PopMatters: Matt Haimovitz / Christopher O’Riley: Shuffle.Play.Listen

February 07, 2012

Shuffle.Play.Listen – when an album name comes with such specific instructions, a larger point is trying to be made. And in the Matt Haimowitz/Christopher O’Riley case file, this means that indie pop can stand alongside 20th century classical music without a problem. Here are 27 tracks for cello and piano, largely arranged by O’Riley, which run the gamut of modern music to a degree that is almost too showy for its own good. Luckily, that’s not the case. The individual musicality of each performer, their chemistry as a duo, and the strength of the choice material rescues Shuffle.Play.Listen from a flaunting reputation and lays it down gently as a timeless sampler of “current” music (the stuff of the Y generation as well as their grandparents’) and why it is so vital.


For a collection that wants to be shuffled, it’s odd that this double album would come with any kind of format at all. The first disc focuses on classical music, though none of these selections are likely to be readily recognized by the indie community that O’Riley has been wooing with his Radiohead, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith tribute albums. This includes Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo Suite” for the Alfred Hitchcock milestone film, Leoš Janáček’s “Pohádka (Fairy Tale),” Bohuslav Martinů‘s “Variations on a Slovak Folksong,” Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango,” and Igor Stravinsky’s surprisingly conventional-sounding “Suite Italienne.” Haimovitz and O’Riley sequenced the “Vertigo Suite” so that it pokes up at the start, in the middle, and at the end of the CD. Names like Janáček and Martinů are not exactly household ones in the western hemisphere and Stravinsky is, for better or worse, tied to works like “The Rite of Spring” in our collective minds. So if anything, the first half of Shuffle.Play.Listen is something to go to school on. Be it the Baroque throwbacks of Stravinsky’s suite or the obvious romance of Martinů‘s fairy tale, the learning from and the enjoyment of this music is intertwined. Only Herrmann’s classic ‘50s score will give most listeners mental reprieve, conjuring up images of Jimmy Stewart following Kim Novak through the streets of San Francisco.

The second disc is the “pop” side, though we must use that term loosely. True, you are continually treated to O’Riley’s Radiohead and Cocteau Twins fascinations with which Haimowitz is eager to go along for the ride. But alongside the indie nods to Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead and A Perfect Circle, they toss in two songs from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album The Inner Mounting Flame (both listed simply as John McLaughlin covers). But the fact remains that it simply doesn’t matter that the second half isn’t purely pop. For example, the middle stretch of the album doesn’t seem to throw up any big red flags, a la, Hey Everyone, We’re Changing Style! Mahavishnu’s “The Dance of the Maya” scurries off after its eight-minute flurry followed by a somber cello leading the way through “Misery Is A Butterfly.” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” sneaks in while hardly announcing its arrival; or its stay, for that matter. “Fotzepolitic” then asserts itself, disguised rather convincingly as a piece of classical music. In those four tracks, so much musical ground is covered in terms of era as well as geography. Yet the flow feels all so natural.

All this talk about the album’s continuity and seamless blending of musical genres might make one forget that Haimowitz and O’Riley are such skilled musicians. The fact alone that they can pull this off should be testament enough, but the engrossing nature of the overall listen takes the aptitude talk one step further. Haimowitz and O’Riley are not interpreters; they are messengers carrying goods from one body of enlightened masses to another and back again. Whether it’s Arcade Fire’s “Empty Room” getting the rolling 16th-note treatment or the gentle melodic hand-off of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” from cello to piano, this is the sound of music being roused for those who didn’t know it was there.

You know things are going as planned when O’Riley’s NPR staff gets an e-mail from a classical music fan asking “Who is this Mr. Head and where can I find more of his beautiful music?”

by John Garratt

View at PopMatters

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