Classical pianist Christopher O’Riley has covered songs by Radiohead, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, but his latest venture finds him taking on something far noisier. His cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” came out yesterday as an iTunes exclusive (it gets distributed to other online retailers next week) and it’s probably the most dissonant thing O’Riley’s done to date.
“There’s just something about the opening arpeggio with that down-tuned guitar that’s really nice,” says O’Riley, who lives in Sagamore Hills. “You’re caressing the ebony keys on the song. It feels great when you play it. The other thing was trying to transfer the noise to a harmonic template. The weirder I made the harmonies, the more fun it was to know that they would come back. The song’s immensely varied. It ends up being a roller coaster. When my friends hear it, they always say, ‘Oh no, here comes that chorus.’ They’re looking forward to it, but it’s also an onslaught. It’s a real gas to play.”
O’Riley says he had to take a different approach than he did when covering Radiohead’s music, which can also be noisy. “The noise becomes a liberating force,” he says. “With Nirvana, you’re talking about grunge noise. With Radiohead, there’s a lot of synthesized noise and that becomes much harder to translate to the piano. With something like ‘Let Down’ or ‘Airbag,’ where there’s an instrumental that has nothing to do with written harmony at all, you try to take the harmony of the song and make it take that dramatic shape. In this case, you can really approximate the sense of chaos and desperation and darkness. And it’s actually sort of luminous.”
O’Riley, who hosts PBS’ classical music program From the Top, performs in Columbus with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra on May 8. The performance will mark his conducting debut. “The Columbus Symphony has been having a hard time and for this show, we can play some great music and personalize the process,” he says. “It’ll be like the Sportscenter for orchestras. We can talk to the musicians and that gives the audience a chance to get next to the Columbus Symphony, which is really great.” —Jeff Niesel