Genre-benders in the music industry run the gamut from alt-country to pop-punk to anti-folk. Christopher O’Riley stands alone in a category that might be called alt-classical – he’s a pianist trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, but plays the music of artists more likely to be found in the average college student’s iPod than in a concert hall.
Though O’Riley started out playing Beethoven and Bach, his interest evolved to include Radiohead and Elliott Smith. Listening to the canon of Radiohead’s work, O’Riley realized that many of the band’s electronic and guitar-heavy songs would actually translate well into piano sonatas. So, after months of listening and arranging the songs for his instrument, O’Riley released “True Love Waits,” featuring Radiohead favorites like “Karma Police” and “Everything in its Right Place,” in 2003.
“I chose the projects not by the artists but by the songs themselves,” said O’Riley in a Hatchet interview. “I choose songs that get me off as both a player and a listener. Whether it’s classical or something else, it has a harmonic language that tingles down your spine.”
“True Love Waits” proved to be popular with Radiohead fans, and received four stars from Rolling Stone Magazine – supposedly the only classical music CD ever to do so. He followed it with “Hold Me to This,” which continued his translation of Radiohead and included songs from the band’s most recent album, “Hail to the Thief,” like “There There” and “2 + 2 = 5.” His latest release, “Home to Oblivion,” features the work of the late Elliott Smith.
“I have never met a Radiohead or Elliott Smith song I didn’t like,” said O’Riley, who said it takes him several months to rewrite a contemporary song for the piano. “Those two artists shout out at me as people with consistent excellence.”
Some songs have proved easier to compose for the piano than others.
“I tend to start making them harder and harder,” he said. “[Radiohead’s] ‘There There’ seemed quite unplayable at the time, but now it seems quite reasonable. [Smith’s] ‘Tomorrow Tomorrow’ is probably the hardest piece that I play.”
O’Riley’s next project will be a CD released in April of the works of the late Nick Drake, which he has been working on intermittently for the past three years. After that, he said that he hopes to make another classical record, likely of works from the composer Shostakovich, but that he wouldn’t rule out another pop CD, even from artists he’s already covered.
“I was hard at work on the Nick Drake CD when I heard the song ‘Cymbal Rush’ on the new Thom Yorke CD, and I knew I had to play that,” said O’Riley. “I’ve also had such a positive reaction from Elliott’s family that they seem anxious for me to continue to play Elliott’s music.”
O’Riley will play the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater this Sunday, Nov. 19, where he expects that his audience will be comprised of both classical and contemporary music fans, as well as listeners of his NPR radio show, “From the Top.” Though he’s billed as playing from his Radiohead and Smith albums, O’Riley said that fans can expect more than that from his show.
“I’ve been interspersing Radiohead and Elliott Smith with Shostakovich in my recitals lately,” said O’Riley. “I’ve played other artists – REM, Tori Amos, Tears for Fears, George Harrison.”
To O’Riley, each song he covers has a textural harmony in common that makes it popular in any genre – and makes it worthwhile for him to play. He frequently quotes Duke Ellington, who once quipped that there are only two types of music: good and bad.
“The quality is quite variable in the pop industry,” said O’Riley. “But great artists have a great output, period. … I won’t make a pale reflection of a song.”
8 p.m. Sunday at the Kennedy Center. Tickets: $30, available at www.kennedy-center.org.