Christopher O'Riley: OK composer

You're hearing right. On his new album, the prizewinning concert pianist Christopher O'Riley plays Radiohead songs in the Romantic style of Chopin. He explains all to Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture

John Dowland; William Byrd; Nick Drake; Radiohead. For the American concert pianist Christopher O'Riley, there is a quintessential English modality that connects the music of the critically-acclaimed rock group - the subject of his Sony Classical album True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead - to our most lyrical of Renaissance composers. The cult singer-songwriter Nick Drake, whom O'Riley has only just discovered, and whose work he will perform alongside the complete Radiohead suite in a solo tour beginning on Friday, provides a kind of missing link.

The tour, which is produced by Serious in association with Classic FM, continues the relationship that led to the surprising success of the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi's solo piano concerts last month. But if the music of the minimalist Einaudi is like Philip Glass or Michael Nyman with all of the rough edges - and most of the notes - taken out, Chris O'Riley brings to Radiohead the wild rhapsodic abandon of Chopin or Scriabin, and as many extra notes as you could wish for. It's a heady brew. On the album, familiar Radiohead tunes such as "Everything in its Right Place", "Karma Police" and "Exit Music (for a Film)" are faithful to the original band recordings, yet sound utterly transformed by the combination of bare-bones instrumentation and O'Riley's sparkling virtuosity.

With Einaudi, however relaxing his ambient soundscapes, one always felt a touch of the Richard Claydermans; with O'Riley, the effect is perhaps closer to jazz and the work of lyrical, classically trained pianists such as Keith Jarrett, Fred Hersch and Brad Mehldau. Whether one is a Radiohead fan or not, the performances really do seem to live and breathe. There's also much less repetition than in Einaudi, which is a relief. Whether O'Riley can become such a "crossover" success remains to be seen. Certainly, he's not as easy to do the ironing or washing-up to.

"The thing that led me to Radiohead is the same thing that led me to the other composers I have specialised in, such as Stravinsky, Schumann and Piazzolla," says O'Riley, a prize-winner at the Leeds and Van Cliborn piano competitions, who has recorded Beethoven, Busoni, Ravel and Stravinsky. "I tend to get a real charge out of a wonderful harmonic language - like you find in Skriabin and Ravel - and also texture. With Radiohead, you have this contrapuntal texture all the way through. The sense of there being three lead players at any one time - not in a wildly virtuosic fashion but with everyone continually sounding vital to what is going on - also makes it very attractive for a piano transcription. Unlike other pop music that is all melody or chords and tends to be arranged vertically, Radiohead's music is more horizontal, and that makes it very adaptable."

There were also difficulties. The main one - not surprisingly, given the vocalist Thom Yorke's uniquely strangulated delivery - was what to do with the voice. "My main inspiration was Thelonious Monk, who tried to embody the sound of the saxophone on the piano, adding notes that gave an extra plangency," O'Riley says. "I therefore tried to echo the sound of Thom Yorke's voice by adding something dissonant to the texture. With Radiohead, there's constant motion rhythmically, while every note on the piano instantly dies. The more motion I could create through rhythm helped to keep the tune alive."

O'Riley prefers his versions to be called transcriptions rather than arrangements, although in deciding what to include and what to leave out he inevitably ended up rewriting the original pieces to his own demands. The initial work was done by ear: "Listening to the song a few thousand times and getting obsessed, although I'm still revising them. A lot of songs worked well on the piano, but there was also the problem of how to deal with the guitar situation," he says. "For instance, trying to get the grit of the guitar on 'Thinking About You', without simply banging out chords. I eventually came up with this ostinato, which couldn't be more appropriate as it's the same as Chopin's G major Prelude."

Indeed, there's a Chopinesque, beautifully doomed feeling of Romantic agony to the whole album, which fits the group's work like a black fingerless glove. The question remains, however, of what Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Philip Selway and Edward O'Brien (who, collectively, are Radiohead) think about it. Although the group and their people have certainly taken an interest - granting permission but retaining approval of the album's artwork, and insisting that the name "Radiohead" not appear larger than O'Riley's own - it was not until the after-show party of one of last month's Madison Square Garden Radiohead shows that O'Riley managed to meet Colin Greenwood and Thom Yorke. Perhaps predictably, he discovered that although they were dimly aware of its existence, they hadn't heard his album at all.

"I introduced myself to Colin and we talked about stylistic things," O'Riley says. "I gave him the record, which he hadn't heard. Then Thom Yorke came over and talked to me until he was rescued by a record-company person, but I didn't get the feeling I was being given the bum's rush." Asked if he wasn't nervous meeting his heroes, O'Riley agrees. "It's the conversation I've been having in my head for years. But I don't think Thom feels like the rest of us do; that it's the greatest stuff on the planet."

True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead, Victoria Rooms, Bristol (0117-917 2300) Friday; Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (020-760 4242) Sat; Warwick Arts Centre Theatre, Coventry (024-7652 4524) Sun; Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham (0115-846 7777) 17 Nov; The Arches, Glasgow (0141-565 1023) 18 Nov