Spheres of Pop Influence

Christopher O'Riley

Christopher O’Riley has made himself a kind of patron saint of pop music. Not simply interested in promoting any pop song for novelty, he has limited himself to a select group of artists and songs which people in the pop/rock worlds regard with a similar elitism that classical people might ascribe to Xenakis, Messaien, etc.

So it was fitting in a certain way that he performed a set of these songs at Piano Spheres, a group of pianists dedicated to producing concerts of modern and experimental piano works. Piano transcriptions of pop songs don’t necessarily work within that mold however. In fact, O’Riley was only enlisted when Susan Svrcek became ill and a replacement was needed. It was with a little nervousness that I, and perhaps he as well, approached this concert with trepidation…how were the Piano Spheres faithful going to respond to such a youthfully-oriented concert?

Well, some, as expected, didn’t care much for it, describing it as “smooth jazz” or “different.” Ironically, any pop music fan who would attend a “normal” Piano Spheres concert might walk away with a similarly disoriented feel. For me, it created some form of justice.

Yet, O’Riley’s transcriptions didn’t necessarily help the case. He helpfully linked his work to the work of Liszt in transcribing Bach’s organ works or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for piano. He also made the case that many of the works come out of the minimalist tradition of pattern-building. But his own work sometimes muddled the very beautifully simple melodies, patterns, and harmonies of the original songs. In effect, many of the countrapuntal lines were either fabricated by O’Riley or were distracting paraphrases of parts of the song. He often added fourths and fifths which changed or obscured the intended harmonies and created unresolvable dissonances. At times, the music felt inert because the power of the human voice in the original versions probably carried those song structures while a purely piano version requires more structurally austere independence from timbre.

In any case, he had a few winners. Radiohead’s Arpeggi was full of pathos that came directly out of the original bootleg version and not the In Rainbows version. The Bad Plus’ David King’s Anthem for the Earnest was not only my favorite piece of the night (and a world premiere as well), it also happens to be my favorite Bad Plus song. It also made sense given that the original is itself an instrumental and doesn’t rely on voice to tell a story. In a bold move, O’Riley asked the audience who knew of the Bad Plus. When only two or three hands went up, he told them that they were the most important modern jazz trio, eliciting a murmurring reaction. Radiohead’s Let Down was especially pianistic. The encore, Elliott Smith’s Bye, was probably the most tightly constructed piece an clocked in at under 2 minutes.

In the end, it was a helpful evening in establishing his artform. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m hoping that he or someone will perform Jonny Greenwood’s classically-oriented music in one of these concerts, not as a “pop” music experiment but as a composer to be judged on par with the rest.

Arpeggi (Radiohead Cover) – Christopher O’Riley

I hope to post “Anthem for the Earnest” sometime soon…

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