Christopher O'Riley on Ultimatums from Nuns, NPR, and the New Radiohead Album

Christopher O'Riley is a classical musician who creates piano arrangements of modern rock songs. He has released tributes to Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and two Radiohead albums. His latest album, Out of my Hands, features the versions of songs by Nirvana, Portishead, Tears for Fears, The Smiths, and many more.

He also hosts the National Public Radio program From the Top, which showcases young classical aficionados. When he has free time, he works on new arrangements, such as R.E.M's latest, "It Happened Today."

He is scheduled to perform Thursday, March 17, at the Virginia G. Piper Theater of the Scottsdale Center for the Performning Arts.

We recently caught up with Christopher O'Riley to discuss the new Radiohead album, NPR, and ultimatums from nuns, and Thelonious Monk's piano style.

Up on the Sun: How did you get started as a musician?

Christopher O'Riley: I actually got started as a musician as an ultimatum. I was 4 years old, and my mother taught me how to read. It was just something we did around the house. When I went to kindergarten, the nuns were very upset, in that if I knew how to read I was going to be bored and I was going to get in trouble. They wanted no troublemakers, so they gave my mother the ultimatum -- French lessons or piano lessons.

Because I could read, I could read the record jackets that said Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat minor, but I didn't have perfect pitch. She thought I had perfect pitch. I could just read, but I did like music and I remember my first piano lesson. I remember reading music on a blackboard and applying it to a piano, and it made a certain amount of sense. I remember that more than anything from when I was 4, so, yeah, that's how I got started.

UOTS: Has it been piano all along?

CO: It's been piano all along, mostly classical with forays into rock and jazz up through high school, and pretty much studying classical exclusively from college on, and then recently getting back into doing rock songs in my own way.

UOTS: How do you create the piano versions of rock songs? What is your creative process?

CO: It's really sort of a slowed-down version of improvisation. On top of the melody and the harmony of the song, if you would do a traditional song arrangement, you'd re-create the accompaniment. This goes for classical songs and pop songs. You re-create the accompaniment with the left hand and you pluck out the melody with your right hand with one finger. That gives you the shape of the melody, but doesn't really start approximating the sound of the human voice. There's a certain plangency -- that's why a piano sounds different from a voice. The closer you get to the voice, the better.

Back in the jazz years, Thelonious Monk was a pianist who regularly indulged in what was referred to at the time as "wrong note playing," which was, in fact, him smacking a couple of different notes at the same time. It was, in his case, a way of evoking the sound of the saxophone, a sort of between-the-cracks feel. I've incorporated that in trying to get the sense of the cymbals, the bass, and the drums.

I think of ways to accentuate the harmony and to put sort of a randomization that suggests the overtones you get from a fuzzy guitar, or even from the steel strings of an acoustic guitar. All of this goes into the mix, and I try to create the same kind of kinetic energy. It sometimes ends up being pretty complicated, but sometimes I think I'm able to get a very direct sort of translation. I just did R.E.M.'s new song, "It Happened Today," I did the arrangement on Tuesday and performed it yesterday actually. It will be my setlist when I get to Arizona. That was a pretty good indication of . . . yeah, I can do this. I'm starting to feel confident about it. It's nice.

UOTS: What have been some of the easiest and more difficult songs to adapt?

CO: Well, some I probably make more complex than they need to be. For instance, my arrangement of Radiohead's "Arpeggi" from the In Rainbows album really is not playable by one pianist so much as maybe two with a lot of adapting for two pianos instead of one. "2+2=5" is a very hard one -- it's something I've played, but it's definitely one of the harder ones that I've ever made. I think that's a hard one. "Paranoid Android" is a hard one, but I've been playing it for a long time, so those are the demanding ones.

"Let Down" is probably people's favorite, another Radiohead song. That was probably the easiest one to arrange because it's sort of arranged itself, using the various musical threads and laying them out on the piano made for its own texture. It was actually the easiest to do, but I think in some cases people feel it's the most compelling version of that song.

UOTS: Radiohead's music is so complex to begin with. It's amazing that you can do this.

CO: As I say, I'm always striving for simplicity. It's an ideal, in order to have integrity about the overall sound, to have a certain richness to it that will always be there. We'll see if I can go less is more sometime soon.

UOTS: I see you're clearly a big fan of Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake. Who are some of your other all-time favorite artists?

CO: Let's see, who haven't we mentioned? Nirvana, Pink Floyd, R.E.M. . . . Who else am I playing these days? Tears for Fears I play a fair amount. Who else lately -- Guided by Voices, I've done a lot of their things. Cocteau Twins.

UOTS: That's a great mix. It's almost like a list of somebody's favorite albums.

CO: My favorite musical experiences have always been in the home of a friend who has a really eccentric and wild record collection. Things spin out, and I think that's become the way people listen to music is sampling online. It's usually not sampling of your favorite band -- it's usually suggested by various websites. If you like this, then you'll like this. It goes across genres as well, not just among different eras of rock or areas of rock.

It causes audiences to listen to things they wouldn't have necessarily listened to before, and I'd like to think that the way I put my piano programs together has a little bit of that. There's lots of people in classical worlds who listen to me and know me as a classical pianist who are then exposed to a whole realm of music that they never would have heard anywhere else. And likewise, there's a rock audience who likes my arrangements of their favorite bands, so they're willing to give Ravel a try, or Stravinsky or something like that. So, yeah, I like it, I enjoy that sort of mixed fanbase.

UOTS: When you play live, do you mix both or tend to lean toward . . .

CO: Yes, definitely, absolutely. There will be a pretty big suite of Ravel piano pieces on the second half that I promise are pieces that anybody who likes piano will find very enjoyable. That, and brand new things like this R.E.M. arrangement that I just finished I'm very excited about -- I'm going to play that for sure. Some other things -- a friend of mine, jazz pianist Fred Hersch, wrote a piece, actually a piano version of a song that I'd heard him play, he wrote about 10 years ago. I've always been bugging him to make an arrangement -- it's such a beautiful song -- so he's finally made his own piano arrangement, so I'll play that.

Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" is a favorite. I'll close the first half with that one. A lot of Radiohead. There's actually one Radiohead song that appears on their new record that appeared in a different guise about seven years ago -- and seven years ago, I actually made a piano arrangement of that but wasn't able to release it because it had never appeared on a Radiohead disc by Radiohead before. Now that it's appeared on their new record, I can put out my version, and I'm sure I'll play that in Arizona as well. "Morning Mr. Magpie" is what it's called.

UOTS: What do you think of their newest album? CO: I don't like it really. I think it's mostly dance tracks. There are one or two songs that I think are good. I'm really disappointed in the record, I gotta say. People say you should be really patient with it, it will grow on you. I don't want to listen to it anymore; I don't enjoy listening to it. When I was driving down to Athens, Georgia, I was listening to it from beginning to end, and I was really hard-pressed to make it through every song. I just thought I'd stick it out.

On the same car ride, I had the five-song sampler from R.E.M.'s new record. Not only do you hear the songs and they're great, but you hear the songs and, jeez, I really want to see them do this live. I want to be in a large group of people and hear them do these songs -- it's so great. And you listen to the Radiohead record and you don't want to hear this stuff in concert. I don't think you want to hear this stuff in a club. I think if you're ready to stab yourself in the heart, maybe you'd want to listen to it, but I really don't like it.

UOTS: How did you first get involved with From the Top?

CO: I was a pianist studying at New England Conservatory of Music, and the two executive producers of the show were connected with the New England Conservatory. Jerry Slavic was one of the boards of overseers, and Jennifer Hurley Whales was on the development staff. Jordan Hall, the main performing hall at the Conservatory, had just received its historic landmark status and they thought what a neat idea it would be to have a regularly scheduled radio show for Jordan Hall.

Jerry had also had experience in touring the New England Conservatory prevatory division, orchestra, so he was very affected by traveling with these kids who were like athletes in terms of their dedication, their passion, and their sense of teamwork. He thought, well, maybe we should have these kids on the radio somehow. That's how the idea came about, and they asked me because they had seen me do some kind of hosting duties at this or that big orchestra concert, and I had family connections in radio.

At the time, I thought there really wasn't a good and sincere way of reengaging people's attention in classical music. This sounded like a very good way of doing that. The kids who play on From the Top are . . . some of them are gonna go on to have musical careers, but others really just love music and they love all kinds of other kid stuff too.

That fights the impression that classical music is an exclusive enterprise. There's much more in common with a radio audience and these kid performers than there would be with somebody who's a professional like me, or a conductor of a major orchestra or something. It's much more personal and it does have that sort of Tonight Show feel of really being an interview program. Since we're talking about music, then you listen to the kid and you have more sympathy and more interest in what they're doing because you know them as people. That's something that hasn't been available on the classical stage, and I think it helps everything. It engenders interest, it helps people learn about music in a way that isn't proselytizing, and the kids deserve this sort of outlet. They work their asses off, so it's great.

UOTS: What was the transition from radio to television like?

CO: It was a big learning curve, but we actually had people who believed in the process and made it really happen. In its own way, TV is just a consolidation of radio. Where I spend time on air talking to a young lady about what a pain in the ass it is to travel with a double bass and then fly with it. On TV, you can show her playing at Carnegie Hall and also show a shot of her emerging out of the New York subway system with her double bass in tow. You don't have to do an interview to do the sort of thing you can do on television. It became richer than just live performance and better than straight-on interviews. It was much more real time.

That really went into high gear for the second season, which is the one we won two Emmys for. The guy who directs that has a whole room full of Emmys for things like Two and a Half Men, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, and he does all of that, and the opera broadcasts that take place in movie theaters now. He does that; he sits in the director's chair for all of that. Gary Halvorson is his name. He has a musical background and he really kept our feet to the fire in terms of why should we be looking at this, and virtually all the best stuff was spontaneous. We were on camera from seven in the morning, when we would start rehearsal, to nine at night, when we'd be on stage at Carnegie -- and it was it was very intense for like two weeks; it was incredible. Hopefully, we're gonna do TV again. We haven't in a while because money ran dry. There's reason to be encouraged.

UOTS: How do you find the musicians that are featured on the program?

CO: They all apply online on and there are instructions on how to submit a tape, what to put on a tape, a questionnaire, the ability also for them to apply to various grant programs that we have through From The Top and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundatiom. We give away scholarships and there's outreach, but all the information is there.

Actually, the funny thing is, I've run into kids that applied once and got rejected and they think they should never do it again. We've had kids who are super-talented at 9 years old but have decided that there's plenty of time -- they're precociously talented. They have until they're 18 to be on the program, so why not wait a while but keep in touch? Kids need to know that if you haven't made it once, that's all the more reason to reapply. Nobody knows that we broadcast the idea that, Oh, I was rejected, but they're not being rejected by the regional competition or whatever where you feel some sort of shame. It's something to shoot for, it's a goal, I think.

A lot of kids see this as an important outlet, and it's that focus that they work all the better. We have kids who have been in very proud, competition-winning string quartets, and they have, in like fashion, inspired other kids in similar chamber groups to do well and compete. And people like that have a sense of competition too, but that's not necessarily what we're about. I think kids should constantly apply, because there's a very good staff and people who keep in touch and care about the development of these kids.

UOTS: What are some of the challenges of being a musician and working on the program?

CO: Working on this program? The hardest thing for me and for the guests is to play and then talk. It's hard enough concentrating on musical performance, but to also have to deal with interview situations and a live audience . . . We try to make it as little stress as possible, but it's very demanding for everybody. We spend a lot of time in rehearsal and getting comfortable and in the end I think it works, and they thrive.

UOTS: Is it difficult for you to balance your hosting duties and you personally being a musician?

CO: The schedule is pretty tight, I will say so, yes. But it is what it is. For instance, I just got back from a From the Top today and I leave on Wednesday for a date in Columbia, Missouri, and I come back Friday -- I think -- and leave on Saturday for Shreveport, a concert on Sunday, all classical. And another week at LSU, the residency there. I don't have a From the Top, I think, until the end of March. There's a lot of running around, but I went through a year where I wasn't doing so much, and I'm really a lot happier now and in better shape, and I just think I need to work a certain amount and this is about as hard as I can work, but it's worth it.

UOTS: What does 2011 have in store for you?

CO: I've got all the stuff that I'm doing with the radio show. In addition to the solo thing, I'm collaborating with Matt Haimovitz. He's a solo classical cellist that has been doing the same thing I've been doing, with other genres, for a long time. We're making a record probably in June and doing a lot more touring together next year. Otherwise, I'm still doing this mixed program in the out of my hands format will remain sort of an open ended thing, so there will be a few pieces added and subtracted all the time.