Much of my early experiences of composition teaching was exploring the processes of other composers and recently I’ve become fascinated by how other composers/musicians have re-imagined the work of others. In preparing for an article I asked the pianist Christopher O’Riley three questions about his re-imagining of Radiohead.
What lead you to re-imagine Radiohead songs for the piano initially?
I have done transcription on occasion from very early in my career. there is the capacity of the piano, the only instrument, to my mind, capable of emulating, despite its percussive nature, the lyricism of the voice or sostenuto instruments, the enormity of a symphonic orchestra, or the merge-point between music and noise inherent in a rock ensemble. I’ve done transcriptions of Stravinsky (released by Nonesuch) in his ballet scores for Apollo and l’histoire du Soldat, Delibes (the famous duet), Bach (Trio Sonata in C, the Dorian Toccata and Fugue) and Piazzolla (Verano Porteno). I came to hear Radiohead’s music in 1997 at the release of their album, OK Computer. I have always been drawn to luscious harmonies (Ravel, Rachmaninoff) and contrast/counterpoint (Bach, Shostakovich) in any music i enjoy. Radiohead fulfilled those requisites in a way that made me seek out lots of their concerts, b-sides and rarities. I was amazed at the quality throughout their catalogue. No one in popular music had such a consistent quality of work, to my mind, since The Beatles. Their interweaving voices, each song really a culmination of threads every member of their quintet contributes, invites a particular texturalization at the piano; very organically exciting music with which to interact/reimagine.
Do you see this as something that connects to the 19th century tradition of operatic paraphrases by Liszt and others?
Absolutely. There is that covetousness of pianists for the magic of other instruments, other works not originally intended for the keyboard, but inspiring and tempting to assay. Liszt’s arrangement for solo piano of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (my most recent recording) was clearly borne of an impassioned advocacy, but also, perhaps, a desire for integrity: subtitled ‘Episode in the Life of a Young Artist’ the Symphonie is arguably more dramatically imparted by a solo artist rather than a teeming orchestral horde.
How did you approach such work, and what did you discover through the process?
Each song arrangement was the result of hundreds of listenings, followed by a germ of an idea; usually not the melody and harmony, but something like the looping guitar intro to Let Down, the bass and drum hemiolas of All I Need, or the commonality of guitar noise and yelled vocals in Paranoid Android. I always found one thread that was leading me through. Much of the difficulty has to do with the randomized bass ostinati i would write: they were to be emulative of the chaotic aspects of noise, overtones, etc. I strove to be non-repetitive as possible in the accompaniment/motoric features, and that, coupled with my trying to get all the elements active (the feeling of the listener, in the best of Stravinsky, Liszt, Godowsky arrangements should be the incredulity at the music emerging from only two hands) made for each succeeding arrangement becoming more and more demanding on the performer. Once I had written something that looked pretty unplayable, then learned and performed it, that raised the bar of difficulty or the next one; not purposefully, but certainly potentially.
Do you think such activities of reimaging non-art music repertoire encourages engagement with popular music by classical music enthusiasts or vice-versa?
I think it goes both ways. I’ve had young fans of my Radiohead material write to me, saying they see I’m playing a Mozart Concert near them in San Diego, and thanks to our shared musical cameraderie, he’s always being considering ‘checking Mozart out’. I played Radiohead’s ‘Airbag’ as an encore after a Chopin Concerto, and a friend coming to meet me backstage reported a little bun-haired lady humming the melody in the elevator.
As I said, my attraction to the music of Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Portishead, Cocteau Twins, The Bad Plus is due to the same criteria that leads me to Bach, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and so it’s the characteristics of those musics, not the genre, that attract me to them. And that can work on both sides of the listener/performer membrane.