“They’re all some of the most difficult pieces that I play,” says pianist Christopher O’Riley, discussing his preparation for a recital spotlighting the music of Radiohead.
The Los Angeles-based musician has been arranging/interpreting/performing Radiohead’s music since the early 2000s. “I really like to think that this is an infinitesimally slowed-down improvisation because I really am making note choices, harmony choices from one sixteenth note to the next.”
O’Riley has issued two full-length albums of Radiohead music (2003’s True Love Waits and 2005’s Hold Me To This) in addition to having adapted several other songs by the British band to piano since the late 1990s. In addition to the aforementioned recordings he’s tracked compositions by Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, Nirvana and others when not performing works by Igor Stravinsky, Bernard Herrmann and others (see the acclaimed 2011 effort Shuffle.Play.Listen with cellist Matt Haimovitz).
O’Riley performs an evening of Radiohead music at Distillery 244 in Old Town on Tuesday, Jan. 16, in an event hosted by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. He spoke to Jedd Beaudoin about his work; listen to their conversation above.
Jedd Beaudoin: When did you first encounter the music of Radiohead and what was your impression?
Christopher O’Riley: I first heard them in their third album, the one that was probably the most written-about of any rock album since Abbey Road or the White Album, OK Computer in 1997. It was not something that I’d heard. It was something that I’d read about. It just sounded like something I might be interested in. I bought the record and listened to it.
For a snobby classical music listener, I think there are a lot of pop albums that suffer from being the product of one or two good songs and eight songs of filler. We’re used to, in the classical realm, buying a Mahler recording and there’s not any weak tracks on a Mahler symphony. That’s what we’re shooting for in this world.
Listening to Radiohead’s OK Computer, it was a completely strong album from beginning to end. I just loved it. There is one song, “Electioneering,” that I didn’t like so much, but it was incredible hearing it. It also had in common with other genres of music that I like the idea of counterpoint, a mixture of voices, of a real sort of weaving of voices rather than a more vertical or chordal or more overtly beat-related types of pop music.
I don’t think there are more than one or two members of Radiohead that know how to read music, but they’re each really creative artists and they each contribute a particular idea or a thread or a motif—much like a Bach fugue or a Shostakovich fugue—to each song. That appealed to me on that textural level. Also, I’m a big fan of very sensual harmonies that you’d find in Ravel, a harmony, a chord that makes your hair stand on end. I thought there were original harmonic sequences in this music that were genuine. It wasn’t art for art’s sake. These were genuinely beautiful sounds that were coming out of the band.
That’s when I became obsessed. Then I worked my way backwards through the first record, Pablo Honey, that’s an album that even sort of the band disavows, almost. But it’s got some strong songs on it. And then The Bends, which is their most guitar-based record and, arguably, one of the greatest guitar rock records of all time. I also got interested in the band and the websites and started collecting all kinds of B-sides and live performances. I had quite the collection and really stuck with it from 1997 to the present.
How long was it from hearing OK Computer, then going back to the other records, before you started tinkering around and saying, “I wonder what this would sound like for solo piano?"
It had very much to do with my NPR radio show From The Top, which was originally conceived as a forum for all sorts of pre-college musicians of all genres. When we were shopping the show around to various stations—they were predominantly classical stations and said, “Listen, you play one minute of jazz, mister, and you are off!”—we sort of toed the classical line in the making of that program, but there was a halfway point, in the hour-long broadcast, where I would be responsible for playing a two- or three- minute piece because that was the place where stations could breakaway and take care of local business or play what we sent them. We didn’t want our young guests to be at the whim or local stations, so that became my solo spot.
Once I ran out of two-part inventions and things like that for that two-minute slot, I started making my own arrangements of Radiohead and Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, all artists that I’ve subsequently done complete albums of their music.
Initially, it was just something that I was doing for the radio show. I knew we were on the right track when our announcer would post announce, “That was our host Christopher O’Riley playing ‘Karma Police’ by Radiohead,” and we would get emails into the program saying—presuming I was a classical pianist, that I was playing something classical or maybe modern classical—saying, “Who is this Mr. Head and where can we find more of his beautiful music?”
Is that something that’s been important to you throughout your career, to get people to recognize that there is value to contemporary music?
I think I’m most interested in playing in what I believe in. I’ve been surprised and excited by celebrating music by people that don’t know is as great as it is: The Shostakovich preludes and fugues, the Scriabin sonatas, or even the early Mendelssohn E major sonata, things off the beaten path. Music that I believe is quite beautiful and can affect, in the right hands, an audience to feel that they are of like mind at the end of a performance.
I spent my pre-high school and high school years playing in rock bands and jazz-rock bands and made my way through high school in Pittsburgh playing a jazz club. I went to New England Conservatory of Music in Boston when Gunther Schuller was president, so all the musics were equally celebrated. I thought that would be a good place to go if I wanted to pursue jazz and classical. As soon as I got there, I sort of self-dissuaded because my knowledge of jazz and my skill in jazz was really just my own meanderings. Every jazz artist that I really admire has made their own language out of a comprehensive and historical embrace of jazz history and jazz styles. At that point, it was easier for me to dedicate myself to reinvigorating classical pieces in my own way. So that’s what I’ve continued to find challenging.
When your first album of Radiohead arrangements, True Love Waits, came out in 2003, did you get a sense from the critical community that this was something they were willing to embrace or did you get more of the “Are you mad?” response?
It sort of ran the gamut. First of all, there were, and there remains, a big segment of the classical community who just thought it was disrespectful of my training to engage with this music. There were then the Radiohead fans who would say, “I can download this in three seconds, why do I need to hear you play a song I like better when they play it?” Then there are people who understand that I’m not a one-man cover band. I like to think that I’m more like a jazz artist who’s taking acknowledged, beautiful song material and making it work for my particular instrument in my particular way.
One of my first big recitals of all Radiohead music was at UC Berkeley. It reminded me of a similar concert I had done with a Schubert sonata and some Debussy preludes in Germany. I remember remarking at the time that the quality of silence was really something. There was very good applause—they were there and they knew this music intimately, more so than an American audience, I have to say—they knew how the Schubert D major sonata went. They were there to listen to what I was going to do with it.
So, back at Berkeley, you’d have the first few seconds of muttering, “Oh, that’s ‘Karma Police,’ that’s ‘You,’ that’s ‘No Surprises.’ And then there would be this very concentrated silence. They knew this music very well, they could hear it in its original form any time they wanted, but they were curious to see what I was going to see what I was going to do with it.
It’s called interpretation. It’s something we’re very used to in the classical world. In the jazz world, it’s not covering, it’s interpretation in a very personal way. It was very heartening to get my four-star review in Rolling Stone magazine because there some people who were going to get it and other people who weren’t going to get it and that was a pretty nice accolade.
Were there pieces, as an interpreter and arranger, that presented a real challenge to you, where you said, ‘This is difficult, but I’m not going to let it defeat me’?
There is a sense of appropriateness and inappropriateness. Playing a piece like “Let Down” or virtually any of the songs that I arranged, some of them just wrote themselves. “Let Down” was the perfect vehicle for a kind Liszt transcription of an orchestral piece kind of counterpoint that I’d been used to from playing a lot of Liszt. Then it was a matter of taking down the mandala-like guitar vamp and then the bass line.
Also, it’s always a matter of making sure that we have a good sense of the overtones of the guitar rather than just the strict transcription, Jerry Lee Lewis style. That creates a complexity and a richness on its own.
On top of that, there were songs like “Creep.” Yeah, “Creep” is a great song but there’s no way that you’d play “Creep” on the piano. I know people who have done it, but I’m not sure for myself. If there’s a song that I don’t think is going to work or I just can’t get a foot in the door, I won’t pursue it. I’m not gonna force the issue ever, and with that outlook I’ve done, I would guess, over three dozen songs.
Once you’d put the first record out and then the second, did you hear from the band? Did you get any sort of feedback from them?
I met the band twice. Once backstage at Madison Square Garden after True Love Waits had come out. I introduced myself to [bassist] Colin Greenwood who said, “Yeah, we know who you are and we’re very excited about what you’re doing.” I then had a long talk with Thom [Yorke] about music that we love that he happened to write.
I did an arrangement of “Lift” that only lately has become a released song and it existed in two forms, one from 1997 and one from 2008, I believe. I said to Thom, “I’m working on ‘Lift’ now and sort of sticking to the older version. I’m really liking that.” He said, “Yeah, the new one’s crap.” He was very self-deprecating. I was trying to cajole him into recording “Pyramid Song” with me because I [believe] that’s the quintessential Radiohead piano song. I said, “I can’t imagine ever playing it on piano unless you were singing it.” He said, “Oh, you mean without me messing it up?” Messing was not the word that he was using.
He was a very humble and self-deprecating guy. It was just hanging out and talking about his music that’s so great. Then I met the band in its entirety in Amsterdam several years later. That was more sort of friendly.
I’ve talked to a lot of Radiohead fans who said, “Don’t be surprised if they just can’t really get over that you would pay this much attention to their music." It’s been a largely aloof relationship.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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