Sounds Heard: Christopher O’Riley/Matt Haimovitz—Shuffle.Play.Listen
It’s not such a crazy idea anymore for performing musicians to mix arrangements of pop and rock songs with classical fare in a concert setting—after all, one can hear Sybarite 5 playing Mozart and Led Zeppelin, Alarm Will Sound performing arrangements of Aphex Twin tracks and Conlon Nancarrow, or rising star cellist Joshua Roman playing Dvorak one day, and then rocking a Radiohead song with DJ Spooky later that week. Given this state of affairs, it seems perfectly natural that cellist Matt Haimovitz, who in the very early 21st century moved the Bach cello suites out of the concert hall and into what were at the time “alternative” performance spaces such as bars and nightclubs, would join forces with pianist Christopher O’Riley, who has created his own piano arrangements of songs by Nirvana and Radiohead to name just a few. Their joint effort is Shuffle.Play.Listen, a two-disc set containing an assortment of classical works on one CD, and arrangements of rock tunes by six different bands on the other CD.
Although the title of the recording suggests that the music can be mixed and matched at the whim of the listener, the obviously thoughtful ordering of pieces on both of the CDs suggests otherwise. The five movements of Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo Suite are carefully sprinkled throughout the first disc, framing spirited performances of Janacek’s Pohádka (Fairy Tale), Variations on a Slovak Folksong by Martinu, Stravinky’s Suite Italienne, and Le Grand Tango by Piazzolla. The second disc contains arrangements by O’Riley of songs from Arcade Fire, Radiohead, jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, Blonde Redhead, A Perfect Circle, and—an interesting choice that I was glad to see, having been an avid listener in the ’90s—Cocteau Twins. According to the booklet that accompanies the CDs, which contains an interview with O’Riley and Haimovitz by author Daniel Levitin, the hope for this project is that audiences for each style will have a listen and realize that there is much to be absorbed and enjoyed in all of the music represented here.
Although the musical material on each disc is substantially different, several elements serve to smooth the leap between genres. That everything is molded to fit the cello and piano duo lends consistency to the two CDs, as does the idea that all of the works on both discs are, in essence, translations—from film, ballet, or song formats that employ visual and/or text material, to purely instrumental content. O’Riley claims that he chooses what songs to arrange based on the level of complexity they present—intricacies that are both musically compelling from the standpoint of a classical musician, and that can be effectively arranged for a duo format. The pieces from disc one already employ folk or popular influences as musical stepping stones, and so with disc two the musical view is simply shifted to place the spotlight directly on the songs themselves, all of which are constructed with musical material that can be traced to the classical tradition. Whichever way one chooses to listen—be it shuffled or linear—the implication that classical and rock music, when interpreted by capable ears and hands, are not so very disparate, is well-communicated in this recording.