Christopher O’Riley | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, May 23rd, 2024  

Christopher O’Riley

The Acclaimed Classical Pianist Tackles the Works of Radiohead and Elliott Smith

Jun 02, 2005 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

Christopher O’Riley isn’t your typical indie rock fan. He might have a weakness for all things obscure and intricate, but where the average listener might sit down and marvel at the complexity of a Radiohead arrangement, O’Riley can pull up the piano bench and tap out his own arrangement. For the last three years, the world renowned arranger and performer has been doing just that, stepping away from the conventions of the classical music he champions on his PRI radio show From the Top and performs in the world’s greatest concert halls and fearlessly pouring himself into transforming the bodies of work of artists not widely recognized by academia: Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Elliott Smith.

With Hold Me to This: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead, O’Riley translates the Oxford quintet into solo piano compositions, rebuilding the songs into entirely different sonic edifices. His first collection of Radiohead arrangements has been transcribed and combined with the art of Stephen Byram for the beautifully rendered True Love Waits (200 pages, available at, giving every aspiring Radiohead transcriber their chance to sit down and try their hand at “Knives Out” and “Karma Police.” Oh yeah, and when not working on the “Shostacovich Etudes and Fugues,” he’s currently plowing through the catalogue of Elliott Smith in his free time. Frankly, we’re lucky he had the time to allow us to pick his brain.

Under the Radar: So, how did the recording of Hold Me to This differ from the first set of Radiohead compositions that you did?

Christopher O’Riley: It differs…I think it’s a progression. Basically, the idea behind it was nothing more than the fact that I had done the arrangements for the first one (2002’s True Love Waits), and in the mean time I’ve been doing all kind of arrangements of different artists, Radiohead among them. And it was just that there was an album’s worth of material of Radiohead, so I decided to do that. There had been stuff, things like “Paranoid Android,” that I had already been touring with when True Love Waits came out, and it seemed that people were very anxious to have those on disc. It does seem rather obsessive, to say the least, but there has been other stuff that I’ve been doing.

UTR: How’d you go about choosing which tracks would appear on this collection?

Christopher: I never go about choosing them; they choose me. The nice thing about the new one is that I’m a little bit more confident in the types of ways that I arrange things and try to find a specific texture unique to the song. I think there were a couple of songs on True Love Waits that suffered from a sameness of treatment texturally, and I think there’s a lot more variety on the new record.

UTR: So what are the things that draw you to certain Radiohead tracks?

Christopher: The same things that draws me to any material that I work on: texture, for one, and harmony, for another. So one of the nice things about Radiohead is that you have five members of the band not just chucking away on chords, but with each contributing a very specific part of the puzzle to every song. So it’s not just melody and harmony; it’s really counterpoint—the interweaving, the voices intermingling.

UTR: Do you think that most pop listeners pick up on that distinction?

Christopher: It’s hard to say. I don’t like thinking of pop listeners or classical listeners as being separate people. I like to think that, particularly now, with the much more porous availability of all kinds of music through the internet, that people listen to whatever turns them on. People listen to whatever they like to listen to. That said, the people that listen to my record, quite a few of them are Radiohead fans first and foremost, but quite a few of them are also those who argue whether Hail to the Thief was a successful record or whether it’s just a collection of really good songs that they much prefer to hear in their live versions. In that case, if you honor the memory of the songs, then you’ll be curious to hear how someone else might play them. So there’s a certain amount of interest in that way.

In one way, it’s sort of universal. I mean, I played a classical recital in Germany some years ago, and I realized that it wasn’t the audience’s reaction or the applause that I was concerned with; it was a quality of silence that I was getting while I was playing. And I thought, well, gee, these people certainly know this Schubert sonata – they know how it goes. They didn’t come here to hear that. They came here to hear what I would do with it. I mean, I’m not a composer, really. I don’t write my own music; I interpret. Whether it’s classical music or Radiohead or Elliott Smith – that’s what I do. But in the same vein, when I played an all Radiohead concert at UC Berkeley, I felt the same thing. I felt like, well, these people are listening because they know the vocabulary of the songs; they know how these songs go. They’ve heard them done 50 different ways by the band themselves. They’re not listening to hear how the songs go, but to hear how it goes under my hand. So, yeah, I think people listen discerningly.

I think it’s actually an advantage playing something that is familiar to the listener to begin with. The other advantage is playing it for people in a classical context who don’t know Radiohead from a hole in the head. They just hear something that’s beautiful and they want to know more about it.

UTR: Do you think there’s a stigma against rock music in the classical community?

Christopher: Oh, I’m sure there is. There’s a stigma against me for playing any kind of rock music. But there’s a stigma against anything outside of the narrow framework of the classical industry. Look at classical radio. Classic radio is dying of its own accord, not because there is a lack of interest in classical music, but because stations have market-researched themselves into a situation where they’re playing nothing but classical sound bites. If I turn on a classical radio station just about anywhere in the country, I’ll damn sure shut it off, and I know the stuff. So, they’re shooting themselves in the foot, really. There used to be stations—and this is true of really good pop stations, too – where you were listening, but you didn’t know what you were listening to, because it’s not Top 40. And you pull the car over and listen for the set list because you want to know what they were playing because you liked it so much. There’s no sense of discovery on classical radio anymore, and there’s very little of it in popular music radio, aside from some college stations. It’s a big waste.

UTR: So do you sometimes feel like an artist without a home, like an artist caught between two different scenes?

Christopher: I’m kind of caught between, but I’m also straddling a lot. I mean, there still are people who will hire me to play classical concertos with orchestras and classical recitals, and I have my classical radio show, From the Top, which does very well, and I think it’s doing a fair amount to encourage the listening of classical music and enjoyment of classical music, first and foremost. So, I’m getting by. It’s not like I’m left out in the cold. It’s just because I’m doing so many different things, I see the hesitation and the mixed feelings about constituencies being mixed. And it bores me, really.

UTR: So what was the reaction of your peers when you started playing these Radiohead songs?

Christopher: My peers by and large really like it. They’re always going to be wary of the crossover stigma, but crossover is something that has been happening for over 600 years. It’s just with commercialism that it has become a dirty word. But a lot of composers – Beethoven and Mozart used to sit down and jam on the popular opera tunes of the day. And Franz Lizst, a Hungarian composer, used to do whole big virtuoso vehicles based on Hungarian folk songs. So music that’s in the air is fair game, and people have been doing it for a long time. It’s only recently that, God forbid, somebody makes a record—like Bernstein or something that’s not particularly a crossover at all—and it sells a bunch of copies, that people resent that. Crossover, for me, has never been a dirty word, because the person that has made the most hay out of it is the flute player James Galway. And it looks like every record of his is some head-scratching boardroom decision. Like “What genre can we milk, what niche market can we gyp this time?” And I know from knowing him as a person and having worked with him, I know he just plays what he loves. He just happens to love a lot of different kinds of music, and that’s what he does. And he’s the most generous and genuine musician to perform with and be friends with, so I was disabused of that cynical opinion.

And friends of mine that know me know the same thing. I just play what I like and I wouldn’t do it otherwise. The best of all really was this Austrian pianist, now living in the United States for many years, named Claude Frank. And this was the first guy to record the Beethoven sonatas on LP, somebody that’s a dyed in the wood traditionalist, and his daughter is a friend of mine, Pamela Frank. She’s a violinist. They were both at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago where I did one of my first Radiohead recitals, and Claude Frank comes backstage, and he’s the one who said, “I don’t know Radiohead from a hole in the head, but I love the music. I love the arrangements, and I love the playing.” Now he had no business having a new idea in his head, but he was cool with it. That really meant the most to me.

UTR: Have you found that most responses have been that way?

Christopher: Yeah. There are some who respond by saying, “Why should I listen to you play a Radiohead track when I can download it in two minutes and listen to them play it?” That’s fine. It’s fine.

UTR: So where do you think Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke rank among the great 20th century composers?

Christopher: I’m ranking them right up there. I have my choice. I can take “The Ligeti Etudes” off of my piano shelf, and say, “Yeah, that’s what I want to learn.” Or I can say, “I really want to play [Radiohead B-side] ‘Cuttooth’.” Right now, that’s really what I’m doing. Well, right now, I’m doing a lot of Elliott Smith. But basically I’m just doing the music that I love, and the music that I love right now happens to be along the arrangements of these songs that I listen to constantly, more than the standard repertoire. And it’s not that I don’t hear new music in the classical vein that I don’t like, but it just doesn’t get me going as much as the other stuff. The big classical project that I’m in the midst of right now is playing all of the Shostakovich “Preludes and Fugues.” And it’s basically a two-evening event, because Shostakovich’s 100th birthday is in 2006. To me, that’s the most important body of piano music of the 20th century – that one work. So I’m not out of the loop, it’s just that I’m not going to be playing music that doesn’t really turn me on. I just spend too much time at the piano to be playing and working on music that I feel half-assed about. I’m spoiled.

UTR: So what do you think sets Radiohead apart from their peers?

Christopher: It’s very strange. In addition to the concerts, I occasionally play in schools to junior high school students and high school students. And they don’t know Radiohead either. And I’m realizing that I thought it was an age thing, but it’s not; it’s a marketplace thing. They’re basically an indie band. Or an alternative band with more of an indie feeling than anything else. They’re sui generis – they are themselves. They are the band that other thinking people copy, and they are what the Beatles were in their day, in terms of creativity and in terms of making the benchmark without saying, “Oh, gee, let’s revolutionize pop music today.” They’re a very disparate group of people who I know for a fact happen to really enjoy the different things that each of them has to offer the main group. I don’t know of any other collection of musicians that has that kind of talent pool available to it within itself.

I just watched the Metallica documentary [laughs]. Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s like, “Well just this time we’re going to put a record together by sitting around in a room…” Oh, God, it’s amazing what people listen to… But anyway, I think it’s mostly a marketplace distinction, because most people don’t hear Radiohead because they’re not playing them on the radio. Other people react to Thom’s voice badly, thinking that he’s a whiner, but I think he’s really not a heart-on-sleeve lyricist. He’s a very expressive singer, but I think of his dark lyric sense to be more of generalized, depersonalized – that’s not to say impersonal – observer, or as he has said, being someone how overhears conversations on the bus and putting that kind of thing in the song. He really has an ear for that. So it’s very universalist, but the universalism that people usually react to is that “Gee, the music is really kind of a downer.” So, fine, listen to Britney Spears if that is really what you want. So, all in all, in my life I have always been drawn to the fringe. Even when I was into pop music as a kid, I had a band and was doing classical stuff, but I was always drawn to stuff that was on the outside, like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis, and it just went out from there. So Radiohead appeals to that outsider sensibility in that way. But, there again, they’re selling out arenas. It’s not like they’re some unknown act – they’re the biggest act in the world, arguably.

UTR: So what is it – the melodies, the arrangements, the writing – what is it that you find is so exceptional about them?

Christopher: I think, first and foremost, it’s the way that each of them contributes to the way the song goes. I’ve heard songs along the way, like a Thom Yorke solo demo, and then you hear it the way it comes out on the record. “Like Spinning Plates” is a good example. When they’re playing live, he’s playing it on the piano, and on the record, it’s this completely different animal, something completely unto itself. And that’s what happens when they all brainstorm. That’s probably the most exceptional thing about them. Because the songwriting is really solid, but also the sense of experimentation is exceptional, and the way the have the ability to be editors of each other’s ideas can’t really be taught or quantified. As far as songs that appeal to me and make me want to listen to them over and over again, harmony is something that usually gets me first and foremost. Melody, secondly. And texture. Harmony and texture are the two big ones. The lyrics are very important, but I have to turn a blind eye to them, because there’s nothing I can do with them. So, yeah, those are the things that really affect me about their songs.

That said, people always talk about the turn to techno that they’ve made over the last few years, but I insist that even from early on, they’ve always had this textural thing—that counterpoint has been there. It has always been five people contributing one particularly great idea to every song.

UTR: Right. Do you think they come across that deliberately? Or do you think it’s a very organic process, where that’s the dynamic that arises when they’re all in the same room?

Christopher: I’m sure of it. For instance, Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack came out last year, and he was doing a fair amount of publicity for that. And the band was taking a year off, but they spent a little time in the studio, and Jonny Greenwood said, “I enjoy what I’m doing now, but there’s no question in my mind that the five of us together are always going to be better than each of us on our own.” The one conversation that I had with Thom Yorke, he was consistently self-deprecating, saying things like, “’How to Disappear Completely’ is just a mediocre guitar and vocal song.” I said, “Well, that may or may not be the case. I don’t necessarily agree with you. But what Jonny puts over it with that quartertone cloud of strings makes it a unique song.” And Thom smiled at that. It was just that Jonny has that sophisticated classical music kind of pedigree, and Thom can’t read a note of music. And the two tend to meet rather explosively and in a genial way.

UTR: Do you think they have any recognition of how good they are as a band?

Christopher: Do you mean as themselves?

UTR: Yeah.

Christopher: Hmm. It’s hard to say. I know that friends of mine that have traveled around and seen them constantly, and they said, “Don’t be surprised if they hear your versions of their songs and say, ‘Gosh, why would he bother with us?” I know when I was talking to Thom he was endlessly self-deprecating. I’d say, “I’m doing ‘Lift’ – this Radiohead song from ’97 that they’d done live a few times and then later on in 2003 had totally revitalized into a different version.” I told him, “Well, I’m actually sticking with the ’97 version.” And he said, “Well that’s good, ‘cause the new one’s crap.” I said, “There are all these very piano-centric songs like “Pyramid Song” that I would never think of playing without you.” And he said, “You mean without me fucking it up.” Or “Gagging Order.” I said “Gagging Order” is great, and he did a double take. He said, “Nobody’s talking about that.” And I said, “Well, go on your website. You’ll see everybody is talking about it. It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve written since ‘True Love Waits’” And then he said, “Well, I never got the guitar playing right on it.” I told him, “You’re guitar playing is some of the best stuff. As a matter of fact, I play “Gagging Order” beside a Nick Drake song, and the guitar playing is what reminded me of it.” And he played some great stuff on “Karma Police” that night. People don’t think of him as a phenomenal guitar player, but he’s really great.

But anyway, I do get the sense that they’re terribly modest people by nature. That was sort of the whole premise behind Meeting People is Easy– the documentary. It was like Thom Yorke caught in the crosshairs of fame and really cringing, and the way Michael Stipe sort of brought him through that whole thing, and he came out the other end sort of feeling good about things. Of course, the first thing that people asked me after I met him backstage was, “Weren’t you scared to meet him?” And I said, “No. He was the most charming man I could imagine.” It was just two people talking about the music that they love. What could be easier? But most of the trouble that he has had is over people getting in his face. He’s not navel-gazing about fame anymore.

UTR: Do you think that they realize that they are setting the bar for what is rock music today?

Christopher: I couldn’t even speak to that. It would just be conjecture. I think that they have got to be conscious of that now. Whether that is something that makes them cringe or act out and say, “Well, let’s thumb our nose and fuck with the critics” – who knows? But they must have a sense that they’re at the cutting edge now.

UTR: Yeah. So when you’re arranging these songs, what elements of the songs do you focus on?

Christopher: I usually try to find a way in, and sometimes that’s the left hand figuration, sometimes that’s the accompaniment, and sometimes that’s the way that the harmony works. It’s usually just one idea that gets me in, and because there are two or three or four ideas in a song, to make them interweave and work together, I find a texture that works on the piano. The things that don’t work, I don’t do. There really isn’t a Radiohead song that I don’t like, but there are some that would sound very silly on the piano. There are some that wrote themselves. The more complex things like “2+2 = 5” and “Letdown” – Radiohead doesn’t even play “Letdown” anymore; it’s too hard to play. But those kinds of things have lots of ideas running and those were the easiest to work on. “2+2 = 5” I knew was going to be a ball-breaker, but it was not for lack of ways to get into the song. So sometimes it depends. Some of their songs are pretty simple. “How I Made My Millions” is a fairly simple song, but it’s a beautiful one, and the piano accompaniment that Thom does became the basis of that arrangement, and it was just how the harmonies and the sentiment of the song spoke to me, and that became much more of a developed thing. I think on the new record, I’m much more apt to step out on my own a little bit. Everybody who heard the first record said, “You’ve got to do ‘Talk Show Host,’” and I had no idea what they were talking about. I appreciated it, but it was strange to me that so many people were saying that I had to do it. I mean, it is a popular Radiohead song, but I was surprised that so many people said I would do it well. I heard something on the Romeo and the Juliet soundtrack where Baz Lurhmann had actually done it himself, had taken the guitar lick from “Talk Show Host” and overlaid it with oboe and clarinet for a harmonic recasting, and I thought, oh, this is interesting. He changed the harmonies a bit and shaded them differently, prismatically, and I thought that was a way in, so it became a sort of “Take Show Host Remix.” So I’m doing a little bit more these days with messing around with the songs.

UTR: Sure. So how are the Elliott Smith arrangements going?

Christopher: Really well. I mean, I have a whole half-concert at UCLA coming up at the end of May, and I’ve done 14 arrangements, but there are a good 18 more on my shortlist that I want to do. I’ve been really working hard on concerts these days, and the arrangement process is something that I have to really work on day and night. I can’t give up the chops for a day just now. I have to be practicing. It’s going to be another week or so before I can even start again. But the last time I was working on them I did “I Didn’t Understand” in about a day, and there was a week where I kicked out three or four of them, because they’ve been knocking around in my head for a while now. So now in my iPod I’ve got the “On the Go” playlist stocked with about 80 songs and versions of songs that I want to do, and I’m listening to it constantly. So even when I’m not arranging, I’m sort of working on the process. So the next time that I have a little bit of time it will be time to work on them. I think by the time the UCLA date rolls around, I’ll probably have another similarly bad marketing situation where I have two Elliott Smith CD’s on my hands, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

UTR: So what about his compositions do you find attractive?

Christopher: Well, the same things really – harmony, melody, texture. I mean, texture not in a scholastic sense, but because Elliott was self-produced and a multi-instrumentalist there is an inherent texturalization in his songs. Even the studio versions at times are striving at the bounds at what is possible with a four-track machine. And then you get that sense again with the solo live versions. Just like Beethoven was always asking for 20% more than the piano could do, I think Elliott asked the sound environment to provide 20% more than what was possible at the moment. So that makes it very inspiring for me to work on his music. Also the fact that every live version of each song is different and lends a different emotional resonance to the song—it’s a sort of depth that I can delve into as far as making my own arrangement. I love working on Elliott’s music.

UTR: Do you tend to find his melodies or lyrics more striking?

Christopher: Yeah, well, the melodic writing is bar-none; among American songwriters he’s the best there is. And lyrically, it’s heartbreaking. A whole package.

UTR: Did you know him at all?
Christopher: No. I never got to meet him. It really makes me mad.

UTR: Do you think he’s someone who’s eventually going to find more notoriety in this country than he has right now?

Christopher: I hope he does. I hope I have something to do with that. Harmonia Mundi are the people who are putting out the new record, and when we started talking about the deal, the next record was going to be something on Radiohead. And I told them what I was working on, and they went over to Europe and said, “Nobody knows who Elliott Smith is, but they love Nick Drake. Could you do a Nick Drake album?” I said, “Well, yeah, I could.” And luckily there was a big piece in the New York Times about Elliott, and it mentioned sort of snidely, “…after gussying up Radiohead, Christopher O’Riley is apparently at work on an Elliott Smith CD.” And Harmonia Mundi at that point said, “Well, I guess we should do an Elliott Smith CD.” (laughs) So, one of the other things that I’m doing that makes me feel very good is that there are people who are sort of interested in what I do, and if I am then introducing them to repertories that they don’t know – which I know is the case with Radiohead and is starting to be the case with Elliott Smith – they’ll be totally bowled away when they hear the real thing.

UTR: As an arranger, is it difficult to find that deep humanity and sadness in an Elliott Smith song and reproduce that on a piano?

Christopher: No. It’s not like the lyrics and the harmony are separate. There is a pathos within the music. If I really felt that there was no way for the music itself to carry the weight emotionally of the tune, I wouldn’t do it. There are disconnects; there are songs that are really wrenching lyrically but sometimes have a jingle kind of quality to them. I’m going to be working on “Coast to Coast,” which has this heavy opening and then sort of a jingle refrain. And that can also be a tough thing or an interesting, ironic thing. I think that’s in the music, but it does take a toll. At that point, between the lyrics and the music there is an intentional disconnect, and that’s going to be very difficult to bring across. Most songs where that disconnect happens throughout the song, I usually just leave it alone. There are songs that I’d like to do, but I probably won’t. They’d just sound too silly.

UTR: So which have been more difficult to do – the Radiohead or the Elliott Smith arrangements?

Christopher: Hard to say, really. The hard ones – the ones that I don’t think I’ll be able to do – I don’t do. And the ones that I find my way into, I’ll get there. Some are harder than others. The first Elliott Smith song that I ever heard was “Speed Trials,” and it was only in a batch of the last four that I was working on – which I think were “Speed Trials,” “Independence Day,” “Satellite,” and “Everything Means Nothing to Me,” – and three out of four of them were pretty good, but “Speed Trials,” I was just horrified by how horrible it was. But, that’s been a couple of months now, and now I’m listening to it all the time again, and I think I’ve found a way in. It will probably be the first one that I work on when I have the time. I will do it; I just didn’t it do it right the first time.

UTR: Do you find yourself gravitating toward any particular period of Elliott Smith’s catalogue?

Christopher: No. It’s all over the map. The first one I did was “Between the Bars,” and it was just after I got my iPod and before I knew how to use shuffle play or anything like that. I was working on another one from Either/Or, and I swear to God I was in the middle of working on this piece, and all of a sudden “Roman Candle” came up. And it had been something that I had been thinking of working on, but it hadn’t been on the playlist or anything, and it was like, “Ok, Elliott. I’ll work on “Roman Candle” now.” It was kind of spooky, and I decided, well, I should work on this. And it taught me a lot, because it’s actually one of the more complicated arrangements that I’ve done of Elliott’s music, and it’s one of the hardest to play, but it gave me a good inroad into his music.

UTR: Yeah. So now that you’ve been working on these different artists, what has surprised you about the process of transforming their music?

Christopher: The thing that surprises me the most is the way that a song will all of a sudden grab me, and I love having that feeling about any music that I hear. When it’s a matter of being blessed to the extent that I’m not sitting around wondering what song to work on next but have a list of 50 that I want to do, it’s nice to have that feeling of recognition of “Yes, I really love this song, and I bet I could play it really well, too, if I really work on it.” It’s the constantly being surprised by something that I hadn’t thought of before, and that doesn’t come from me but comes from there being great music out there. Whether it’s Cocteau Twins or Nine Inch Nails or Interpol or whatever.

UTR: So are there are any modern musicians that you’d like to take a crack at next?

Christopher: Well, there’s a lot of Elliott Smith. I’ve been doing some Nick Drake. Then there are other people whose music I really like. I’ve done one Tori Amos song and I might do a few others. R.E.M. – I’ve done a couple. Cocteau Twins – I’ve done one, and I’d like to do another. Nine Inch Nails. There’s an Interpol song I have my eye on. But, the other thing about being a snobby classical music listener is that when you pick up a Mahler symphony there are no weak tracks. There really aren’t that many bands out there that make great records – Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead. Elliott’s last record was incredible. But I get a little bit perturbed when a band puts out a record with three good songs and the rest is crap.


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