One of the most dynamic and popular pianists in America's classical music scene, Christopher O'Riley is the host of NPR's From the Top, a program that provides a platform for the youngest generations of classical music performers to show their stuff. It is one of the top shows on public radio in America. Its television offspring, From the Top at Carnegie Hall, is set to resume taping in 2010. Although these projects are demanding in their own respect, O'Riley maintains an extraordinary amount of personal creativity as well. He made his conducting debut with the Columbus Symphony (in Ohio) in May and has just released Out of My Hands on the White Tie/Mesa Bluemoon label, an occasion celebrated by a concert to a packed house at the Highline Ballroom in New York City.
O'Riley is pursuing the much maligned, but more often honored, art of transcribing for the piano works not written for it. Nineteenth century composers such as Franz Liszt once transcribed at the pace of a one-man industry. And like Liszt, O'Riley transforms the music of his contemporaries, but O'Riley considers among his contemporaries musicians such as the rock bands Radiohead, Nirvana, and Portishead, something that has sent shock waves throughout the classical industry -- can this really be classical music? Rather than taking a trite, easy listening track as was common in the 1960s when classical musicians played The Beatles, O'Riley's conceptions are wholly serious and easily pass muster as "classical," and the new album seems his best effort in this endeavor yet. We were intrigued, and when AMG's Uncle Dave Lewis got hold of Christopher O'Riley he was en route to a From the Top taping in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
AMG: Just to get started, I know you are guy constantly surrounded by music. What have you listened to so far today?
Christopher O'Riley: While you're right about the "surrounded by music" part, this morning you'll have to excuse me, as you've caught me in a situation where I've heard -- nothing. I've been working on an arrangement of a song by Elliott Smith I'm really dedicated to working on, "True Love." It's an unreleased song, and it is one of his darkest. I've got that in my head and am also very focused on this upcoming round of recitals [in Duluth, Minnesota]. I've got piles of things I ought to be listening to, of course, and I feel kind of bad about that -- usually when I'm on a long drive, that's when I get to those things. But right now I'm not in browsing mode.
AMG:You transcribe a lot of rock music for the piano, and in the popular mind rock music is equated to a large extent with rebellion. While I feel this is an over-generalization, let's say for the moment that it is a credible idea. Would you say that you transcribe rock music from a sense of rebellion in relation to your work as a classical musician?
COR: My interest in transcribing pop songs started long before I entered the conservatory. I got started when I was in the sixth grade, when I realized that chicks didn't dig the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody like they ought to, and it was something you really could only do once a year to make an impression. Play really fast, get a round of applause, and that was the end of it. About that time I was going often to the ice skating rink where you would hear a lot of Top 40, and my sister loved The Beatles. Also I was growing up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, and there was a lot of good underground radio where they played a lot of Led Zeppelin and The Doors, and you heard this guy speaking in low tones, you know. I also heard live, underground tapes of The Doors with Jimmy Morrison just jamming on the vocals and kind of realized their limitations -- whatever they were going to do, white guys were not going to invent rap.
So I started a band in the sixth grade, or thereabouts -- that's when I got my first amp at least. It was hot and off the street, and I bought it from a guy who allowed me to trade for it in exchange for me teaching him the keyboard part to "Light My Fire." My first band wasn't very good -- it qualified all of the bad things as to why you shouldn't involve the keyboard in pop music. We played "Light My Fire" and Santana and Iron Butterfly and all that stuff, and in retrospect it's a little embarrassing. Then I had another band in high school that was better, working a little closer to the jazz end of the tracks -- still playing Santana, but also Mahavishnu Orchestra and John McLaughlin. Both that material and material that we developed on our own that was similar to theirs. We did so well that when my parents moved to Pittsburgh suddenly, I managed to stay some months in Chicago with the family of the drummer of that band, though eventually I got to thinking, "I really should be living with my family," and moved on to Pittsburgh.
When I entered the New England Conservatory of Music, I was fully into jazz by that time, and I was playing Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, and Bill Evans. Late in high school, in Pittsburgh, I'd had a weekend gig with the excellent blind saxophonist Eric Kloss, and we didn't play lounge music -- we played Miles Davis, Coltrane, and Straight No Chaser, and all that stuff. Jaki Byard led a very interesting department at the Conservatory, but over time I realized that all of these players that I admired -- Chick Corea and the others -- had this strong sense of Bebop roots and a real broad knowledge of that style. When I realized this -- and noted that I didn't have the natural grounding in bop -- then the idea of studying classical music seemed more challenging. The rigorous training and all that comes with it, and in the end I decided to go for the straight and narrow.
AMG: So where did the urge to transcribe music come from?
COR: I began in the late '80s, early '90s. I did a transcription of Bach's D minor "Dorian" Toccata & Fugue, his C major Trio Sonata, the Flower Duet from Delibes' LakmÃ©, Piazzollaâ€™s Verano PorteÃ±o, my own rearrangements based on the piano reduction of Stravinsky's Apollo, and a solo piano version of his L'Histoire du Soldat.
AMG: Stravinsky never made a piano solo of that like he did most other things, and the one reduction he made -- for violin, clarinet and piano -- always struck me as kind of odd. That's not too far off the instrumentation in the full version.
COR: Well these were all currents that I felt, you know, music that I coveted and wanted to play with my own hands, and I was making these transcriptions in order to have a way to do it. But I didn't go about forging the link to pop music that I liked until way, way later, when I became enthralled with Radiohead. Even I am a little surprised that I was so straight and narrow at the Conservatory that I didn't think of transcribing it then, as I liked a lot of pop music -- Cocteau Twins, Peter Gabriel, The Smiths, Skinny Puppy, Public Enemy...
AMG: The first time I heard your Radiohead transcriptions was either on Chris Douridas' show in LA or on your own NPR show, From the Top.
COR: From the Top was originally designed to showcase kids playing lots of different kinds of music. Incidentally one of the biggest From the Top fans is one of my professors from New England Conservatory, the composer Gunther Schuller, who will call me and say "I loved that performance -- good job!" or "No, Christopher, that was all wrong." Of course as part of the show I have to come up with those little break pieces to play at the spot midway. One time I got tired of playing Bach Two-Part Inventions and that kind of stuff to fill in the break and decided, "Why don't I play a Radiohead song instead?" So I did that and thought nothing of it until I started receiving fan mail asking things like, "Who is this Mr. Head and where I can I find more of this beautiful music?"
AMG: How would you describe your thought process when you are transforming a Radiohead song, or something like it, into a piano solo?
COR: I think of it like a jazz pianist whose music making is informed by my physical relationship to the keyboard. My hands were shaped by hours of practicing Bach and Shostakovich, not meandering. When I work out a piece like Radiohead's "Thinking About You" at the piano I am trying to find out a way to capture something of the jangling tone of the guitar, that kind of motion -- those are not block chords and the harmony is only hinted at. In that instance I was able to solve it by bringing in a little of the G major Prelude of Chopin. My transcribing is being shaped constantly by the instrumental repertoire, and a lot of influences are brought to bear upon it.
AMG: I'm particularly interested in the arrangement you did of Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box." It's highly dissonant and uses harmonies one might expect of Henry Cowell. However, I don't think most rock fans realize that when they hear a guitar coming through a distortion pedal that they are hearing all of those notes too, owing to the scrambling of the overtone series.
COR: That sound in "Heart Shaped Box" is because of the flat tuning they're using, playing in A but tuning in A-flat instead. To me the opening figure to that song is as emblematic and iconic as the opening of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. From there, then there's a lot of verse and a grungy refrain and -- you're right -- from the standpoint of piano it would be a fair amount of Henry Cowell with couple of 2-by-4s on the keyboard. Very black. I thought, "Why not look at black as a variegation of all colors?" When you're on the subway in Chicago, it makes a screaming sound that could be "a noise" or a chorus of 3000 voices depending on how you hear it. So my idea was to use Scriabin as a point of departure. Dense chords, dense harmonies, riotous color, something both incredibly spiritual but also plunging into the darkness of the soul. I felt that it was illuminative and not noisy. Familiarity makes it okay, most people can recognize the tune. It's was a real roller coaster ride to join, and I had to take that ride again and again, working on those chords over and over, very dense like a Shostakovich fugue, but not losing sight of that lexicon at the beginning.
Of course, an acoustic guitar has very jangly overtones as well, but they are not as violently unpredictable as those produced by a distortion box, more of a halo or aura of overtones. With an electric you are also hearing the grit of the steel string, not always the sound of the actual notes.
AMG: Are there limits that you would voluntarily place around popular music that, say, you wouldn't think would work in a piano transcription? I remember in an interview years ago with Joshua Rifkin, who recorded The Baroque Beatles Book in 1965, state that Baroque adaptation of The Beatles worked and would work largely for The Beach Boys as well, but he felt it didn't apply to every kind of pop music.
COR: Some songs do work, but within statistical limits -- there are a lot of things that wouldn't work owing to ironic distance or proximity. Look at The Beatles' "Your Mother Should Know" or "Rocky Raccoon." There's such a sense of muddled irony in these songs it wouldn't work well outside its own context. "Eleanor Rigby" is so tongue in cheek, and of course the original is scored for string quartet. To transcribe it and make it once more removed would be to destroy it. It would be, in my opinion, a smart ass thing to do, and it wouldn't help the song anyway.
AMG: I was also really surprised at the inclusion of "The Rip" by Portishead. As their music is so based in electronics, was it difficult to make the adaptation for piano?
COR: Actually, that one wasn't particularly hard. It had a Philip Glass kind of groove, and was easier to deal with. In my transcription, I let the ostinato aspect of it ride for awhile, and that left the door open for a theme and variations type of treatment. I love the way Beth Gibbons sings. She always reminds me of Eartha Kitt or James Brown, so direct and earnest in her singing. "The Rip" is just a straight ahead ballad, but it was the best song of last summer.
AMG: I was also intrigued with your take on Pink Floyd's "Us and Them." Dark Side of the Moon. I was surprised in that you were able to get so much music out of it, as my feeling is that there really isn't very much music in the piece.
COR: In a way you're right. When you hear it, "Us and Them" seems of normal proportions, but when you time each individual verse it's HUGE -- the chords just hang on forever, and there are only little wisps of melody attached to it. So my way of dealing with it was to turn the theme and variations inward. If you do that, then you can expose kind of the Brucknerian side of it in terms of spinning out the melody.
It's interesting that you feel the way you do about "Us and Them" -- the publicist for my popular gigs is Howard Wuelfling, who played bass in The Nurses. Since very early on heâ€˜s been a huge enthusiast of the folk revival in England. And when he first heard "Out of My Hands," Howard's response was positive, but he mentioned that he felt that "Us and Them" had long ceased being "interesting."
AMG: One last shot as we're running out of time. To what extent does the content of pop lyrics inform your transcribing?
COR: I don't do much crass word painting. I prefer to use different voicings, or different secondary voices to illustrate differences between the verses. I also like to use varied reprises, which is a technique in keyboard music that goes back way beyond Bach. One piece that has always inspired me strongly in doing this is by Robert Helps, Hommage Ã¡ FaurÃ©. Unlike a typical 18th century set of keyboard variations, which tend toward a set kind of scheme in how the variations are handled, Helps utilizes a unique and utterly different type of variation for all 4 to 5 iterations of the melody.
For more information on Christopher O'Riley, visit christopheroriley.com
Christopher O'Riley, piano - Us and Them (after Pink Floyd)
Christopher O'Riley, piano - Heart-Shaped Box (after Nirvana)
Christopher O'Riley, piano - The Rip (after Portishead)
Christopher O'Riley, piano - All I Need (after Radiohead)