Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Radiohead in 88 keys?

Yes. I saw it last Thursday when I ventured out to Joe's Pub in the East Village to catch the pianist Christopher O'Riley playing Radiohead. I have to confess with slight embarrassment that I am completely unfamiliar with Radiohead's music, but know they're popular among many classical musicians. At any rate, I was a bit skeptical about the concert from the beginning. Rock music transcribed for piano? (Well, Matt Haimovitz made a version of Jimi Hendrix's rendering of the "Star Spangled Banner," so maybe it'll work.) As I sat and waited for the show to start, I began wondering why people were here. Were they Radiohead fans? Christopher O'Riley fans? Or classical music fans interested in how a fellow artist is reaching out to new audiences? I belonged to the latter category, while the rest of the crowd seemed to be in the first.

When O'Riley began his set--the second of two for the night--I retained my initial skepticism. After the third tune he began to talk to the audience about the music, about transcribing it for the piano, about esoteric Radiohead knowledge (he asked for hands in the crowd for who was the biggest Radiohead nerd, which O'Riley himself ended up being proudly), and his love for the music. O'Riley simply loves Radiohead. So much so that he transcribes all their music for piano. And his love for the music comes out in his playing of it. The next few tunes, actually, the rest of the set, sounded a lot different to me than the first few tunes. Maybe he wasn't warmed up. Or maybe I began to understand what he was doing. My friend Evan told me that timbre is a big part of Radiohead's music and that he was curious about how this would translate to the piano. There's color in O'Riley's playing. I didn't once miss the drums on any tune (well, since I didn't know them, how could I miss them?). There were moments when I was completely transfixed by the music and by O'Riley's delivery of it.

I think I was a bit cold to O'Riley's idea at first because I had already made some assumptions before the show. O'Riley is a concert pianist so he'd probably make the arrangements piano-y, like with lots of arpeggiations, virtuosic flourishes, and so on, right? Wrong. There's no fancy piano stuff in these arrangements--just the music. And honestly, I was relieved when I realized that this wasn't going to be a show-off-my-piano-chops kind of event. The truth is that this kind of playing requires its own kind of virtuosity and intamacy with the music that not every artist could pull off. (Kind of like a classical musician who thinks jazz is easy trying to swing.) But Christopher O'Riley pullls it off convincingly.

While you won't catch me playing the complete The Clash at CBGB anytime soon, I think O'Riley is on to something in terms of bringing his art to a larger audience in a pretty cool venue. Gone were the traditional concert conventions and I think people might have been a little happier because of it. In this setting, people were free to chat if they felt like it, sneeze and not be glared at, eat tiramisu out of a martini glass, and go to the bathroom in the middle of a piece. That's cool and this kind of looseness in no way implies that the artist on stage is compromising his artistic integrity. I don't know if a crowd like this would be hip to a Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, or Iannis Xenakis joint, but I wouldn't put it past them. It could work. I can think of one or two ways. (Coming soon . . . Hybrid Groove Project.)

P.S. Listen to O'Riley on NPR's Performance Today.
Praised by The New York Times as "an inventive musician . . . fresh and surprising," saxophonist Brian Sacawa has firmly established himself as an important contemporary voice for his instrument. He is active as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician throughout the United States and is the co-founder of the new music duo Non-Zero with percussionist Timothy Feeney.

He has given premieres of over thirty works by both established and emerging composers, including Michael Gordon, Bright Sheng, Andrew Mead, Oliver Schneller, Ken Ueno, Beata Moon, Hillary Zipper, and Scott McAllister, among many others. Named the Baltimore CITYPAPER’s Critic’s Choice for Classical Music in 2002, he is the recipient of awards for solo performance from both national and international competitions.

Sacawa's versatile career has led to appearances with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the New World Symphony, Harvard Group for New Music, New Music Brandeis, Bargemusic, and at meetings of the ISU Contemporary Music Festival, World Saxophone Congress, North American Saxophone Alliance, and New England Saxophone Symposium.

Brian holds degrees from the University of Michigan, the Peabody Conservatory, and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, where he studied with Donald Sinta, Gary Louie, and Lynn Klock. He has recorded for the Equililbrium, Naxos, and BiBimBop recording labels.

See Brian's other blog
Sounds Like Now