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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