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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Christopher O'Riley is at it again with a new release called Home to Oblivion. O'Riley is a classical pianist with a love of rock and roll that borders on obsession. He was so taken with the British alt rock group Radiohead that he recorded two entire albums of his classical translations of their work. When performing, he now incorporates those compositions in his classical repertoire.

His latest CD is a tribute to Elliott Smith, the singer-songwriter who died in 2003 of an apparent suicide. Smith never achieved real stardom, but his melancholy songs attracted a cult following after an Academy Award nomination for Miss Misery, a song that appeared on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack.

O'Riley sat down at the piano in studio 4A to talk about his tribute to Elliott Smith. He says his fascination with the artist began with this song, Speed Trials.

(Soundbite of Elliott Smith's Speed Trials)

NORRIS: What was it that hooked you?

Mr. CHRISTOPHER O'RILEY (Classical Pianist): Well, I think it was, as a lyricist, he's extraordinarily expressive and he inhabits a really wide and deep world of lyrical expression. But also there was a sense of intimacy about his voice that I really think is unparalleled by anybody I can name.

NORRIS: So Speed Trials is where you had your moment of epiphany. It's now the song that you recommend to other people. Maybe it's where we should begin. I'd love to hear it. And talk to me a little bit before you play about how you begin the piece.

Mr. O'RILEY: One of the things that in the lyrics and in the music is an ambiguity in Elliott's music and in particular in Speed Trials, you don't really have a sense of whether it's a happy song or a sad song. I mean, if, for instance, I play the opening as he did.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. O'RILEY: You don't really know. It could be an E minor.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. O'RILEY: In which case it'll be quite sad. Or it might be in C major.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. O'RILEY: You really don't know. He doesn't really give it up for quite a while. So what makes it really nice on the piano is that all of those keys, C major, E minor, are predominantly white keys. So I mean, I could basically just kind of put my hands down and have the harmonic canvas, you know, just kind of set out for me. So I used a lot of that kind of ambiguity and hinting at the overall harmony rather than being didactic about it.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

NORRIS: You've often talked about the importance of harmony and texture. And Elliott Smith's work, it's usually just, you know, him sitting there with a guitar.

Mr. O'RILEY: Mostly.

NORRIS: The man and his instrument. When we listen to the music, where do we hear his voice and where do we hear the instrument?

Mr. O'RILEY: Well, it's interesting, because there are songs that I play on piano - one of them, Oh Well, Okay, is a very good example of putting Elliott's voice in exactly the register, the region of the piano in which it would sound naturally.

In other words, most of the time when you're playing a melody on the piano, you're playing it in the right hand. So, for instance, if I were to play a normal piano version of, let's say, Oh Well, Okay, you'd have the melody sort of in an accompaniment in the left hand and the melody in the right hand.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. O'RILEY: One thing that it's really impossible to do on the piano is that, you know, paying one note.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. O'RILEY: I mean, you don't really get a sense - you get a sense of what the melody is, but you don't really get a sense of what the voice sounds like. Luckily, we have the jazz tradition. We have Thelonious Monk, who played in what a lot of people refer to as wrong note style. So you'd have sort of playing between the cracks, he might've played -

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. O'RILEY: You'd have that source of plingency(ph) that he was trying to emulate the human voice, he was emulating the saxophone. Those kinds of things now can be done on piano because he did them. And so I use that. In Oh Well, Okay, as I do it, I leave the melody very much in exactly the register that Elliott did. And that, even in itself, has a tradition behind it.

There was a famous Chopin etude called the Cello Etude in which the melody was in the left hand and the accompaniment was in the right hand. So Oh Well, Okay becomes a sort of a 21st Century variation on a Chopin etude.

NORRIS: So the melody in this case is in the left hand.

Mr. O'RILEY: Starts out that way. It feels real good too.

(Soundbite of O'Riley's Oh Well, Okay)

NORRIS: When you translated Radiohead's work you made a point of never talking to members of the band. You said you didn't want to contaminate the process in any way. But as you got to know Elliott Smith after he died through his music, were there points or are there still points that you wish you could talk to him?

Mr. O'RILEY: Oh gosh, yes. Somebody actually asked me once, you know, if you could say anything to Elliott Smith, what would you say? I thought a second. I said, it's going to be okay, is what I wanted to tell him.

NORRIS: Christopher O'Riley, thanks so much for coming to talk to us and more importantly, to play for us. It's been a pleasure.

Mr. O'RILEY: For me, too. Thanks a lot.

NORRIS: Christopher O'Riley's CD is called Home to Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute. O'Riley is also host of the NPR program FROM THE TOP. And you can hear more of Elliott Smith's music and Christopher O'Riley's Interpretations at our website, NPR.org.

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