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Critically acclaimed concert pianist Christopher O’Riley’s recording of “Heart Shaped Box” (originally composed by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain) will “engender sustained hearing loss, under repeated and hi-res sound reproduction, I kid you not,” he says. The man who spans vast musical genres with the seemingly simple spread of his talented hands is not kidding. You’ll find this sternum-vibrating song on Out of My Hands, releasing 18 August. O’Riley talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about a wide range of artistic sources that fuel his expansive repertoire.


1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Funnily enough (speaking of crying), the last times I remember crying at movies have been Tim Burton films, Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish, with Danny Elfman soundtracks. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was astonishingly beautiful, and brought tears, too.


I read a lot, and although there’s a lot of fiction I love, few books have caused a tear. I’d have to say, though, as far as being viscerally and emotionally on the edge, there’s been nothing more powerful for me lately than Night and Fear by Cornell Woolrich and The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby, Jr.


2. The fictional character most like you?
I always imagine myself as Jimmy Fingers, the pianist/mobster played by Harvey Keitel in James Toback’s Fingers (later more pallidly remade as The Beat that My Heart Skipped). 


More realistically, it’d have to be Fred Fitch, protagonist in Donald E. Westlake’s God Save the Mark, about a guy who’s the constant and gullible target of scams and shysters.


Or The Dude.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Beatles: Revolver.


cover art

Christopher O’Riley

Out of My Hands

(Mesa Bluemoon; US: 18 Aug 2009)

Review [5.Oct.2009]

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
George Lucas has proven over time his reverence for the Wagnerian span of epic/serial storytelling/myth-making, but little passion or magic in the tale itself. Star Trek has the myth, the magic and, in retrospect, the mirth. And William Shatner, you had me at ‘Rocket Man’.


5. Your ideal brain food?
I read almost constantly, an hour in the morning while on the stair machine, and all the time in airports and in flight. That’s about five books a week.


Interspersing lighter fare (crime novels by Donald E. Westlake and his various pseudonyms, Andrew Vachss, Joe R. Lansdale, Ken Bruen, Megan Abbott, Jason Starr, Duane Swierczynski, Allan Guthrie) between the heavier stuff: I’ve read everything by David Foster Wallace, Sir Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Charles Dickens. James Joyce, Mark Z. Danielewski, Milan Kundera, Irvine Welsh, Chuck Palahniuk, Dawn Powell, William T. Vollmann, Stephen Graham Jones, Jerry Stahl.


Lately I’ve been getting into Roberto Bolaño (I‘ve read 2666, The Savage Detectives and some others) and Jean Echenoz (Big Blondes, Ravel).


I also regularly consume MSNBC.


cover art

Christopher O’Riley

Home to Oblivion; An Elliott Smith Tribute

(World Village; US: 11 Apr 2006)

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
“Heart Shaped Box” (originally composed by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, on Out of My Hands), partly because there’ve been a lot of songs by a lot of different artists that I’ve wanted to play. It’s always been about ‘the song’, rather than doing a tribute to a given artist’s work, that’s driven my desire to play a particular song. (It’s just that along the way, there’ve been an inordinate number of Radiohead songs ( True Love Waits), Elliott Smith songs (Home to Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute), etc., I’ve been unable to stay away from, so compelling is their musical rhetoric, their sensuous harmonic language.) 


I’m also proud of this record because Paul Geluso set out to get the best recorded sound out of the piano, and I think his take on piano sound, my piano sound, raises the bar. It’s not mixed like a classical recording.


“Heart-Shaped Box” will engender sustained hearing loss, under repeated and hi-res sound reproduction, I kid you not.


7. You want to be remembered for…?
The depth of my connection with the music I play.


8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Artur Schnabel, Russell Sherman, Gunther Schuller, Glenn Gould, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Rushdie, Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Lansdale, Danielewski, Pynchon, Bruen, Bely, Nabokov, Bolano, Wallace, Trollope, Marlowe.


9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.


10. Your hidden talents…?
I’m really bad at cards.


cover art

Christopher O’Riley

True Love Waits: O’Riley Plays Radiohead

(Sony; US: 10 Jun 2003)

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Stick with your Classical piano studies.” Billy Taylor, to a pre-teen Me, after my Dad had dragged me up to meet him at the Vanguard bandstand.


12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My house in Beachwood Canyon.


13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Loose shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Weather accordingly.


14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Michelle, my girl.


15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Why bother? The best works of Art encompass, embrace and embolden their whole history: Stravinsky, Pynchon, Mitchell, Shostakovich, Shakespeare, Danielewski, Ellington, Gesualdo, Selby, Bruen, Volmann, Bolano.


16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
The Dude abides.


17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Lo-carb Monster, Power bars, Patron Silver


18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Ohio, in the country.


19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
In all my life, I’ve never trusted a national leader as much as I do you.


20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Whatever comes to mind: I’m getting some modern Classical projects up, some Canons by Kenneth Fuchs (inspired by Don deLillo’s Falling Man), Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel deFalla, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.


I also just finished a version of Elliott Smith’s un-released track, “True Love”, that I’ve been looking forward to completing for quite a while. (I’m very happy with it, putting it on all my sets), and that track from Donnie Darko has been haunting me, so yeah, now a cover-of-a-cover? Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” as played/sung by Michael Andrews for the soundtrack. It does sound very nice, though.


Photo (partial) by Da-Hong Seetoo

Photo (partial) by Da-Hong Seetoo


Karen Zarker, Managing Editor at PopMatters, works with a talented array of writers throughout the magazine. She manages the PopMatters Books Series, and also holds many behind-the-scenes operational responsibilities. She can be reached at zarker(at)popmatters.com.


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