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January 25, 2005

Christopher O'Riley: Renaissance man or dilettante?

Christopher O'Riley bills himself as a musical Renaissance man. I find this slightly immodest. Let's look at his résumé. He was trained as a classical pianist at the New England Conservatory. Then he flirted with jazz, became an "expert" on tango, and now he hosts a radio show and writes solo piano arrangements of songs by Radiohead and Elliott Smith.

I'm sure there are a lot of people in the world like this. They grow up thinking they like one thing, and then they decide that they like something else better. They can't go to school to study Radiohead, so they study Bach and Brahms to get their classical education. When they're in their 30s, they break out into the world of pop with their inspired classical arrangements of their and everybody else's favorite tunes, trying to legitimize them into the canonical framework.

I must admit, I had fallen prey to his allure. I assumed that whoever this Christopher O'Riley was, his concert would be really interesting to listen to. I figured that if the University of Chicago Presents was putting on this concert, he was guaranteed to be good. He was a classical pianist, and he was going to be playing his own arrangements of Radiohead songs. Since I like Radiohead, I was curious to see what a classically trained pianist would do with the material. I was expecting fugues, variations, and so forth.

It turned out, however, that I'd made something of an error. I had supposed that someone classically trained on the piano would be smart enough about music to be able to tastefully arrange a few pop songs for his chosen instrument. But apparently this is not the case with O'Riley.

Granted, the piano is not an easy instrument to write for. Unlike the human voice, it cannot sustain a note naturally for very long, and unlike the guitar, it cannot be strummed or picked. Therefore, one might suppose that the main focus in translating guitar-vocal music to the piano would be on lending a sense of expansion and motion to the otherwise curt and abrupt-sounding instrument. But even with the very laudable intention of achieving this effect, many pianists fall into the trap of spewing out massive strings of arpeggios instead of simple chords (think George Winston, or a musical Wernicke's aphasia). It's like telling Hemingway to write poetry.

The beginnings of each of O'Riley's arrangements were powerful and understated, and transcribed almost verbatim from the recordings. Things went downhill soon after that. Once the songs began to get complicated—usually at the start of the first verse—there seemed to be a paradoxical drop in intensity. At this point, the "voice" would enter, and in the effort to evoke the texture of guitars, O'Riley's left hand would begin arpeggiating like mad. The effect created by this over-conscious mimicry was rather disappointing. The song "No Surprises," with the voice entering in the tenor, was a pleasant exception to this formula. Unfortunately, there were few others.

The other problem I had with O'Riley's performance was his avoidance of metric clarity. Cross-rhythms drive Radiohead songs as much as the words, the melodies and harmonies, and the orchestrations. To let incessant rubatos coupled with hairpin dynamics invade every measure of the music was true robbery. No hailing to the thief from this critic.