The Examiner: The Man Who Reinvented Radiohead Comes To Boston

February 06, 2012

Christopher O’Riley, prolific musician and host of the NPR program From The Top is joining cellist Matt Haimovitz for a tour in support of their latest collaboration, Shuffle, Play, Listen. The pair are set to take the stage of Cambridge venue Regatta Bar on Wednesday, February 8th. I had a chance to sit down with Chris to discuss the new CD, his musical obsession with alt-rockers Radiohead, tomorrow’s proteges, and the unexpected longevity of his acclaimed NPR radio show:

DG: How did a nice Irish boy from Evanston, IL, wind up at the New England Conservatory of Music?

CO’R: At that point in my life, I was playing jazz professionally, but pursuing my classical studies as well. When I got to NEC, I realized that the history of jazz was something I had not been immersed in, so I felt if I were going to “reinvent the wheel” as it were, I needed to explore the masters of the genre. It was Gunther Schuller (of NEC) who got me to realize the two genres (jazz and classical) need not be mutually exclusive.

DG: What would you say was the most important lesson you took away from that experience?

CO’R: Gunther’s inspiration showed me to look at all genres of music as “serious music.” Gunther also allowed me to study the various structures and qualities of the individual composer, and apply that knowledge in my own work.


DG: I discovered your piano playing quite by accident, when I heard you on NPR performing a very intriguing piano sonata. I was taken aback when the announcer told me I had just heard “Let Down” by Radiohead. Later, I uncovered your incredible album, True Love Waits. How did your appreciation of the band evolve into an album of all-Radiohead songs?

CO’R: I actually started those as “break pieces” between segments on From The Top – it was never the idea of doing a project. In the beginning, I left the arrangements to chance. But then we got a flood of email coming in: like you, they presupposed it was a classical sonata and asked, “Who is this Mr. Head and where can I find more of his beautiful music?” At that point, I went on NPR and did a program performing songs by Nick Drake and Radiohead alongside works by Shoshakovich and Mozart. That show ended up being linked globally to about 120 rock and Radiohead-related websites. That’s how Sony Music entered the picture. When it came time to record, I wanted to bring my understanding of classical composition and arranging to the table, and not just vamp and improvise my way through it.

DG: Were you surprised that Radiohead fans have taken so warmly to your arrangements?

CO’R: A large body of Radiohead fans acknowledge that this is great music – they hear a tune which they recognize, yet in this “remix culture” of ours, folks are becoming more and more receptive to artistic re-interpretation, which in turn, allows people like me an entree into that culture as well.

DG: What is it about Radiohead songs in particular, that you feel lends itself so well to a classical treatment?

CO’R: From a strictly “classical snob” perspective, I find Radiohead writes consistently great music – ever since I heard OK Computer, I have collected their entire repertoire. Their music appeals to me in the same way great classical music does: it’s the intertwining harmony, the nuances, the textures…..weaving vocal counterpoint. Even though only one member of the group actually reads music, it seems to be a genuinely collaborative effort, in a compositional sense – and that is where the intricacy lies.

DG: How come most “classical treatments” of rock songs well, suck?

CO’R: Most of those projects springboard from an idea of doing one or two popular rock songs with a classical feel, and not much else. There are exceptions, like Apocalyptica (the cello quartet who reinterpret the catalog of Metallica) who are uniformly excellent. But just because one or two tunes appear to work, do you really need say, a whole album of Cure songs by a string quartet? I’ve done one Cure song myself, but that’s because that one particular tune seemed to work. But I would never set out to do a classical tribute album for one artist. In fact, my last album in this vein (2009’s Out Of My Hands) featured songs by a variety of artists: Tears For Fears, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, et al. I hate to say it, but the failure of those albums stems from a mercenary attitude of trying to cash in on a gimmick, and putting the concept before the actual quality of the material being covered.

DG: Is it true that you compared the work of the late Elliot Smith (another artist whose songs you’ve recorded) to songwriting legend Cole Porter?

CO’R: Absolutely! I feel that in the canon of American songwriters, Smith is right up there with Porter and Gershwin. I’m quite passionate about that.

DG: Give me the backstory on how your popular NPR series From The Top came into being?

CO’R: Executive Producers Gerald Slavet and Jennifer Hurley-Wales (both high-ranking trustees at NEC) got the idea for the show following the restoration of NEC’s Jordan Hall. The two of them thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if we followed Garrison Keillor’s footsteps, and used this venue to showcase the incredible talent of these musical prodigies?” It also allowed a classical audience to interact with these students, and share in their personal stories, struggles and triumphs.

DG: Did you have any idea the series would become as enormously successful as it is?

CO’R: People initially posed the question, “What are you going to do when you run out of students from Julliard Prep and Lafayette?” Then the discussion turned to the travesty of music programs being the first ones cut from school curricula across the country. This has resulted in the proliferation of private music instructors to fill in the gap. It’s mind-boggling and gratifying to see (and hear) the level of professional instruction that’s taking place in these environments. I feel fortunate that we are able to showcase those kids as well, and shine a little light on the tremendous contribution these instructors are providing not just to our program, but to the nation as a whole.

DG: Now let’s turn our attention now to your newly-released album, Shuffle, Play, Listen – a collaboration with cellist Matt Haimovitz…

CO’R: Matt and I have similarly eclectic tastes when it comes to music, and we came up with the idea of acknowledging the “iPod mode” of listening – juxtaposing disparate genres and unfamiliar pieces with more contemporary popular music. This followed into our concert series as well – combining my pop arrangements with more traditional classical pieces seemed the natural progression of things, given our mutual appreciation for both. We ended with two CDs worth of material due to the wealth of songs Matt and I brought to the table: John McLaughlin (whom we both love), Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead, Cocteau Twins, A Perfect Circle, Radiohead of course – “Pyramid Song” was one of the first pieces we recorded. It was the also the 100th birthday of the late Bernard Herrmann – so I thought movements from his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo would sound great alongside the classical composers on Disc 1.

DG: Back in 2010 I heard a live performance of you and Matt doing “Pyramid Song”, and I thought to myself, you guys have quite a chemistry going – you should do an album together….

CO’R: Well, this recording is the proof in the pudding. Matt and I also collaborated on the song choices which ended up on the album. Some pieces, like “Pyramid Song” presented a challenge: I told Thom Yorke that it was the quintessential piano/vocal song, and attempting to approximate his vocal line on piano wouldn’t work. Matt plays what is arguably the most vocal instrument in an orchestra, so that duet was essentially a slam-dunk thanks to his playing. The songs of James Maynard Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle) also require a strong vocal line in the arrangement, which is where Matt comes in.

DG: Hence the inclusion of APC’s “Three Libras” on Shuffle, Play, Listen. When I first heard the original, I was impressed by the symphonic element present within the piece, so I am not surprised that you and Matt picked that tune to interpret.

CO’R: Exactly right.

DG: What can folks who come to your gig this Wednesday expect from the two of you?

CO’R: I think the Vertigo Suite will naturally be one of the highlights, as well as pieces by fusion guitarist John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra). Matt and I will also perform solo pieces – Matt doing something from American film composer John Corigliano, and I will most likely be doing the title track from trumpeter Jon Hassell’s latest album, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street. I’ve been friends with Jon for some time, and I’m a big fan of his music. On “Last Night”, you’ve got Jon’s harmonized trumpet (very Debussy-ian in its approach – I think he actually samples him.) Then you’ve got this low raga-like string bed, which Matt could probably replicate. I think I’ve come up with an arrangement that Jon would appreciate (he thinks I should call it something more than a mere arrangement of one of his works.) Frankly, I’d compare my take on his piece to viewing a Georgia O’Keefe painting, then going to Santa Fe and seeing what the rocks actually look like.

DG: I’ve been following Jon Hassell for some time now – I especially dig his more recent works, where he’s incorporated sampling alongside his complex trumpet arrangements. I think he is one of jazz’s most underrated composers.

CO’R: I’m sure he’d appreciate hearing that, and I’d agree with you. I’ll pass your compliment along.

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz will be at Regatta Bar on Wednesday, February 8th. Show starts at 7:30PM . For more information and tickets: (617) 395-7757

by David Gerard

View at The Examiner

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