Christopher O'Riley: Home to Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute

Robert R. Calder

There's more intensity than obvious variety, and a remarkable unity became manifest when I just started the CD playing and let it play through. Then the whole recital revealed itself as manifestly something massive, and the lack of superficial variety a development of consistency.

Christopher O'Riley

Home to Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute

Label: World Village
US Release Date: 2006-04-11
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Christopher O'Riley the musician has to be the focus of attention here, rather than the fellow musician whose most untimely death was marked on this site not much more than two years ago. The word 'tribute' is not misused here, and it is represented first by the very notable commentary on Smith's music and biography written by Mr. O'Riley as notes to this CD. It is also represented in an approach to Smith's music which avoids both of the species of parasitism commonly cloaked in misuse of the word 'tribute'.

On the one hand -- and not here -- there's that lifting of material which gives some people a living on account of their having toiled to sound and usually look like this or that performer simply by impersonation and imitation. They play on fixations with performers, fascinations with recorded performances which just rehearse the same sounds again and again. It’s not the major Beethoven specialist who shuns proper performance values for the sake of sheer precision, it's the so-miscalled tribute band: those people who lack sense of what the music means, and work from frozen response to frozen response, making not music so much as a state of being. Usually it's a sort of quality control mechanism for pub music.

This is, of course, ruled out in the present case, where a solo pianist and piano composer addresses the work of a musician who, as has often been the case -- and was the case with Furtwaengler -- was both a performer of others' music and a composer of his own original music: and Elliott Smith was specifically a singer and guitarist and writer of songs.

Mr. O'Riley makes the point well enough, and it needs making: for the real composer-and-performer, it's not a matter of playing his or her own music, turning the music of others into something other than itself or that of its author. It's a matter of really being informed by the work of composing, so that there's an unusual insight into the other composer's intentions. The other's music isn't absorbed with mongrel results: on the contrary, the genuine performer gets inside the other's music and performs it as very remarkably itself. There may even be a pioneering achievement, making possible the performance of the secondary composer's work by people other than him/ herself, a second and third and fourth interpreter. True objectivity and nothing mechanical.

What O'Riley is after is above all discovery, and the intensely pedaled opening to this performance of piano compositions, perhaps transcriptions or piano equivalents of orchestrations, does stir attention. The musical language is at the earliest twentieth-century, for all that there are lots of echoes of earlier composers of the nineteenth century piano repertoire, which is really the precedent for the present endeavour.

Coming to terms with this scale of piano performance, and listening to it quite apart from considerations of the original performed compositions which were its inspiration, I found it impossible to give any track by track account of the music. The individual titles didn't seem to represent very individual works. To consider this as just so many items, themes with variations, was an obvious start. Maybe that's how Christopher O'Riley views the music from very close up, but if that's so, I'd suggest he was or is too close up. There's more intensity than obvious variety, and a remarkable unity became manifest when I just started the CD playing and let it play through. Then the whole recital revealed itself as manifestly something massive, and the lack of superficial variety a development of consistency: one huge work, opening out into the suggestion of a culmination in what is called "No Life" but could as well be called variation or movement number 11.

Only the tenderness of "Between the Bars" could have carried through from that. "Christian Brothers" also opens tenderly, but more tenderly, more sparely after what is a virtuoso and dynamic work that suggests the advisability of having a stretcher in the wings if there is a complete performance. At the end, the pianist can reel there and be carried on to take his bow, washed out after not only a gigantic physical effort, but an emotional one as well. "Everything Means Nothing to Me" (track 14) is more climax with lots of huge bells. There are echoes of jazz, but more an American classical idiom pretty well coterminous with that. "Waltz #1" has more waves and bells, and if I've started describing the music only relatively late on in the course of a listen through, well, that's because I find definition coming more clearly after a lengthy steeping in the earlier stages of the music. "Waltz #1" also has a remarkable ending.

Possibly, at some later stage, Christopher O'Riley might be able to come back and sort out between the utterly essential in this music, and the superfluous and repetitive. A month relieved of other duties and I might be able to specify more details of the music here, Satie and some sort of post-Brahms. I suspect a rethinking which no longer tied the music to the eighteen separate items this long solo piano recital work was founded on could winnow something more concise. Concision isn't everything. Anyone looking for me immediately after I'd submitted this review would have been advised to look for me lying on a stretcher in the corner of my room, if the less expansive more impressionist palette of the closing "Bye" hadn't brightened me up and let me stay sitting up and take nourishment of an order different from what was supplied here. I wonder what the response will be of Elliott Smith enthusiasts not acquainted with heavyweight concert works for solo piano. It makes quite as big a claim on his behalf as do the pianist's written notes.


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