Monday, September 26, 2005

True Love Waits

As I mentioned earlier, I was really excited by the chance to hear Christopher O'Riley in concert. It was held in the recital hall on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz. I decided to head down early because I haven't spent any time in Santa Cruz before and wanted to see what it was like.

Answer: it's all right. First I checked out the downtown. This is one of those long and narrow affairs, basically a stretch of Pacific Avenue. I don't know what I was hoping for; it ended up being like any other trendy retail area. There are two museums in the area, which were both closed, and besides that it was a mixture of shops. I'm always able to spend an indefinite amount of time in places like this, because invariably I'll find a music store and/or bookstore. In this occasion I wandered into a good used music store with a larger-than-normal collection of electronic music. I picked up a new (for me) Future Sounds of London album and Up, one of a few holes in my REM collection. Besides that I wandered Pacific, feeling like I'd been here dozens of times before.

I broke away and next headed to Neary Lagoon. This was better; the lagoon is surprisingly quiet and peaceful considering that it is (1) in the heart of Santa Cruz and (2) immediately next to a wastewater treatment facility. There was a good collection of wildlife and a few families with small children. All in all it was pleasant, although I wouldn't come back over the mountains just for it.

Unfortunately, a section of the boardwalk was closed for construction. Ever adventurous (and ever foolish), I decided to exit the park at the nearest exit rather than backtracking. (Backtracking is one of my absolute most hated activities, and I will go to unreasonable lengths to avoid it.)

I eventually got back to my car, although for the last twenty minutes or so I was beginning to doubt my navigational aptitude. All ended well, and I shot up to the campus.

Campus was odd. I've grown accustomed to tight, integrated college campuses. You've got your quad, you've got the cluster of engineering buildings, you have the pretty administration buildings up front and the uglier political science building tucked away in back. Student housing might be more spread out. Well, UCSC is a big campus, but more than that, it's a very spread-out campus. Extremely spread out. It took me nearly ten minutes, driving between 40 and 50, to get from the entrance to the music school. Along the way I drove through deserted sagebrush, grazing horses, forests, a plethora of campus bus stops, and the occasional cluster of university buildings. I eventually arrived at the music school, still about an hour early. I took advantage of the time to wander through the nearby buildings, housing the departments of music, art, and theater. It looked like they were constructed in the 70's, featuring lots of concrete, aggressively odd architecture, and few windows. They still looked better than Elliot at Wash U, though.

At 6:30 I finally headed in and took my seat. I was the second person in the auditorium. In all, it probably seated around 500, and it completely filled up over the next 40 minutes. It looked like roughly 3/5 of the audience were students (or perhaps, like me, young adults deliberately trying to look like students). Most of the other people were distinguished-looking ladies and gentlemen in their forties or older. From catching snatches of conversation, I could tell that at least some of the people here were already familiar with O'Riley's work, which was encouraging.

There was the usual chain of introductions. First on the stage was the head of the "Arts & Lectures" program, a yearlong series of which this concert was the first event. She mentioned some of the upcoming highlights, including an address by Robert Kennedy Jr. and some relatively famous musical groups whose names escape me at the moment. She also mentioned that this year they were starting a rush tickets program, where students could grab open seats for $5 before the show.

She then introduced the chancellor, who was a shockingly poor speaker. Fortunately she was also brief; she mumbled her introduction in a monotone while leaning back and forth before saying, "Without further delay, it's my pleasure to welcome Christopher O'Riley to our stage."

Thunderous applause as Christopher took the stage. He took a microphone near the piano and gave several minutes of introductory remarks. It's the first time I've ever seen or heard him; I know he has a popular classical music program called "From the Top" but have never caught it (at least not that I know of - I think it might not be carried on the stations I've listened to the last few years). So it was pleasant to hear him and find what an easy and engaging speaker he is. His whole attitude was very open, self-deprecating and anecdotal. He's also very young-looking. From where I was sitting he looked a great deal like Bob Hubbard, my last manager at Cerner, especially when he smiled.

His introductory remarks mainly concerned the classical portion of his performance. He talked a bit about the fugue as a music form and why it's the most challenging style to create. He mentioned the history of the fugue, from Bach up through Shostakovich, and told some funny stories about performers and composers showing off with fugues. He closed with a lengthly and touching account of his acquaintance with a great, little old Russian lady who was a virtuoso pianist (and whose name I cannot remember); it was obvious that their brief contact had a profound impact on him, and he spoke regretfully about all the knowledge that was lost with her passing. "I know every note of Bach," she told him once, and he had seen for himself how true that was.

He then launched into the program. It was as follows:

  • Prelude & Fugue in F minor, Op. 87, No. 18
  • No Surprises
  • Prelude & Fugue in E-flat Major Op. 87, No. 19
  • (Some song by Elliot Smith)
  • Like Spinning Plates
  • Prelude & Fugue in C minor, Op. 87, No. 20
  • Paranoid Android
  • (Intermission)
  • Prelude & Fugue in B-flat Major, Op. 87, No. 21
  • Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong (this is a B-side, get it if you haven't heard it)
  • Knives Out
  • Prelude & Fugue in G minor, Op. 87 No. 22
  • Not Half Right (Elliot Smith)
  • Let Down
  • Prelude & Fugue in F Major, Op. 87, No. 23
  • 2+2=5
  • Prelude & Fugue in D minor. Op. 87, No. 24
(He also performed Exit Music For A Film as an encore.)

The printed program was slightly different. As he explained before the program, while he was on tour he was constantly working on new material and adding or dropping items as new pieces became ready. The original program would have had "Talk Show Host" in place of "Like Spinning Plates", and "Gagging Order" (a live, unrecorded song) in place of "Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong."

The concert was, of course, amazing. The variety of music within the program was incredible - not simply the contrast between the two artists, of course, but also the difference between pieces from the same source. The first Prelude & Fugue came out to a powerful, roaring start that commanded attention; E-flat Major was very intricate and pensive. He was a delight to watch as well, becoming incredibly contorted as he pounded through the most complex portions of the arrangements.

As I knew I would, I found the Shostakovich pieces extremely rewarding and stirring. Some of the Radiohead arrangements, though, brought lumps to my throat. His live performance of "No Surprises" was even more starkly beautiful than the version on the album, the stunning clarity of the right hand's endlessly repeated notes only growing more pure the more involved the left hand's part became. Paranoid Android, besides being a wonderful arrangement was one of the most driving, adrenaline-rushing performances I've seen and brought the audience to their feet in a roar at its abrupt conclusion.

The mood of the concert goers was buoyant during intermission, with clusters of people excitedly praising what they'd heard. I wandered outside, passed through the smokers, and stared out into the cool dim night sky, gradually seeing more of the sage as my eyes adjusted to the light.

Back inside, the second half went just as well as the first. I had not previously heard any of the arrangements on this side (other than Let Down) and it was a pleasant surprise to hear for the first time how he was approaching them. Elliot Smith was an interesting addition as well. Before the show he had repeated a statement I'd previously heard him make on NPR, claiming that Smith was the most important American songwriter of the past fifty years. The two songs of his included in this performance definitely held their own with Shostakovich and Radiohead.

I'm sure it was a function of my tiredness, but as the second half went on I felt like the walls between the composers were beginning to dissolve. I was no longer looking at my program, and increasingly I found that it would take me until well into a Radiohead piece before I recalled the original song's name, and the Shostakovich would sound incredibly familiar to me. It was all good music, and it washed over me.

O'Riley got two standing ovations after the concert and added "Exit Music for a Film," to the vocal delight of a particular female in attendance. He was gracious enough to stay afterwards for a lengthy question and answer session, and probably 2/3 of the people stayed for this. The first question was the one I'm sure everyone was anticipating: "Have you ever met any members of Radiohead, and do you know what they thought of your music?" He described going backstage after one of their New York concerts shortly after "True Love Waits" was released, and meeting with Ed O'Brien. He had a brief conversation with Ed, who knew of the album and was very curious what kind of reception it had gotten from classical music fans. Next he spoke with Jonny Greenwood, who has a strong classical background, and they talked shop for a while about the process of arranging. He then met Thom. Hearing Chris talk about this was wonderful, he played up his reaction as an adoring fan finally meeting his idol. He told Thom how much he loved "Gagging Order," and Thom's eyes bugged out. "Nobody's talking about that song!" he said. "Oh, you should check the message board online," Christopher replied. "People are saying it's your best song since 'Let Down.'" Thom was rushed off to a birthday party but seemed pleased to have made that connection.

To Chris's surprise, later that night Thom came back and sought him out. They conversed at length, and Chris says that in person Thom is one of the most self-deprecating, ego-less people imaginable. For example, Chris mentioned he thought "Pyramid Song" would be a great candidate for a piano arrangement, but he couldn't imagine a version of that song without Thom's vocals. "Oh, you mean without me screwing it up?" Thom asked.

Someone asked about what it was like to adapt the extremely electronic songs that are prominent on Radiohead's most recent albums. O'Riley described how he loved "Like Spinning Plates," but knew that it was impossible to adapt because of the electronics. Then he heard a live performance that included Thom Yorke doing a version of "Like Spinning Plates" on, well, the piano. "Oh, I can do that!" O'Riley thought, and using that as his inspiration he set about doing it. He says that he doesn't try to approximate the sound of the electronic elements; rather, he pays attention to the function that the electronic sounds perform. Are they building up tension? Are they establishing a rhythm? Do they contrast with the melody? Using the tools available to him, of harmony and texture, O'Riley will then attempt to find another way to produce that same sort of effect. I say he did a phenomenal job.

(I'm reminded of my anticipation of watching Radiohead perform on Saturday Night Live shortly after the release of Kid A. I was sitting in our common dorm room before the show, chatting with roommates and speculating about what the live performance would be like. "The problem is that so much on this album is impossible outside a studio," I said. "I mean, they could do 'Optimistic,' or maybe 'Morning Bell.' But there's no way they can possibly do 'The National Anthem.'" The show started, and Radiohead came out and did a version of The National Anthem that blew the album's version out of the water. Listening to Christopher O'Riley, I revisit that blend of humility, awe and delight.)

Someone asked about how long it takes him to transcribe a piece and get it ready for performance. On some songs, he said, he can get it down in a few days. When he first started he improvised; since he got serious about doing an album, though, he's written down all his arrangements. He'll put the music directly into Finale because it's easier to tweak and modify that way than doing it all in longhand. Even when a piece is quick to adapt, though, it takes him months and months to get it performance-ready, simply because they're so incredibly challenging. He's done some pieces which are just unplayable, though he's getting better. Every new adaptation he does is the hardest one yet; at the same time, he's also constantly revisiting and revising his earlier ones, adding to the complexity as he becomes able to play them.

He's excited about the Elliot Smith project. He laid down the tracks this summer and the disc should be out in the spring. He still loves Radiohead and will do new tracks if they grab him, but he thinks he won't release a third album of Radiohead tracks. He's been working with whatever interests him, which currently includes Tears For Fears, Nick Drake, George Harrison, Cocteau Twins, R.E.M. (Yay!), and more.

Christopher spoke a bit about Radiohead's musical background. They're really all over the map. Thom Yorke doesn't read a note of music. Jonny Greenwood is well versed in classical music and served for a year as "Composer in Residence" at the BBC. Colin Greenwood's background is in jazz. Ed O'Brien's background is more in dub and electronica. So there's a wide range in there, and that all contributes to the strength of the band. O'Riley said that, as a pianist, the two things that he finds most important in music are harmony and texture. He thinks that it is the unique composition of Radiohead, with five very talented persons each contributing a thread under the vision of Yorke, that gives it such an interesting sense of texture without being arty.

All of these questions (and more that I don't recall) were asked by individuals between the ages of 18 and 25. A grey-haired gentleman said, "Just to bring Shostakovich back into this, I found that the Radiohead pieces you played seemed very bright, while I think of Shostakovich as a very harsh composer. And yet, when you put these together, they sounded great together. Why do you think that is?" O'Riley said that he believes one thing both composers have in common is a certain sense of distance. With Radiohead, Yorke always has a strong sense of ironic detachment. The lyrics aren't a part of this performance, of course, but his lyrics tend to be in the form of conversations overheard, of sights seen far-off. For example, a song will tell the story of a broken-hearted love affair; but it won't be told from the perspective of the woman, it's from a person who's overhearing the woman talk about it on a bus. Likewise, because of the political conditions he was working under, Shostakovich had to use subtext and indirection to communicate his messages; O'Riley said Shostakovich was the first classical composer to use subtext in his music. This, he thinks is the trait they have in common, and it informs their music.

So, that was my Sunday evening. I got home pretty late, around 11, but it was certainly well worth it. I had high expectations going in and was pleased to have them met.

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