was the President of the school. Again, this theme of a very wide variety of styles occupies a lot of my life. Part of the reason I went to New England Conservatory was because they had a jazz department. I figured I could do both. Once I got there I decided that I really just wanted to toe the line. I realized, I think, that there was such a history to jazz that all the guys that I admired, although they were associated with cutting edge modern jazz, they came steeped in the history and language and lexicon of jazz from its beginnings. It was clear to me, Jaki Byard was the head of the jazz department there, a brilliant pianist, and all the real jazz majors that I was hanging out with were telling me that he was just sending them back to Fats Waller and stride piano and this is part of where this music comes from. And I thought, God, I really can’t reinvent the wheel. It’s really too much work.
I think it has it’s own challenges, for me it was also a matter of pride or expression or enjoying and respecting the live event. You can have an off night in a jazz club and it’s no big deal but you can’t have an off night playing Beethoven material. The demands were inspiring. So I went that direction and then I’ve sort of been, not so much paying attention…I guess I was paying attention through the eighties. A lot of that music I really know, and the nineties come around and I don’t know any of these people, my girlfriend gives me a hard time about it because she’s been into music since she was a kid and really has paid attention to all aspects of it, of Pop music. But, you know, I don’t miss having missed Journey. So the eighties was my thing and I’ve been listening, and I’ve been doing this radio show “From the Top” and we originally envisioned that radio program to be a forum for all kinds of pre-college musicians. So we were going to have bluegrass musicians, jazz musicians, what have you, folk musicians and the radio stations that we shopped it to said “No. One minute of anything non-classical and you’re off.” It was a real paradigm shift because the whole idea of it was to make classical music in particular more inclusive. Not only of the musicians who are into other things in their life but audiences. It’s ok to like a lot of different kinds of music, you don’t have to have this prescribed behavior in a classical music concert as you do, and it’s not a good thing for building audiences. In the day, classical music, when Liszt was playing it was like a rock concert. There was a really bad Ken Russell lead but essentially the aesthetic was the same. In any case, these people were dictating to us “nothing other than classical” so I was in a position of playing these little pieces at the break, like at the halfway point of the hour long program, it’s a weekly program on 250 stations, so it’s going out and some stations need a minute or three minutes at the halfway point to do business or not to do business. We didn’t want our young guests, who we are really trying to present, to be in that spot so it became a place for me to do a solo. So if people played it I’d be really happy to be on the radio once a week and if they didn’t it was no big deal. We weren’t hurting our kids basically was the bottom line.
So, at the time, I was listening to an awful lot of Radiohead. And it sort of started getting me interested in the way that I was, back when I was pursuing my odd little jazz thing, it just got me into that body language, where it was ok to improvise and see where this went. Meanwhile I had also been doing other actual arrangements of classical pieces that didn’t heretofore exist as piano pieces that I thought would sound really great. Like that Lakmé duet from “The Hunger” with Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve in the shower which is taken from Léo Delibes, his opera “Lakmé.” British Airways has been flogging that now for decades in one form or another, it’s this duet for two sopranos and so I did that as a piano piece. I played it at Carnegie Hall the first time I played it for some 250,000th piano celebration concert at Carnegie. So I had been doing classical things and it was just a matter of coveting a certain piece of music and figuring out that I could do that.
So I’ve been doing this classical thing all along and I was starting to feel comfortable making arrangements or doing something that I feel would work well for me on piano. There is an overarching thing to all of this which is that I think that the piano is capable of things larger than itself. The greatest composers have always asked for things more than any instrument can achieve and that’s what makes it inspiring and that’s why we keep trying to play the Beethoven concertos or the Beethoven sonatas. Here’s a man who obviously had a sound in his mind, and even at the time he was breaking piano strings left and right. He was just not getting the amount of sound that he was and yet even with our modern instruments I still have a feeling like we’re straining at the boundaries of possibility. So there’s great stuff to be had in that Beethoven sense of trying to get the piano to do more than you think it might be able to do. Or Franz Liszt doing an arrangement of a Beethoven symphony, in other words, trying to say that a piano can sound like an orchestra. I was saying the piano can sound like five rock and roll musicians from Oxford, England.
You’ve really tackled a lot of works by treasured artists like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Radiohead, could you take me inside that process a little bit?
One of the great advantages I have is, for instance with the alternate tunings that Nick Drake did, I mean, my gosh, we’ve already had three decades of guys thinking they’ve found the answer or they found the answer and passed it on in this particular tuning, on the piano I can just take down the figuration, I can take down the notes. That’s an enormous advantage. That said though, those figurations are not necessarily figurations that my left hand would do in and of itself in an improvisory fashion. I think it’s a very important point. Then I’m saying, “I wish to be true to this particular element because this has physical idiosyncrasies particular to it. Often times it’s not the melody that takes me into an arrangement, it’s a very interesting question, it’s often times the mode of transport. What’s the texture that this thing is going to ride on? And that often times is inspired by source material. Nick Drake had all kinds of alternate source material.
Often times its not the melody, it’s the harmony. My girlfriend, with songs, they’re all about the words. And I’ve also tackled a lot of artists who were real poets. Elliott, I think, above all. In those situations you don’t want to be so overt as to tone paint, really make a sort of reactive harmonic thing happen in conjunction with the lyrics. You want to at least follow the dramatic curve of the piece. In Elliott’s music there’s a lot of irony. In Radiohead’s music there’s a lot of irony. There’s a very pretty texture on the outside of something like “No Surprises” but it’s a very dire song in the middle of it and at the heart of it. With “Coast to Coast,” it’s an extremely violent song and yet it has almost a TV jingle melody. It’s bizarre. You have to try and get those juxtapositions, and those are the tensions that create the ability to react to the lyrics.
Things like Thom Yorke’s “Like Spinning Plates” was a great situation where it’s a rather unadorned melody, but at that time I thought, “What had other great pianists done to emulate the human voice in a true fashion?” And it came to me, I thought somebody like Thelonious Monk who sort of had a wrong note way of playing, if you’ve ever heard anybody try and clean it up you realize that what he’s going for the plangency you get on a saxophone, in a certain way with the human voice. When Liszt would do transcriptions of Franz Schubert songs, basically it would be like one finger playing the melody. That’s fine but it’s not really taking advantage of something that the piano can do, and how much closer it can get to the way the voice is done. Stravinsky had a great way of emulating various instruments and it was Thelonious Monk and Stravinsky who inspired me to come up with a different way of treating the melody for itself and harmonizing it in a way that would be, if not true to the letter of the lyric, at least true to the letter of the expressivity of the music. That’s what I’ve been going for anyway.
I’ve seen interviews where you express your admiration for jazz artists the Bad Plus. What do they do that’s different from your own approach?
They’re amazing musicians. Each one of them, Ethan Iverson, Reid, and Dave are really great composers. I’ve done arrangements of two of Dave King’s pieces, and I’ve done two of Reid’s, it’s just extraordinary music. And, of course, the way that the audience comes to them is through their ironic re-castings of the pop tunes…the songwriting itself is really informed by that. They’re able to have a great time and be able to educate their audience as to what the lexicon is in this live experience and finally to become part of their community. That’s such a compelling gift that they have, and on top of everything else there’s such an amazing joy to what they do. They’re in a class by themselves in any genre as far as a performing and creative entity. I would never put myself in their league because they’re really creative artists. I’ve not really had an original thought in my head for quite some time.
Is there any particular song or group that you’ve wanted to recast and haven’t been able to do that yet?
When I listen to music, it tends to be of an obsessive nature. I’ll get into one band, and then I’ll get into one record, and there might be one song I listen to, you know, 20,000 times. There are lots of those songs at all times, and lots of those artists that I’ve got in my head a lot of the day. And usually by the 10,000th time you can say, “Well, this could work this way.” I’m getting a little more adept at it. Then there are other things that really don’t suggest themselves in a very negative fashion. I’ve never really been drawn to doing Beatles material because I come from the classical background and the Beatles were great songwriters but there was already this overlay of different genres. Sort of tin can alley or tongue-in-cheek rock or barroom music from the nineteenth century—you know what I mean? So to have the overlay of classical music like me on top of that, I can never imagine doing it.
There’s a certain tongue-in-cheek quality that I think is already inherent in “Creep” that would lead me to believe that I will never play that song.
Do you have a presence at any of the Radiohead fan message boards like AtEaseWeb.com?
For some reason I’m persona non grata over at Mortigi Tempo. I never really hung out there. But At Ease, I’ve been on there continuously since 2003. That’s where, if you want to see O’Riley bashing, you can go. More of what I do now on At Ease is, there’s a book club section of At Ease, and I’ve had some great recommendations. And of course I’m like the world champion reader. Everyone asks me if my piano’s broken because I read four books a week, or something.
My contact with the band has been minimal. We actually did get to meet in Amsterdam, I saw them in Amsterdam, and the next night at R.E.M.’s concert, I’m good friends with that band, and we were guests of theirs. And you know, who comes back to the tent before the show? There’s Colin, and I finally got to talk to Jonny Greenwood extensively, I’ve never met Phil before, and got in touch with Thom, and Michelle had never met Thom so I just let her at him, and she’s eternally grateful. We finally met Phil and Phil is like, the bomb. Phil is like the greatest.
Since you’ve already covered the music of two of my favorite artists that I geek over most often (Radiohead and Elliott Smith), any chance of an Animal Collective-themed record?
I don’t know Animal Collective. The name rings a bell because there’s enormous conversations about Animal Collective on the At Ease site. So I should check that out.
How do you listen to new music, especially since you’re classically trained and have classically sharpened ears?
I think it’s colored by the classical thing but only because there are elements of classical music specifically textured in music that I think are particular to really great things in popular music. Elliott, with his self-produced style, Radiohead, a band where only two of whom can actually read music, and yet every song is contributed by each member of the band. Everybody has something very special that makes it that kind of counterpoint, that kind of weave. That’s what affects me when I first hear music, texture.
Christopher O'Riley Interview
Photo by Wendy Lynch