San Francisco Chronicle: Matt Haimovitz, Christopher O’Riley form bold duo

January 04, 2012

Anyone who thinks the lines between classical and pop music are crisp and easily drawn is reckoning without the innovative spirit of cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley.

Both men cut their teeth in the traditional repertoire, but both have embarked since then on genre-busting enterprises – Haimovitz by bringing the music of Bach and contemporary composers into bars and honky-tonks, O’Riley by arranging the music of Radiohead and other art-rock groups for solo piano.

Now the two have teamed up, in what ’60s terminology would dub a supergroup. The result is “Shuffle.Play.Listen,” an inventive and compulsively listenable two-disc set on Haimovitz’s Oxingale label.

The playlist, which the duo will bring to Yoshi’s tonight, combines O’Riley’s arrangements of songs by such artists as Arcade Fire, Cocteau Twins and Radiohead with music of Janácek, Martinu and Stravinsky. Haimovitz talked about the project from his home in Montreal.

Q: Is your partnership with Chris O’Riley a long-standing one?Shuffle.Play.Listen

A: We actually don’t go back that far. He knew about my work with alternative spaces, and I knew of his arrangements of Radiohead and other bands. We came close to crossing paths once or twice, but working on this was actually the first time we met. We arranged it all by e-mail.

Q: How did you begin?

A: We set up a date in Billings, Mont., and took three days to work out a program. It was fascinating, because it was a celebration of the shared passion of everything we were into, from John McLaughlin to Janácek.

Then everything happened very fast. Within two months Chris had just churned out these great arrangements with cello parts, and I had to figure out how they all worked. We first got together in March, we recorded in June and stared touring in September.

Q: How much of this material were you familiar with going in?

A: A lot of it was an education for me. I’ve been a Radiohead fan, but not like Chris. His iPod is unbelievable. He has every CD and every live show, including about 20 versions of “Pyramid Song.” I’m not that fanatical.

Chris would give me dozens of songs to listen to, and I would go through them looking for things to work with. The more unusual the voice of a band was, the more interesting it was for me, because I had to come up with a cello technique to emulate that vocal quality.

For Cocteau Twins, for example, I started using all these bluegrass double stops. On another song I would come up with some Fritz Kreisler-ish techniques, flitting around the strings.

For me the whole thing was an education. I come from a household where all we listened to was classical, and I had no idea there were genres of music outside that. I’m very behind and still catching up.

Q: But some of the material came from you.

A: I’ve always been into the music of John McLaughlin. And Arcade Fire was my pick, because I know them from here in Montreal. They shop at the same grocery store I do.

Q: Is it strange to be working on music that originally had words?

A: My brain is wired for instrumental music, and most of my time is spent in a very abstract world. So I love to find a connection to words or choreography or anything visual. When I’m trying to get to the heart of the music, having something concrete that tells you what it’s about is very helpful and confidence-building.

Q: What guidelines did you follow in selecting the classical pieces?

A: I didn’t know it consciously at the time, but I ended up choosing pieces that had a life outside of abstract instrumental music, whether ballet music or folksong or fairy tales. The Janácek and Martinu pieces I only got to know fairly recently, and the Stravinsky and Piazzolla came from Chris. At one point in the middle of the process, Chris said, “Oh, it’s the 100-year anniversary of Bernard Herrmann, we’ve got to do Herrmann.” And I’m a fan, so we put in the “Vertigo” Suite.

Q: It sounds like it was a very inclusive project.

A: It was. This is a two-CD set, basically, because we couldn’t figure out what to leave off.

Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley: 8 tonight. Yoshi’s, 1330 Fillmore St., S.F. $18. (415) 655-5600.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at

This article appeared on page F – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

by Joshua Kosman

View at San Francisco Chronicle

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