Saturday in Olympia, you can hear a live performance of R.E.M.'s "It Happened Today," the first single from the band's new album.
The legendary alt-rockers aren’t coming to town. But this is no ordinary cover version of a song.
It’s an arrangement by pianist Christopher O’Riley, known for creating classical versions of songs by the likes of Radiohead, Elliott Smith and even Nirvana.
If that seems an unlikely mixture, it comes naturally to O’Riley, whose day jobs include hosting NPR’s “From the Top” and PBS’s “From the Top From Carnegie Hall.”
“I’ve actually been doing popular things just about ever since I’ve been playing the piano,” he said. “I started when I was 4 years old playing the piano, and I think it was in sixth grade when I started my own rock band.”
He was seriously pursuing both classical and popular music until college, when he decided to focus on classical.
It was when he began hosting “From the Top” that he started to develop classical arrangements of popular songs.
“It was a great way to include other pieces in the show,” he said. “It had been originally designed as a show about young musicians in general, but our constituency on the radio is basically a classical-music audience. I would play a solo piece every week, and that is when I started doing arrangements of these popular things to present a wider point of view.
O’Riley of Cleveland has done some concerts that mix classical composers with popular ones that share a common thread – Radiohead with Dmitri Shostakovich, Elliott Smith with Robert Schumann, Nick Drake with Claude Debussy.
These days, though, he’s moved toward more spontaneous concerts.
“My last record was called ‘Out of My Hands,’ which refers to a slice of a Tears for Fears song on the record. But in terms of a recital, it makes it possible for me to not print the program but announce it from the stage and therefore be able to incorporate new pieces.
“I do some classical, but I’m also adding things as recent as things that I’ve arranged last week or received in the mail last month.”
How does he choose songs to interpret?
One might say they choose him.
“It’s what pops up on the iPod or what someone recommends to me,” he said. “Often, the idea is that it’s a song that I can’t put down, something that I have to listen to 800 times, and about the 700th time, I realize I could make it work on piano. I don’t listen to things to find new things to work on piano, but I do have it in the back of my mind.”