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Photograph by Wendy Lynch

In a New Yorke State of Mind: Despite his Radiohead fixation, Christopher O'Riley is not a creep.

OK Composer

UCSC Arts & Lectures opener Christopher O'Riley believes Radiohead and Shostakovich have more in common than you may think

By Peter Koht

Thanks to the Department of Homeland Security and the American Embassy in Spain, our shores are safe from the feverish Celtic dancing and bagpipes of Llan de Cubel. This group of Asturian musicians recently had their performers' visas revoked only days before the commencement of the 2005–06 UCSC Arts & Lectures Series. The honor of opening now falls upon the capable shoulders of Christopher O'Riley, classical pianist, radio host and scholar of subversive music.

O'Riley's concert program includes a heavy dose of political subtext. It features two seemingly disparate composers who have sublimated direct expression in favor of ironic phrasing and hidden messages: rock gods Radiohead and Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

"Shostakovich was one of the first composers that had to deal with music as subtext, not necessarily the direct expression of something, but the ironic displacement of musical expression," says O'Riley. The bulk of Shostakovich's publicly performed music, O'Riley explains, was concerned with "that which could be expressed and that which couldn't be expressed. He was the first composer in history to be reviled by the tyrant of the day. Stalin was basically sitting in watch on every new composition."

After the Soviet newspaper Pravda condemned Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth in 1936 in an article called "Muddle Instead of Music," the composer had to play his liberal-leaning cards closer to his chest to avoid the Great Terror. "It's kind of amazing to think that a composer would warrant that kind of attention," O'Riley says. "One can't imagine John Adams being called to the White House because George Bush didn't like his orchestration."

George might have more of an issue with Radiohead, whose latest record was called Hail to the Thief, a not-so-subtle jab at the hanging chads that gave the U.S. its first court-appointed president. O'Riley finds their music to be the perfect foil for the preludes and fugues of Shostakovich. "My idea was to have complexity and simplicity juxtaposed, because I thought it would help my concentration as a performer, and I think that it helps the audience in terms of relief from complexity."

In fact, it's this complexity that was a hallmark of the post-tonal style that led Shostakovich so far astray from Stalinist aesthetics. Finding refuge from orchestral works in composing for chamber ensemble and piano, the composer found a perfect vehicle for his harmonic inventiveness in the ancient art of the fugue.

"The fugue is arguably the most difficult kind of song to write," claims O'Riley. "You are dealing with one melody distributed amongst four voices. It's not exactly ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' I think there have been a handful of composers who have written fugues convincingly over the last four or five hundred years." In O'Riley's estimation, the 24 preludes and fugues of Shostakovich represent "the most important body of music to have come out of the piano in the 20th century."

When asked about incorporating hip rock songs into a recital of 20th-century piano literature, O'Riley observes that "I am adding new things to the classical canon, but this is not something that hasn't been done a lot before. For example, [15th-century Flemish composer] Josquin Des Prez would use a ribald folk song as a figured bass for the basis of an entire mass setting. That kind of porousness between genres has not changed so much through history."

Besides, O'Riley says, "People need to be given back their good judgment and not be told on the basis of genre prejudice what music is good."

Shostakovich Meets Radiohead happens Sunday (Sept. 25) at 7pm at the UC–Santa Cruz Music Center Recital Hall; $28–$40; see http://artslectures.ucsc.edu.

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From the September 21-28, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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