Who says classical musicians only want to play classical music? Christopher O'Riley, a 49-year-old pianist, became such a fan of Radiohead after he heard its 1997 album "OK Computer" [pictured] that he no longer felt content just listening to the band's music, which was like gin-stain melancholia. He had to play it himself.
Unlike the typical pop band, Radiohead wrote in "a lush harmonic language," O'Riley said in an e-mail from Australia, where he was recently on tour. There was "a certain sense of counterpoint, of interweaving voices" that spoke to O'Riley's inner ear.
Unlike the "string quartet tribute" CDs that pop up like mushrooms around best-selling artists such as Coldplay, Queen and now even My Chemical Romance, O'Riley's arrangements do more than imitate what another band has recorded. O'Riley captures on piano keys the sounds of Radiohead's strange electronic blurts, the rhythmic interplay of three guitars and singer Thom Yorke's wounded yowl and bristling falsetto. By reducing the sounds of many instruments into one, the pianist helps listeners discover an essence of what a musician is playing. (O'Riley also has arranged works by Nick Drake, the Cocteau Twins and R.E.M., and is considering others like Interpol, Nine Inch Nails and The Smiths.)Like Hunter S. Thompson, who famously retyped "The Great Gatsby" and "A Farewell to Arms" to learn how Fitzgerald and Hemingway, respectively, wrote those American classics, the musician in O'Riley decided he could only figure how Radiohead made its music by trying to remake it on his own. He transcribed the band's music note by note and then arranged it for the solo piano.
The result may be what introduces a younger generation to classical music, audiences for which have been steadily graying. So far, O'Riley has released two albums of Radiohead arrangements (2003's "True Love Waits" and 2005's "Hold Me to This"). In April, he will release "Home to Oblivion," an album of arrangements of music by Elliott Smith, the Academy Award-nominated singer-songwriter ("Good Will Hunting") who stabbed himself in the heart and died in 2003. To promote those CDs, O'Riley will perform a recital tonight of both artists at Montclair State University's Alexander Kasser Theater.
Perhaps more than anything, O'Riley's arrangements have earned him a chance to cross over to another audience without having to sacrifice the musicianship that earned him awards at major world piano competitions.
Not everyone has gushed over his work. A New York Times critic once wrote "far too often (O'Riley) spun lacy filigrees that only obscured Radiohead's corrosive beauty." Indeed, O'Riley's interpretations occasionally fill in gaps that the band left empty.
But more than that, there is a lot that O'Riley simply cannot do or approximate with piano. (It should also be said that there is a lot musicians can do in the studio that they cannot do live.) In his arrangement of "Coast to Coast," the first song on Smith's posthumous album "From a Basement on a Hill," the pianist hits all the weird, opposing tones that Smith's guitar hit. O'Riley even mimics the near-minute of scattered, howling sounds that introduced the Smith album. But a piano can only fill so much space, and when the song kicks into gear, O'Riley's version merely silhouettes the original track's orchestral fullness. Fans may be left clamoring for the real thing.
But as the album continues, it grows quieter and more sedate. While the tones are familiar and recognizable, they begin to inhabit a new context. They start to stand on their own. Like more traditional recitals of classical music, O'Riley's arrangements become enjoyable for their own sake, not because they are reminiscent of someone else's work.
"I think my arrangements are timely in that they serve a good, a need for classical venues to open up to new audiences without playing something cheaply or insincerely," O'Riley wrote. "I've found that many organizations embrace the opportunity of having me play for that reason.
"Others, though their audiences are dying off, choose not to ruffle the feathers of their constituents," O'Riley wrote, "while still others don't think what I do should be taken seriously."
"I'm just happy playing what I love," O'Riley continued, "whether it's Radiohead or Rachmaninoff."