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|November 13-19, 2008
Follow the curve
Pianist Christopher O’Riley weaves genius and
heartbreak in his pop-classical performance
by Erica Grossman
The first and only blind date I’ve ever been on was a failure for many reasons, not the least of which was unshared musical interests. “Do you listen to Elliott Smith?” my date asked, glancing up from his beer with a look of derision stretched across his face. I sensed he was testing the waters, so I responded with a lukewarm, “Yeah,” only to be berated for 5 minutes about how Smith’s the only thing his ex-girlfriend would play, and it was dark, and it was morbid, and why do people listen to him to such excess? What I didn’t tell this guy was that, at the time, I was living in Heartbreak City and nearly exclusively listening to Elliott Smith as my anti/pro-depressant of choice. Either/Or was rolling on a tape deck in my car, Figure 8 on my stereo at home. I shyly moved our awkward music conversation away from Smith-bashing to discover that this guy liked ska — a lot. So after the split tab of PBR was paid, I left the bar and hopped in my car, where “Speed Trials” was already in session on the speakers. No wonder it didn’t work out with his ex.
Bad dates aside, this is what Elliott Smith’s music does to people. It consumes them through a series of intimate, layered compositions and some of the most brutally honest lyrics ever put on paper. In a word, it’s encompassing.
“It’s an interesting word, encompassing, because each song, I feel, is like a universe unto itself,” said pianist Christopher O’Riley about Smith’s music during a recent phone interview. “He’s drawing you in, not just by speaking or singing softly, but by the power of his delivery and the power of his concentration, and his absolute dedication to that moment and that song.”
O’Riley has made a living honing in on these musical extractions. A nationally acclaimed pianist, O’Riley is also the host of NPR’s classical music program, From the Top. Though trained from a classical perspective, he’s been highly regarded for his interpretations of modern pop music. His penchant for translating some of pop’s more prized possessions — Radiohead, Nirvana, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith — into classical arrangements has given him the rare ability to look at both genres through a dual lens, to see the raw emotions of lyrics through keys and the unveiling of texture through structure.
While afficianados (or snobs, for the less refined) often pick a side on that pop-vs.-classical fence, O’Riley is here to bridge the gap. During his upcoming program at CU’s Macky Auditorium, he will be performing a selected combination of works by the great Romantic 19th-century composer Robert Schumann and the late 20th-century singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. To the untrained ear, these two might seem worlds apart, but listen more closely and their ability to harmonize becomes apparent.
On a personal level, both artists led troubled lives wrought with addiction and depression. Schumann attempted suicide on at least one occasion, was committed to a mental institution and, as O’Riley informed me, was most likely the subject of the first documented case of champagne addiction. Similarly, Smith battled a dependency on alcohol and drugs, including heroin. His bouts with depression were documented through public interactions and ominous lyrics amid pervasive rumors of suicide attempts. In 2003, at the age of 34, he died as the result of two knife wounds to the chest, which many believe to be self-inflicted.
But aside from their shared personal affinities, O’Riley sees a complementary balance between their music, as well.
“In the Schumann and Elliott Smith program, it’s much less of a juxtaposition than sort of an underlining of the dramatic shape of a big piece like Schumann’s Kreisleriana,” he said.
Kreisleriana is a heavy eight-movement piece that typically takes 35 minutes to play. O’Riley finds a way to break away at its near schizophrenic momentum by using Smith’s music as an accent.
“If I follow the curve of the piece and want to linger a bit, rather than go right over the edge back to melancholy from raging against the heavens, then the Elliott Smith songs serve rather well,” he noted. “They come very much of out of that same sort of idea that texture is a very, very important part of what makes Schumann’s music very beautiful to me. The melodies are pretty good, too, but mostly it’s the way that he gets different characters out of keys, like Elliott could do with the various colors at his disposal in the studio.
“The Elliott songs help the shape of the Kreisleriana and introduce you to music you wouldn’t have been familiar with otherwise, on both sides of the camp.”
And in this way, the listener is carried through the layers of two revered styles, each represented by passionate musicians whose deep musical connection and attention to detail relay raw emotion, refined only around meticulous composition. Both are artists whom O’Riley believes challenged the emotional and musical boundaries of their instruments. And that successful combination of stretched feelings and expression is moving, no matter what your musical preference.
On the Bill:
Christopher O’Riley performs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 14, at the Macky Auditorium, CU campus, Boulder, 303-492-8008
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