Q & A with Chrisopher O'Riley
If you like Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, Nirvana, Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead, Cocteau Twins, or Radiohead, you'll LOVE Christopher O'Riley.
Christopher O'Riley is a pianist, an arranger, and a host of popular NPR program "From the Top." He has composed arrangements of popular music by artists such as Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, Nirvana, Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead, and Cocteau Twins.
Aside from that long list, O'Riley's arrangements of Radiohead songs – "Everything In Its Right Place" and "True Love Waits" – are among his best and most notable works.
I first discovered O'Riley's album "True Love Waits" late one evening while at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, specifically in Loveland Hall. As fate would have it, O'Riley would be performing most appropriately on Valentine's Day Thursday a mere hundred yards from Loveland Hall at Edinboro's Cole Auditorium.
I could not resist contacting his agent to request an interview with Mr. O'Riley. O'Riley has had such an influence on my life at a critical point that I could not let this opportunity pass by. He explained to me what his inspirations are, the criteria he looks for when selecting and composing music, and his pursuit of bridge-building between music communities and genres with a selection of music that only he could arrange.
John Lindvay: You transitioned from a purely classical repertoire to a repertoire of contemporary renditions of popular music. Can you describe the process and intentions behind that shift?
Christopher O'Riley: For example tomorrow night's program will be good examples of arrangements for piano of both in the strictly classical vein and the pop vein. Two pieces are from my upcoming Liszt record. Franz Liszt was a Hungarian virtuoso and composer and did lots of arrangements of other people's music for piano.
For instance, some people's first contact with Beethoven symphonies was through Liszt's arrangements. He did a lot of that, so my record "O'Riley's Liszt," which is coming out in May, features solely Liszt arrangements; there is the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, and the two pieces I am playing [Thursday, Feb. 14] one from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" and one a grand fantasy on Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni." The rest of the program are my own arrangements of contemporary alternative music, like Radiohead, Elliot Smith, Nick Drake, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, and Tears for Fears.
JL: Was it always your intention to be the bridge between these two styles of music? Or was it something that you were drawn towards?
CO: It was just me coveting pieces that I didn't have available to me at the piano. I've been listening to pop music all the way from childhood and mostly gravitating towards alt, or in those days the art rock end of things. It was just my intention when I went to school to just go the classical route. I found that the most challenging, and I didn't think it would have been a good idea to pursue both. So it's only recently for my radio program "From the Top" I've been inserting these break pieces, these short pieces, just based on popular songs. It was a way for me to get back in touch with the music I never stopped listening too.
JL: Are there certain things you look for? What is it about these artists that draw you in?
CO: There are two criteria in that I think not only work for what I choose in the pop-side of things, but also in classical pieces, and those are texture and harmony. Texture is easily found in Radiohead songs; you have five band members, each of whom are contributing something very specific and idiomatic for each song. That makes each song a culmination of different voices, and that I find very interesting in terms of working onto the piano, like working out a Bach Fugue or Shostakovich Fugue. A great example is Radiohead's "Let Down," harmonies, like in a piece by Nick Drake, are great skin-tingling chords and they are wonderful. People have been scratching their heads about Drake's specific tune he was using. I just have to transcribe what he did onto the piano and go from there. I try to be as faithful to the original as possible, but texture and harmony is the draw.
JL: Watching some of your performances on YouTube, it seems you have this very casual and conversational relationship with your audience. What are your motivations for this?
CO: Most people in the audience will be unfamiliar with quite a lot of what I am playing regardless of their musical background. No one is going to know everything. It's a pretty arcane set. So I think it is important to acknowledge that and, where need be, give some background. A large amount of people do not know who Elliot Smith is at all and the song that I play in concert was unreleased. It is a pretty dark song, and even though it sounds quite lovely, I think it is important to get the first verse out there in front of the audience so they get the sense of irony – the darkness of the lyrics that you can't really get out of the piano – but here it is and it's bittersweet and it adds to the performance.
JL: Looking at your newer releases, you seem to be working in a more collaborative way with other musicians. Is this the case with your newest release?
CO: "Shuffle, Play, Listen" is a collaboration that is ongoing now with Matt Haimovitz, who is a wonderful cellist. He comes from a similar background of being classically trained but also having interaction with contemporary music. So when we were put together, it was very easy for us to come up with music that we were enthusiastic about. Our big ending showpiece on our duo concert is "Dance with Maya" from Mahavishnu Orchestra. We do also do various classical pieces. "Shuffle, Play, Listen" is a two-CD set; basically one disc is classical where I arranged pieces from Hitchcock's "Vertigo" by Bernard Herrmann and the other disc is popular music like Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Perfect Circle, Blonde Redhead, and Cocteau Twins.
JL: So with your interest in both contemporary and classical music, do you see yourself as a bridge-builder for those who listen to your works? If I like Radiohead and I listen to your interpretations of them you can then expose me to these pieces by Franz Liszt…
CO: Yeah, I think if people like music that I like, they are more likely to like the other things I like. I think it's a very artful group of players and bands that I am pulling from. I don't think they are arty for art's sake. I am not gravitated towards Muse and other bands that are overtly arty. I think these are real, firm artists. I think that anyone that appreciates great music will appreciate these artists.
John Lindvay can be contacted at jLindvay@ErieReader.com.