Magnet Magazine: Q&A With Christopher O’Riley

January 31, 2012

Perhaps best known for the NPR series From The Top, musician Christopher O’Riley is far more in-tune with music than most of the world. Not only does he host and mentor young musicians, O’Riley also transcribes and arranges songs by Radiohead, Arcade Fire and more for the piano and, more recently, the cello. O’Riley has just released a new album with cellist Matt Haimovitz, Shuffle.Play.Listen. (Oxingale), a tribute to contemporary composers and some of the most modern musicians. Owing to his virtuosic abilities and interesting outlook, we invited O’Riley to guest edit this week. Read our Q&A with him below.

MAGNET: Why did you choose some of the artists and composers that you did for your new compilation with Matt Haimovitz?

O’Riley: Well, we started out with the idea of having a fair amount of classical pieces that we were both familiar with—we’d never even played a concert before when we decided on some of those pieces—and it was always in the cards that we would be doing some arrangements of contemporary pop music. We started out our first concert a year last November in Billings, Mont., and for that one we had arranged “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead. We’re both huge John McLaughlin fans, so we made an arrangement of “The Dance Of Maya,” which was a major project. I transcribed John McLaughlin’s guitar solo from the original recording, and luckily it fits in a cello, as long as you’re a virtuoso like that. Then we started talking about various other [projects] we might want to do—for instance Matt is on the faculty at McGill University in Montreal, so Arcade Fire being from Montreal seemed like a good choice. They’ve been extraordinarily enthusiastic and supportive, and I think that was a good call. Various other bands came up, and other things happened—we realized 2011 was the centenary of Bernard Herrmann’s birth, so I was doing some solo versions of things from the Psycho soundtrack, and I thought, with Matt on the cello, the Vertigo soundtrack would be a great project. So, it very quickly ended up being a double record, because there were lots of pieces that we wanted to do, and I was working really, really hard on them, and in June we had two CDs’ worth. Gosh, at a certain point we weren’t even sure if it was all going to fit on a CD. So it was just a matter of, I think, the choice of pieces to arrange for me mostly had to do with the harmonies and the textures—that’s what draws me to certain music, like Radiohead and Elliott Smith. I think, further, with the material for Matt, I wanted to be arranging music that was, really, necessarily more vocal, that you couldn’t just kind of pretend you were playing the melody on the piano. You needed an instrument that could sing, which is the other reason why I had never done the quintessential piano/vocal Radiohead song before, because I really felt that, without the vocal, it didn’t make any sense. So, things like Radiohead’s “Arpeggi” and “Pyramid Song,” then the very operatic stuff from Cocteau Twins was a natural thing, and James Maynard Keenan’s voice, very penetrating, sinuous sound, and the Dreamweavers, the singer from Blonde Redhead also has a very particular sound. And all these pieces started coming together, and now owing to the cello, really work as a vocal instrument. And Matt also was very keen on getting the particular vocal style of each artist doable on the cello, so for instance there is a certain amount of chorusing effect added to Elizabeth Frasier’s voice on the Cocteau Twins’ things, and he was sort of able to phase a double unison on the cello, so it would make it sound like it was sort of going in and out fade, and other things like the more conversational tone of Thom Yorke’s voice or the Blonde Redhead’s vocalist, that became part of the interpretive process. But we really just chose bands that really had great harmony, great material, and just needed a singing instrument.

When did your fascination with Radiohead begin, roughly?

I’d actually read about them before I heard about them, and this is when OK Computer came out, and there was such incredible press about the record from all corners, and I became very curious about the record, and started collecting everything I could, because it was just a phenomenal record of any genre. And the more I found of Radiohead’s material, even the unreleased stuff and the b-sides, I really felt that was extraordinary music, and I was listening to nothing but Radiohead since that time for quite a long time.

Would you describe them as a further branch of alternative music, or a new frontier in the evolution of classical music?

Well, I think that they, like all great musicians, are a culmination of respect for a lot of different genres and a lot of different periods of music. I think all the best music isn’t necessarily the most timely, it also happens to be a nod to great singer/songwriters of the past, so for instance that’s why I think the latest Radiohead stuff tends to be topical for its own sake, and it’s more about Thom Yorke’s laptop than it is his songwriting skills, and yet when you strip away the production and you have, for instance as you do the BBC versions of King Of Limbs, and you realize that these are great songs before Thom starts [working] with them, and you realize that “Give Up The Ghost” is very firmly in tradition and gives respect to a musician like Neil Young. So that’s music that’s not only contemporary, it also evolves the great songwriting tradition that comes before it. I think that they can be their own worst enemy if they’re trying to push the envelope; in my mind it can start failing in a pretty remarkable way. If they just allow the music to be a little bit more organic, then I think they’re still at the top of their form. I don’t think there’s anybody in the alternative genre that even comes near them in terms of songwriting quality or musical interest as far as I’m concerned.

Would you agree with the notion that they’re currently the Biggest Band in the World?

Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. There are probably more popular bands, but the popular bands are those that I think are big for their own sake. Bands like U2 have sort of lost their way and become more profits than musicians, and I think they were making much better music when they started out. I think Coldplay is a very popular band, but they’re completely Radiohead lite. And also, given that this is a band that really doesn’t get a whole lot of radio play, unless you’re really searching for it, that this has all happened, and a world tour is sold out, based on people actively pursuing new material by this band. And no matter how they market themselves, if they’re marketing themselves, having a big record company do it, a pay–as–you–go sort of thing, it all works, because people have become so fiercely loyal to them. This is in a time where loyalty to a band is not as important as relativism, in other words you have dozens of website that say “If you like Radiohead, you’ll like Kings Of Leon,” and then kids are going out and buying Kings Of Leon just based on the recommendation, or the relative beep being made by some sort of music website. There are a lot of people who are listening not to hear the newest record by their favorite band, they’re hoping to hear the newest thing and be on top of the curve. The fact of the matter is that Radiohead sort of stands alone. They’re not really people who are extraordinarily generous in their stage shows—they’re not like R.E.M. who have had supporting acts who have similar or comparable fanbase, Modest Mouse and the National—these are people who ended up onstage with R.E.M. during their stage shows. I defy you to name any one of Radiohead’s most recent back up bands who has kind of following at all. They’re really sort of on their own, they’re not really sort of a community-based entity, they’re really very sort of isolated I think. Thom’s trying to get through that by embracing the remix situation, and that’s a good thing; it’s good to bring worldwide attention of Radiohead’s magnitude to some artists that wouldn’t have that kind of attention otherwise. I think that’s where they do some of their community service.

What do you think about the recent surfacing of bands that claim the label of chamber pop?


I think there’s a lot of them, though I think it comes more out of the folk tradition then it does out of Radiohead, but I think Radiohead has been instrumental in—well, like Stravinsky. Stravinsky never wrote a symphony for a regular symphony orchestra, he would write each piece and designate it to a particular instrumentation, and for instance it’s been a longtime coming for Radiohead to add a second drummer, because you had Thom Yorke’s embarrassing beat-boxing and occasional sitting down on the drum kit, which is just a terrible idea, but now you realize that this was a filling out of the texture that was really a longtime coming. Really since, I guess, Hail To The Thief, it’s been something they’ve been working towards. But I think it’s not necessarily a trend they’ve been ahead of, but something since Kid A when they realized, “Well gosh, the stuff we’re putting on disc is stuff we may not even be able to perform live.” It’s like Johnny Greenwood saying they had to become the best Radiohead cover band because they didn’t know how to bring the stuff into a live venue. You have a lot of other bands that are much more sort of, off-city-limits types who have come into the fore. I forget who’s the guy who’s the lead singer who has a whole 13-piece band behind him, something Zero, I don’t who I’m thinking of, but there’s the National as well. But yeah, the banjo stuff and Arcade Fire having violins and stuff like that. The Rentals are also a great example of using more traditional instruments, and actually at the service of really great songwriting. I wouldn’t put [Radiohead] at the head of that trend, but I think they are exemplars of writing each song for a specific instrumentation that the song dictates.

So on Shuffle.Play.Listen., a lot of the music errs melodically on the melancholy side of things. Is that an intentional choice mood wise, or do you just tend to enjoy that type of music more?

I think it’s probably just my Irish heritage. I don’t think we’re going to see any Carpenters covers, or things like that. I tend to be drawn more towards dark, turgid music, classically or otherwise. That’s the kind of literature I respond to, the kind of film I respond to, the kind of art I respond to, that kind of thing. And speaking of which, “Arpeggi” is a good example of a piece that started out in a very particular and very classical venue, that eventually became a much simplified version for a pop performance. For instance, the version of “Arpeggi” that our version is based on comes from, I believe the first performance of the song was at the Ether Festival in Northern England, in Leeds I think, and that was Thom singing over a chamber orchestra of strings, winds and a couple of synthesizers. I don’t have video, but I remember listening to the track and liking it very much, and basing a piano version on that song. And of course, they weren’t touring with an orchestra, so it became a more simplified vamp for guitars, and also eschewing a more dreamy, sort of lack of rhythm, they put a beat behind it; I think their expediencies are sometimes improvements, sometimes aren’t, but I think they all tend to gravitate towards the idea that these are all really great song and they can actually stand and embrace different treatments. That’s why people will buy an album of remixes, that’s why people will buy and download my versions of Radiohead songs, that’s why people will seek out different versions of Radiohead songs that they have performed over the years—like “Lift,” which appeared in ’97/’98 as a sort of up-tempo number, and then came back later as a very sort of slow thing, that I know from talking to Thom, he thought didn’t really work. It’s like old wine, new bottles; the song is the song remains the main thing.

How do you transition to playing these songs live? Do you improvise at all?

There are some pieces that have, at the base of them, quite a lot of improvisation. The John McLaughlin track, “Lotus On Irish Streams” is a completely improvised thing. There is a melody and harmony that we share, but it’s really just a John McLaughlin lite; we will retain harmony, but it’s a completely improvised piece. With the Blonde Redhead pieces, and Arcade Fire’s “In The Backseat” has a largely improvised coda. I think, as a matter of fact, when Arcade Fire does it, the sort of fading away improv section accounts for about a third of the song’s length. So we do that there, we do that in “Misery Is A Butterfly” a little bit, “Pyramid Song” is fairly well written out; there isn’t a lot of improvisation there. It’s really tough to actually keep on top of the rhythm and make sure the rhythm is absolutely right, because it has that sort of, against-the-beat feel a lot of the time. But most of the stuff is written out, it’s rather painstaking, but most of it is quite written out. The difference between recording it and performing it takes several different guises. For instance, when we were in the recording studio we had massive amounts of different microphone configurations, and we were basically sitting and facing each other, so when that was playing it was really playing directly into my ear. That’s rarely the place when you’re playing a concert. The first big change when we go to a concert hall is that he has a microphone for his cello, which gives him a little bit more presence, and the availability of a little different reverb depending on the room, and in the recording studio that kind of amplification and slightly large room-feel can be taken care of in a very subtle mix. When we go do a live performance on NPR, for instance, it’s not a great idea to do the amplification thing again; it just mucks things up a little bit, but again you have the microphone set right in front of the cello, and the mix can be ameliorated to make sure that, it’s not just a matter of Matt being heard, it’s a matter of really wanting to have him intimately connected to the listener’s ear, so that we aim for all this amplification and or mixing to that degree.

What is it like to transcribe all the songs? I assume it’s a very complex, painstaking process?

It tends to be; you know some things take a quite a while to do. Luckily, when I decide to make a transcription or arrangement of these, it’s mostly because I’ve listened to it and lived with it and played it in my head about 800 times, and about 500 times I think there’s a way I can make it work on piano. Then, when that kicks in, it’s a matter of, I have to do that and nothing else for a couple of days. I’m usually preparing classical repertoire for concerts and learning music for other concerts, and when I’m doing an arrangement I can’t just set aside a couple of hours of my work day, I really have to immerse myself in it. That makes for long workdays, but I have, at the end of sometimes three days, something I can practice, learn and perform. Other times, depending on the complexity of the material, it’s taken me I think even two weeks to get my first draft together of my arrangement for “2 2 = 5” by Radiohead; I think “Paranoid Android” took a week to get on paper. “Let Down” was a fairly complex song, but something that I really didn’t have to create any new material for; a lot of the material, as far as painstaking transcription work, has to do with “what do I do on the piano to approximate or emulate the drums and bass,” and the overtones and clangers sound of the electric guitar. That involves adding notes, or adding extensions to the harmony that aren’t necessarily there except as a halo in the sound, but on the piano you may have to make those kind of adjustments and illusions. “Let Down” was just a matter of getting down the constituent parts of the song and making them happen in a pianistic framework that made sense. But that took me all of two days, just a matter of getting down the parts. “2   2 = 5” was a much more complex thing, and I’m just working on a piece by John Hassell now that involves a fair amount of reharmonization and lots of improv stuff, which I can improv, but then I make very serious choices about what stays and what goes. So, some things take longer than others, but it’s a rather painstaking process. I’m really trying to write down as much as I can. I really don’t trust myself to be a great improviser by any means.

Do you ever see parts of yourself reflected in the musicians you host on From The Top?
In the musicians or the music?

In the musicians themselves. Would you have considered yourself at that age a prodigy?

No, not by any means. It was something that I knew I was good at, something I wanted to pursue. A lot of these kids are a lot better than I was at that age, and classical music is just one thing of many that they’re passionate about, and they’re really not sure if they’re going to pursue it for their whole lives. So I’m just continually amazed at the breadth and depth of their interests and passions, and their dedication. I was watching a whole lot of TV when I was their age. They’re really magnificent kids, they’re really amazing. The one thing that I do see in myself, and that which I have allowed the general public to see of me, is that they tend to also tend to be interested in lots of different kinds of music, and that’s not something they feel they can share with their piano teacher or parents, necessarily, but since I’ve been interested in this kind of music, they can bond with me about this kind of stuff. That’s where we find a lot of commonality, but in terms of prodigious talent I am nowhere near that category.

Do you keep in touch with these kids that you host?

We run into them all the time. We tape the shows all over the country, and we bring kids from all over the country, and those that continue in music, we tend to bump into them because we and visit that music school, or they may be playing in an orchestra I’m playing in a concerto with, or we also keep in touch with them, they let us know what they’re up to and if they’re into a particularly community-based music program. We do a lot of promotion of what these kids are doing. We also do two or three shows a year where we actively reconnect with the kids and do a sort of “Where Are They Now?” show, and we play their past performances and do new interviews and talk about the careers they’re up to. Not all of them are into music, and a lot of them end up as, you know, nanobiology researchers at Harvard. It’s just that people are curious where they’ve ended up, and we’re curious, and keen on finding out what they’ve decided to dedicate their lives to. They’re all extraordinarily interesting kids, we run into them a bunch. I’m friends with a bunch of them on Facebook, so I can usually see what they’re up to there, I mentioned the Rentals, one of our kids played viola on the show and ended up as a session player in L.A., and now is basically co-band leader of the Rentals, and co-songwriter with Matt Sharp, so there are lots of places where these kids end up.

Do you think there is any credence to the concept that playing classical music to children makes them smarter vs. any other kind of complex, popular music?

I don’t think there’s any more complex popular music than classical music. I know there is a tradition and discipline behind classical music, and a certain trajectory in terms of a pedagogy in terms of how one learns an instrument or how one learns a style that I think involves a certain amount of immersion that I really don’t think is possible in popular music. I could talk about the former head of the conservatory where I went to school, Dr. Schuler, who was largely self-taught, but initially, and despite the fact that he ended up as active in jazz as he was in classical music, he started out studying classical music. I just think there’s more literature, there’s more information, there’s more discipline, there’s more technical expertise that is demanded from that music unless one is preternaturally dedicated and virtuosic on the guitar. I just don’t think it’s available to talk to that music as a training or a path. I do think that the act of learning how to read music or make these notations and interpret them into musical performances makes you smarter. That’s been documented.

by Alex Hosenball

View at Magnet Magazine

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