I had the chance to talk to Christopher O’Riley in advance of his performance at LACMA later this week. O’Riley is an accomplished classically trained pianist known for crossover arrangements of rock songs—particularly Radiohead. We talked about appropriation in music and the visual arts, song structure, and crossover audiences.
What will you be performing at LACMA?
A few Radiohead songs. Also Tori Amos, Terry Riley, Raymond Scott, Thomas Adés, Nirvana, the Cure. Also some Ravel.
You’re well known for your piano arrangements of Radiohead songs. What is it about Radiohead?
Most of what draws me to any music is the combination of harmony and texture. Radiohead has an arresting harmonic language the way they choose chords that go into their music. I’ve always found it engaging. They also excel at the creation of a large-scale musical texture, which comes from the interweaving of different voices, different parts. A lot of pop music can be vertically oriented—crashing chords. Just about every Radiohead song is made up of an intermingling of voices. There is still verse and refrain in the overall structure, but there’s also a thread, a weave that leads you through the piece.
In visual art, we talk a lot about appropriation—the way that a painter, for example, will borrow from the art of the past, or from popular culture. How do you think about appropriation in music?
It’s been part of music for a very long time. When Beethoven wrote his symphonies we didn’t have radio or symphony orchestras in every town. Franz Liszt made arrangements of these symphonies for solo piano. A hundred years ago there were more pianos than radios in households. Arrangements for solo piano were an expedience that grew into a conceit—it became a matter of showing off the piano, a way of saying: here is this percussion instrument and I can make it sing like a symphony orchestra (or a five-piece rock band).
I’ve been trained as a classical pianist and I grew up playing rock music. I’m comfortable with the membrane between genres. If there’s something I want to play, I find a way through the various sound languages I have at my disposal.
Tell me about your audience.
I’ve had a great time introducing people to music they may not have been familiar with but that I find extraordinarily beautiful—that explains the lesser-known pieces on the program, like the Thomas Adés piece, Darkness Visible, which is itself based on a four-hundred-year-old piece called In Darkness Let me Dwell, by John Dowland, an English composer. Darkness Visible is an explosion of that song. You hear the melody flung over eight octaves of the piano.
It used to be a lot weirder when I would play a recital and the first half would be classical and the second half would be Radiohead. You’d have the more staid classical audience, and they would be looking at these young whippersnappers with their lighters in their hands ready to go.
Duke Ellington’s adage that there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind, is a call to musicians on both sides of the fence, rock and classical. I’m responsible for performing what I believe in and I hope the audience will come to the experience without preconceptions or genre preferences that come from liking only that which has been pounded into your head by the mass media. It’s gratifying to me when kids who like my Radiohead songs see Mozart on my calendar and say “Oh, I always wanted to check him out.” It gives them a way in.