Thanks to all the fans, friends, students, and curious onlookers who came to the first Organ/Piano Spectacular this weekend! You were a fantastic audience to play for. My thanks go out to Jake Hellevik for pulling out all the right stops, and to Bill Decker for his amazing video production. I'll let you all know when the concert video is edited and ready for public consumption.
This marks the start of the VR concert season...the next big event is Electric Athena's debut performance Feb 17! After that, I'll give additional performances of the Organ/Piano Spectacular at churches in Boulder and Denver (stay tuned...) And then in May, the long-awaited Rock Piano Solos CD will be available, so we'll have a CD release party at La Cour! Keep visiting the Facebook pages (CK-4 and Electric Athena) and subscribe to the email newsletter for all your Virtuoso Rock needs...
To those outside the Frank Zappa/Steve Vai fanbase, Mike Keneally is probably not a name you're familiar with. Keneally is a highly proficient guitarist AND keyboardist, plus a songwriter and bandleader. He played with Zappa's last touring band in 1988 and had a stint in Vai's band (heard on the stunning Alive in an Ultra World album). Steve Vai invited Keneally to record an album of solo piano arrangements of his songs, and released a CD on his private label in 2004. As far as I know, Keneally has only produced this one solo piano disc, but I am calling your attention to it because the quality of arranging and playing is absolutely top-notch. Plus, Keneally comes to the piano with a truly rock-music background (as opposed to a classical or jazz background).
The original song, from Steve Vai's Fire Garden album, is like an update on the 80's power ballad for a new era. The lyrics are basically praising the mysterious power of women (with Eve as the representative of all women). It's a midtempo track which veers between hushed, intimate verses and hard-rockin' singalong choruses (hence my allusion to power ballads from days of yore…). The harmonic twists and turns are characteristic of Vai and some of his very best, appealing and yet slightly unpredictable, while the electric guitar is used both for high soaring melodies and gently undulating chord patterns.
The pianist's main challenge in adapting this song is to create the requisite dynamic and textural shifts between verses and choruses while maintaining the fairly slow tempo. It would be easy for the choruses to feel empty, since there's no drumset to kick in, no distortion to crank up, and no backing singers to appear. Keneally plays the verses intimately, with absolutely gorgeous melodic shading and embellishments. The choruses are powerful without being overly loud - 2:43 and 4:15 are two examples. The guitar solo (3:20) is rendered exquisitely, enough to make one forget that it was ever anything but a piano solo. I only wish that a wider audience would discover this album and give Keneally reason to record more like it!
The CD is currently out of print, but you can contact this store to put in your request. Until then, YouTube has all of the tracks from the album for your listening enjoyment.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where many musical genres were appreciated. My Dad had his country and rock'n'roll records; my Mom had her classical records and Michael Jackson tapes. Our family went to orchestral concerts, chamber music events and operettas regularly. When I started to seek out my own music as a teenager, it was rock music on the radio (90's mainstream and alternative rock), rock from earlier decades, a little bit of jazz, and a lot of contemporary classical music.
I felt the same excitement at obtaining a new Phish album or a new disc of Polish avant-garde compositions - fiery performances, instrumental sounds both familiar and strange, unpredictable song/piece structures, and enough compositional interest to keep me coming back for more listens. I was a voracious and omnivorous listener; with each CD, tape, or record that I bought or borrowed, I got to know every song or piece, and whatever I didn't like at first listen, I gave it some more time and usually enjoyed by the third or fourth hearing.
I loved my piano lessons - I was one of those kids whose parents didn't have to coerce them into practicing (except for a few months here and there...) I had a teacher who was extremely passionate about the communicative power of classical music and quite demanding about her students meeting a high standard. She introduced me to all the great composers from Bach to Bartok. Most importantly, our lessons were about more than playing the piano; she taught me how one chord led to another, how a phrase was built, how to uncover and talk about the formal structure of a piece. I applied this same kind of critical thinking to all the music I encountered, wanting to understand the harmonies of a , the structure of a contemporary composition.
My friends and I formed a garage band. Our excitement about playing rock music together was not matched by our organizational sense; we had dozens of rehearsals and a total of three gigs. Only one of us had guitar as our main instrument; perhaps due to our lack of technical proficiency, we traded roles during every rehearsal, so I would end up as lead vocalist for a few songs, drummer for a few, guitarist for a bunch, and occasionally pianist. If we had been guided by a business sense, then I would have only played keyboards. But that experience playing guitar, bass and drums proved to be tremendous in shaping my musical DNA for the rest of my life.
I've never learned to play the violin, viola, or cello, but I do know how to compose for them idiomatically, and part of that comes from my time playing melodies on the guitar. I'm not a talented drummer by any stretch of the imagination, yet I do know how it's operated - left hand on the snare drum, right hand on the cymbals, both hands on the toms, left foot on the hi-hat, right foot on the kick drum - and when I listen to a drummer on record, I immediately have a feel for how they're physically producing all the sounds. As a result, I've written several compositions incorporating drumset, and players are generally surprised to see the level of detail I write (as most composers just sort of say "do your thing here").
The music of our youth probably has a lot to do with what we like or dislike as we grow older. Not that our tastes can't change, but still, when we're young and learning how language works, how basic human interactions work, how learning works, we're also absorbing (consciously or unconsciously) all kinds of norms about how music sounds and works. Since the music I heard as a child was so diverse, and I acquired basic skills on several instruments, and spent my teenage years listening to as much different music as I could, it's not surprising that I'm very open-minded when it comes to the question of musical influence. Quite a lot of the classically-trained musicians of my generation are the same way. The virtuoso rock idea is a way to explore our love of popular music by playing it on the instruments which we play best - something which only works if you have killer arrangements to play, which will be the topic of a future post...
Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe are rising stars in the classical music world. Only a few years after graduating from the Juilliard School of Music, they have albums on a major label and a large following on YouTube. They perform classical masterworks about 80% of the time and their own arrangements of popular songs 20% of the time. Anderson is a wildly creative cinematographer; their film of The Rite of Spring has to be seen to be believed. I first heard this rendition of "Billie Jean" on their 2011 album When Words Fade. It's not often that a cover song blows my mind and shakes me to my core, but this one sure did, from the first moment it entered my consciousness. This performance helped me re-orient my own musical direction towards writing & performing rock arrangements which blend the best of popular and classical music-making.
The introduction has Greg Anderson playing a rumbly groove in the lowest range of the piano; it is not based on the recording, but takes the place of the iconic drumbeat which opens Michael Jackson's track. We hear a few finger snaps; the music video makes clear that this is Elizabeth Joy Roe walking on the scene, preparing to take the piano's high range. At 0:30, rising staccato chords lead us into the song itself: Anderson plays the riff with his right hand, the original bass line with his left. Roe plays the melody - and the way she plays it will absoutely take your breath away.
Is this still pop music? Well, you can sing along AND you can dance to it. Is this classical music? They sure play like a pair of hotshot young pianists. This is a shining example of the best of both worlds. The performance is stunning (with fire, passion and relentless accuracy), but it is only so because the ARRANGEMENT is a work of genius. If the same pianists played a boring, obvious arrangement, there would be nothing to react to. Anderson and Roe work as a team to write all of their arrangements, and in each one, they combine a love for the pop song with a deep knowledge of virtuoso piano music, creating something which is literally unprecedented in the piano duet repertoire.
Getting back to "Billie Jean," the Pre-Chorus begins at 1:15 ("People always told me, be careful what you do") and presents a quieter dynamic for contrast. A quick glissando builds into a turbulent chorus in the same vein as the verse. All the familiar elements of the song are present (the vocal lines, riff, and bass line), but they have each been fully reimagined for the piano, with embellishments and creative redesigning.
All arrangers of rock/pop songs have to begin with a fundamental choice. Do you perform each verse the same way, or do you make each verse different? This is also a question which pop singers, rock bands and record producers have to decide for every recording and every performance. In Michael Jackson's original recording, verse 2 sounds identical to verse 1 but for different lyrics and an added synth melody line. The choruses each sound exactly the same until the final choruses where the vocal layers get thicker and the improvised exclamations ("Whoo! Yeah! No no no!") get more prominent. Arrangers of virtuoso rock tend to go for more extreme contrasts between sections, both to create variety (in the absence of lyrics) and to shape the architecture of an arrangement.
Anderson + Roe's second verse (2:00) adds some harmonic twists and textural strangeness, with the melody alternating between halftempo and regular speed but the bass line continuing at a fast pace. An unexpected modulation and eerie third verse follows, the melody nearly getting lost in the mix of Stravinskian chords and winding accompanimental lines. Pre-Chorus 2 (2:49) jumps in a bar too soon and quickly deviates from the material, transforming into a more late-romantic piano sound (almost the Development section of a sonata form, really!) and providing a huge build into the next Chorus.
In the second Chorus (3:26), the roles have been reversed; Anderson takes the melody in a middle octave while Roe plays high pounding accompanimental lines (which shift surprisingly from Major to minor mode). This is followed with a return to the initial roles (high melody/low accompaniment) and then a slow disintegration of the texture; the pauses between ideas become more and more frequent, so that we know the end is near but couldn't put a finger on exactly how or when it will come.
I strongly believe that in the future, we'll look back on the 21st century as the point where the walls fell down, when classical musicians gave up the notion of their music being separate and embraced the idea of joining the same continuum as all other music. Anderson & Roe's "Billie Jean" is a landmark in this journey, a leap off the cliff, a bold experiment that not only succeeds, but points to a new path which must be explored. In the six years since the release of this album, the duo has continued to explore this fusion of classical and rock/pop music. If this review has piqued your curiosity, you must check out their website and YouTube channel for more...
As I alluded to in the previous post, like any other muscial genre label, virtuoso rock is a useful but incomplete term. I play virtuoso arrangements of rock and pop songs. (Consider the alternatives: "virtuoso rock and pop" sounds clunky, while "virtuoso pop" sounds like an overpriced brand of popcorn.)
I do think rock and pop are two different things. In rock music, the band is the most important element, while in pop music, the vocalist is the most important element.
— Rock vs. Pop
ROCK takes the rock-band soundworld as its starting point (voice, electric guitar, bass, drumset). Other instruments may be used (acoustic guitar, keyboards, extra percussion, perhaps melody instruments), but the important thing is that you're always aware of the presence of live musicians playing real instruments.
The lead vocalist is important, but if you remove the vocals, it still sounds like a rock song (just an instrumental one). However, if you remove the band and just listen to the vocals, it sounds quite incomplete.
A rock song may be a verse/chorus song form or something totally different. It may last a typical 4 minutes, or be a 90-second miniature, or be a sprawling 30-minute epic.
I am personally a huge fan of album-oriented rock from all eras; the Beatles paved the way for an album being a big statement, more than the sum of its songs (and a thousand times more musically diverse than any musicians had dared to attempt before them). I love to listen to an album as an hour-long piece of music, and I prefer to understand each song as playing a role within an album, rather than as a single. (This is why I've never embraced the "shuffle" feature, or the randomness of Pandora/Spotify.)
POP takes the vocal line as its starting point and surrounds it with a contemporary soundworld. (To generalize: acoustic in the 1960's, rock band and then disco in the 70's, synth-based bands in the 80's, electronic beats in the 90's, even more electronics and studio magic up to today). It doesn't necessarily sound like live musicians playing.
The lead vocalist is what matters most. If you remove all the instrumental parts, you still have a pop song and can sing along. Interestingly, if you remove the vocal part, you get dance music.
A pop song is always a verse/chorus song form. The expectation is that the song lasts 3-5 minutes; it's just a sketch if it's shorter than that, and it's rather unusual when a song is any longer.
A pop album is generally a collection of a few hit singles and some less memorable tracks. The production of great singles tends to be more important than the production of great albums (though there are exceptions).
It's hard to write about musical genres without revealing inherent bias. Personally, I am more drawn to rock music than pop music, but that's maybe a 70/30 split. And some of my all-time favorite songwriters (such as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder) wrote and recorded dozens of songs which fully inhabit their genres (rock, funk, soul, ballad...) with fantastic instrumental parts and STILL meet all the criteria of a great pop song. And in the end, a great song is just a great song.
My vision for virtuoso rock is a repertoire wide enough to embrace rock and pop songs from the 1960's to the present.
What do you think of the rock/pop distinction? Is it useful or misleading? Do you have a different take on it? Add your comments below.
Christopher O'Riley studied at the New England Conservatory and went on to win prizes in several international piano competitions. He is well-known as the host of From the Top, a long-running NPR program about young classical musicians. His concert repertoire and discography are absolutely unique, being split equally between classical works (generally from the late Romantic period) and arrangements of rock songs. O'Riley's 2003 album True Love Waits, consisting entirely of Radiohead songs arranged for solo piano, hit me like a lightning bolt.
"Thinking About You" served as a filler track on Radiohead's 1993 debut album Pablo Honey. In between attention-grabbers like "Creep", "Anyone Can Play Guitar," and "Stop Whispering," and given an utterly nondescript production, this song gets lost in the shuffle. O'Riley discovers exciting new potential in the song. If Radiohead's original version was the soft glow of a night light, he has built it into a raging bonfire.
The key elements in this transformation are the faster tempo and the perpetual-motion accompaniment. The blazing-fast staccato line fills in the harmony by dancing around the chords, never stating them simply. The melody is lightly tapped out by the top fingers of the right hand, and feels thoroughly integrated with the accompaniment, almost percussive itself. Somehow O'Riley fits three verses and three choruses into an action-packed two minutes; it feels neither rushed nor short, as the duration fits the material just like a Chopin prelude. The choruses are slightly more intense than the verses, thanks to the use of sustaining pedal, the initial low bass note, and the louder dynamic. The tag at the end (finally resting on the home chord, with the melody's "Been thinking about you") is technically the same as how Radiohead finishes the song, but O'Riley's light hint of the fast accompaniment adds a little burst of energy to close his electrifying rendition.
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— Song and Dance
The history of popular music is split between two fundamental types:
THE SONG (vocal) — THE DANCE (instrumental)
These types have coexisted in countless musical cultures across time. Jazz has always had a mix of songs and dances; so has Irish folk music, 50's rock'n'roll, American roots music, and so on. At present, Top 40 radio is all songs, while EDM (some vocal, some instrumental) is the newest development in dance music.
But instrumentalists don't always want to be limited to providing music to dance to, or being the backup band for a singer. Classical music, in particular, demonstrates that audiences can be deeply moved by music without words. So what happens when you play an instrumental rendition of what was originally a song?
— Musical Genres Along a Single Continuum
In the last twenty years, I have observed a growing trend among young professional musicians. Whatever our formal training may be (jazz, classical, popular), we listen to music from all genres and may even have experience performing in radically different venues (from concert halls to bars). String quartets perform masterworks by Mozart followed by their own arrangements of 80's rock anthems; jazz combos play jazz standards and surprising adaptations of current pop songs; vocal master classes focus on operatic arias and art songs, but Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" may turn up as well. To even speak of boundaries between musical genres sounds antiquated at this point; sure, classical music is a separate tradition from pop songs, but it is becoming more accepted that they are part of the same continuum. What matters is not where the music originated, but how it moves you as a listener, right here, right now.
Like many musicians, I have a complicated relationship with musical genre. I refuse to be put in a box, but I need to give new listeners some idea about where I'm coming from. Personally, I find only the broadest categories to be useful (pop, rock, jazz, classical, world), and beyond that I don't pay much attention to the distinctions between sub-genres. However, I have been playing instrumental renditions of popular songs for audiences for over twenty years, and it seems like there really ought to be a name for this type of music-making.
— A New Term
Why do I suggest a new genre label? Because what I do, and what many other young musicians are doing, is something more elaborate than an instrumental or a cover song. I propose "virtuoso rock." Like any label, it doesn't say everything, but it does tell us something. A virtuoso is a highly-skilled instrumentalist, to whom the most astounding technical feats seem to come easily; the term originates in classical music history (Paganini, Liszt) but is commonly applied to jazz and popular-music performers (Louis Armstrong, Steve Vai, Prince). I understand "rock" to be a broad category, stretching from the rock-n-roll of the 1950's to bands of the 2010's. I also play plenty of "pop" songs (more on than in the next post).
When I first started playing cover songs on the piano, it was enough to know the chords and the melody and improvise a piano rendition. What I started doing a few years ago is quite different…I now listen to the original recording until every detail is implanted in my memory, then try a hundred different ways of playing it on the piano. This is not a simple process; I consider how every voice and instrument contributes to the whole effect of the song. I think about the meaning of the lyrics and how to echo that meaning instrumentally, and come up with a highly detailed arrangement in which each verse highlights different musical elements and each chorus is altered to be part of a bigger shape. I write out every note of an arrangement, then practice it for weeks until it's ready to perform. Why is it so much work? Because this is not background music - this is music for active listening, music to stir your emotions, music to rock your world.
— The Blog
In subsequent posts, I'll share and review selected tracks from my favorite pianists and arrangers. I'll give a behind-the-scenes look at the process of writing and tweaking an arrangement. I'll share my thoughts on the complex relationship between art music and popular music through the centuries. You'll see posts about specific instruments (the piano, the drumset, the electric guitar), specific genres, and my musical heroes. Reader comments and shares are the lifeblood of a blog, so you are encouraged to add your thoughts, debate any points with me, and suggest topics to write about or songs to review.
Music has the ability to connect us across time, across vast distances, across cultural divides. Musical traditions have always grown by learning from each other, by incorporating foreign ideas, by the delicate balance between expectations and innovations. 21st-century culture is ready for the radically integrative practice of virtuoso rock. There has never been a more exciting time to be a musician.
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