Shuffle. Play. Listen. Repeat: The Christopher O’Riley Interview
Pianist and media personality Christopher O’Riley keeps himself busy, to say the least. He hosts NPR’s “From the Top,” a show celebrating classical music among children. He performs around the world, and is noted for playing shows as eclectic as one comprised entirely of Schumann and Elliott Smith pieces. A constant innovator of both classical and pop music (notably Radiohead), O’Riley is also stunningly well-read and in possession of a winningly dry sense of humor. Here, he talks about his eclectic new record Shuffle. Play. Listen., what band is the “wannabe Radiohead,” stair machine reading, and his love of Skinny Puppy.
ELM: You work a lot with kids and classical music. Do you find that they’re more receptive to classical music than one would think they’d be?
CO: Kids in general are more curious, and we live in a technological age that encourages a wide-ranging palate of musical interests. How many dozen websites are there that’ll tell you ‘if you like this, then you’ll like this?’ So you have a great deal of lateral thinking in terms of musical taste. It’s changed remarkably in the last ten, twenty years. Instead of waiting around for the next album by your favorite band, they’re onto the next thing. Big record companies are sort of in a tizzy because they want to give the big contracts to these tried-and-true acts, but at the same time they have to keep their finger on the pulse of whatever the latest rage is. It’s challenging for everybody but it’s also quite gratifying because there’s never been a more wide range of music available to us. In classical music as well–I think there’s a lot of really quite esoteric stuff, and there’s some pop-inspired stuff, and something sort of neoromantic in-between, so there’s quite a lot of music to listen to, and kids are unabashed. The work that I’ve been doing on my radio program allows them to talk to me honestly about things that they like that they may not be able to tell their piano teacher or their parents. So it’s nice hearing things that they’re into. A very young guy at a school program today–I mentioned Radiohead–and we had a question and answer afterwards, and he asked me if I’d ever played any Muse. I thought Muse was a rather obscure band, and a lot of young kids haven’t heard of Radiohead because they’ve only listened to Britney Spears. So we have this kid who knows sort of the Radiohead wannabe, and we had a conversation about that.
ELM: How did you get the gig hosting From the Top?
CO: I was an alum of New England Conservatory, and when the main performing arts hall, Jordan Hall, was getting its landmark status, two members of the New England Conservatory community, one who was on the board of overseers and had been instrumental in touring the preparatory orchestra division at NEC, and another woman on the development board thought, well, wouldn’t it be fun to do a radio show and have Jordan Hall be the center of it? And they looked around and found that I was an alum of the school, and they saw a rather extensive profile that had been done on me on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” in which I was in the course of the piece playing a Schumann concerto at Carnegie Hall and playing some Latin American music at a recital in upstate New York and then some footage of me standing in my basement apartment in New York extolling the orchestral virtues of Public Enemy and Skinny Puppy. So they thought that I might be somebody who could speak unstuffily to kids who were interested in classical music and also collaborate with them. So that’s how I got the gig.
ELM: On your new record, were there songs that you wanted to do but that you couldn’t for whatever reason?
CO: All the songs that I do have usually chosen me. For instance, I know there have been a lot of Radiohead songs that I’ve done, but it’s not like I’ve glommed onto them and said, ‘I’m only playing Radiohead.’ I just became so obsessed with them that it made sense. So, for instance, I did a pretty respectable version of a Pink Floyd song, “Us and Them,” from Dark Side of the Moon, but I was listening to the whole catalogue of Pink Floyd, not shopping around for a song. Usually it’s some kind of textual quality or harmonic vehicle in the song that chooses me, really. For the same reason, really, I don’t think I’ll ever do another Nirvana song, but Heart-Shaped Box makes sense on piano. And likewise, Tori Amos has been very instructive as far as how to play rock and roll on the piano because she has not a heavy touch, but an invested touch on the piano. So I’ve done her song “Mother,” which I found quite gratifying. I don’t seek projects. I do what I’m obsessed with. Usually if I’m obsessed with a song, I listen a hundred times, and about two or three hundred times In, I think if I follow this thread or this bassline or the way that Tori plays this passage, I can make a piano version of this. Usually if I’m that far in, I have a good instinct that something will work. I think, for instance, there’s a difficult prospect to imagine doing a lot of Beatles songs because I think there’s a kind of genre irony as a classical pianist in playing these pieces. With the Beatles, there’s already a bunch of genre irony. “Rocky Raccoon” is already a Tin Pan Alley song, or “Eleanor Rigby” has its own inherent classical trappings that I think would sound overly ironic in my hands. Likewise, I don’t think I’ll ever do Radiohead’s “Creep,” although I thought it sounded lovely in the choral arrangement done for The Social Network.
ELM: When did your fascination with Radiohead start?
CO: I actually read about them before I ever heard them. There was quite a lot of press about OK Computer in 1997, so it was critical mass. I read about it and picked it up. And as a classical music snob, I have to say when I buy a recording of a Mahler symphony, there are no weak tracks, and I can’t say that for the majority of a lot of pop records that I have. Even by people that I got excited about years ago. Bryan Ferry’s latest record Olympia, I was really excited about it, and he had a lot of good people on it, and maybe one or two tracks were good but I never listened to it again. But OK Computer and then working backwards through The Bends and Pablo Honey. I just came to love everything that I was hearing. So I had a lot of b-sides and recordings of their concerts and songs that never made it into circulation, but I’ve been so passionate about. It was about getting my feet wet. Similarly, my experience with Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, there isn’t a song I don’t like.
ELM: How much composing of your own do you do?
CO: It’s interesting you ask that because I don’t think of myself as a composer, but recently I did a piece. A novelist friend of mine asked me to do a piece if I was so inspired by his latest novel. He wanted to have a cd of music to accompany the release of the book. So I had a nice sense from what he’d written and what his own musical sensibilities are, so I went for it and actually wrote something original. I’ve become good friends with Elliott Smith’s dad and stepmom, and they sat me down in Portland, Oregon, when I last visited them. They came to a concert I played there comprised entirely of music composed by Robert Schumann and Elliott Smith, and they said, ‘you know Elliott’s music very, very well, and there’s a lot of composing in these arrangements that you’re doing, and we don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit for it. You should be writing music for films. I thought it was nice that Elliott Smith’s parents were taking an interest in my career trajectory!
ELM: I just have one more question for you, which I ask everybody. Who are your favorite writers?
CO: Oh, gosh, I think I’m probably more enthralled to writers than I am to composers. It’s going to be a long list. Starting with James Joyce and Charles Dickens and Salman Rushdie and Stephen Rand Jones and Megan Abbott and Donald E. Westlake. Thomas Pynchon, of course. I’ve fallen in love with a late Czech writer, Hrabel. He’s quite an astonishing writer. Mark Z. Danielewski. Thomas Ligotti. Kris Saknussemm is the friend whose novel I mentioned. I like James Ellroy too. I made a policy a couple of years ago that I would not put a book on my shelf until I’d read it. So I have about five towers of books now. I’m reading constantly. I probably read three or four books a week.
ELM: I don’t see how you have time to get it all done!
CO: The time on airplanes and the time on stair machines is good to read. I started reading on stair machines and unfortunately at the time was reading the letters of Queen Elizabeth to Sir Walter Raleigh, and there’s some things that make you want to stay on stair machines longer, but this was a little too dense.