Interview: Pianist Christopher O'Riley 

click to enlarge An impish Matt Haimovitz (left); a reflective Christopher O'Riley. - SARAH SCOTT
  • An impish Matt Haimovitz (left); a reflective Christopher O'Riley.
  • Sarah Scott

Christopher O'Riley sees Shuffle.Play.Listen, his new classical-pop fusion project with cellist Matt Haimovitz, as something of a celebration of our technological climate; no neo-Luddite wedded to the idea of the album as discrete object is he. We'd expect nothing less; the pianist has always looked for the next new sounds, from his piano transcriptions of songs by Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, to his work as host of From the Top, the public media showcase for young classical talents. And it was almost a matter of time before O'Riley hooked up with Haimovitz, who is just as interested in stretching boundaries, by playing classical music in non-traditional settings (bars, coffeeshops) and premiering new contemporary classical work.

Shuffle.Play.Listen takes a chance-operation-style approach to both classical and pop music. On the newly released CD version of the project, the first, “classical” disc features classics from the piano-cello repertoire, with movements from O'Riley's arrangement of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo Suite dropped in throughout the track listing. The second, “pop” disc is a melange of O'Riley's arrangements of songs by Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, John McLaughlin, Blonde Redhead and A Perfect Circle.

Hear: "Empty Room" (Arcade Fire), "Pyramid Song" (Radiohead) and Variations on a Folk Song (Martinu) from Shuffle.Play.Listen (via Baylin Artists Management)

While the two gave quite a bit of consideration to song order on the record, O'Riley encourages the listener to hit shuffle for herself — and to shuffle the entirety of both discs, not just the classical or pop disc by itself. The live show, which will arrive at the Toby Thursday night, is also in flux; the first part of the show is pre-determined, but the second half is called from the stage, and both musicians are constantly introducing new material.

In particular, each musician plays one solo piece on the program; as O'Riley puts it, “our mutual manager says you should always have a solo piece for each of you at every concert, just because people won't understand that you know how to play for yourself unless you actually show them.” In previous concerts, O'Riley his played his arrangements of music from Tristan and Isolde and the Radiohead song “Give Up the Ghost” in his solo slot, while Haimovitz has tried out a Bach prelude and a piece inspired by Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

O'Riley spoke with NUVO Monday afternoon while driving to a From the Top taping in Pittsburgh. Here's a hearty excerpt from the talk.

NUVO: You've said you and Matt are kind of rare in the classical world. Why do you think that is?

O'Riley: I don't really see a good reason why. It's arguable that there aren't really enough hours in the day to hone the pieces you're responsible to perform, and that should be everything. But before I even got interested in any kind of playing of pop music, I was making transcriptions of pieces for orchestra. I was always interested in trying to extend the boundaries of the instrument, and I think that led me in time to these arrangements of Radiohead and Elliott Smith, stuff that I just really liked. I've always liked the idea of introducing people to music that they may not be familiar with and that I find quite beautiful, and I feel like that has now extended to other genres.

I know Matt is similarly inclined, in terms of extending the capabilities of the instrument. He certainly has done that, not only in the Vertigo Suite, but also in the pieces on the pop side. They're a veritable etude book, based on things that I asked him to do that he found ways to do — and ways to make them more brilliant and virtuosic. Matt, even within the classical realm, listens to a whole lot more contemporary classical music than I do, and has been involved with many more premieres than I have; of course, I have my hands full having my selfish pleasures making my arrangements. That's been where he's been out of the box, and then, in recent years, he's been taking the classical stuff into clubs, restaurants and odd venues, and I've been taking my pop stuff into classical venues. So it's sort of a natural thing for us to get together, but it's not really a thing that a lot of classical musicians have time for or make time for.

NUVO: What do you look for when you look for something to arrange?

O'Riley: Texture is a very key thing, texture and harmony. So, for instance, those spooky bitonalites of Bernard Herrmann would attract me, whether I was playing Herrmann or Radiohead or Maurice Ravel. Harmony is a major interest, and it drives a lot of the choices of the music that I play, classical or otherwise. And, yes, texture is the other major element, in that I tend to gravitate towards music at the confluence of many different elements. One could argue that a lot of pop music is a rather vertically oriented onslaught of sound. But then, if you get into more sophisticated stuff — even in the non-musical realm, in the early Public Enemy, especially, there's a sense of conversation in the various samples that they use, which are dovetailed over one another in the same manner that a Bach fugue would be.

With Radiohead, you have every member of the band contributing some integral idea to each song, not in an arty way, but just because that's how they make their music; it's really a culmination of elements, a conversation between musical voices and textures that make that song unique, above and beyond and in addition to harmony. (...)

When I first met Thom Yorke, I told him that I always thought “Pyramid Song” was the most quintessential Radiohead piano-vocal song, but I couldn't imagine doing it just as a piano-only piece, without the sound of your voice. He said, “Oh, you mean without me fucking it up!” He's very self-deprecating. But doing it with a singing instrument, doing it with a cello, is a whole other thing, because to my mind, the cello is the closest instrument to the human voice that we can agree on. The violin is too screechy; the flute is too one-dimensional; the clarinet has a fair amount of expressiveness available to it, but the cello can sound like an orchestra. The soaring sound of the cello really resonates with the human body and human vocal cords most directly. But it wasn't just a matter of doing singer-type songs.

Matt made a very serious study of the phrasing and tonal color of each one of these artists. We fooled one critic, actually, who thought Matt's fondness for effects pedals got in the way of our Cocteau Twins arrangements. Well, no, Matt is fully aware of the chorusing and flanging that abets Elizabeth Fraser's operatic-style voice, but he found a way to do that, to get those kind of echoing, flanging kind of effects on the instrument itself; he doesn't use any special effects whatsoever. We probably play with a little more reverb on the Cocteau Twins songs, but not necessarily. He gets the sinuous sense of Maynard James Keenan's voice in “3 Libras,” and he really gets Thom's talking-to-himself singing style — and the girl from Blonde Redhead has a similar fragility that he really gets. That's what you get from playing with a classical musician who says, 'Let's think about this in classical terms.'

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Scott Shoger

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Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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