Photo: Pierre-Emmanuel Rastoin | Sacks & Co.

An Evening in a Crypt with French Classical Composer RIOPY

Risk-taking self-taught classical pianist RIOPY talks with PopMatters after his Death of Classical performance at the Crypt Chapel beneath Harlem’s Church of the Intercession.

Warner Classics
11 January 2023

New York’s Death of Classical brings live music to more unconventional locations in a city with countless performance spaces, from dive bars to legendary arenas. The series sells out unique concerts in cemetery catacombs at the United Nations and their original location, the Crypt Chapel beneath Harlem’s Church of the Intercession. It was there that French classical composer Jean-Philippe Riopy (RIOPY) performed an intimate solo session ahead of the release of Thrive, a record that finds him composing for strings in addition to the piano.

RIOPY is a self-taught pianist with connections to Coldplay’s Chris Martin (who gifted him a piano) and to Lana Del Rey (“Flo” is the bed of a track on her new song, “Grandfather, please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing”). But even with those notable connections and the six records he’s already released, RIOPY is hardly a familiar name. A few guests mingling at the pre-show reception intimated knowledge of his works (many were excited to catch a crypt show), but it was highly likely many came because they trust Death of Classical’s curation. Their trust was well rewarded. 

The experience was resplendent. RIOPY’s solo piano was enhanced by the chamber’s acoustics and some audience participation. RIOPY performed sequences from the forthcoming Thrive and earlier albums, including 2019’s Tree of Light and Bliss from 2021. He was generous in his introductions, describing his influences and recording with an orchestra. For the second piece, “Piano Allegretto”, RIOPY conducted the audience to hum along, and the additional resonance elicited goosebumps. He concluded his set with “Drive”, a piece he characterized as an explosive mix between the Tetris game and the scrappy fictional character, Indiana Jones. 

Following the set, RIOPY greeted audience members and had some time to answer questions about the show and Thrive via email. Below is our exchange.

During your performance, I believe you said you weren’t playing tracks but “sequences”. When composing, is the notion of creating sequences a guiding principle? What instructs your method?

You have good ears. Yes, they sound more like sequences to me than tracks. I see music as a part of a whole, having a particular effect on the mood and how we are. A sequence is more appropriate as there is an order, a way of being, and notes arranging themselves in a peculiar way, creating something unique every time. 

In prior interviews, you’ve shared how much Western composers have been an influence. But when you compared “Drive” to Tetris and Indiana Jones, I wondered to what extent are your compositions influenced by cinema or video games?

Well, I’m on a quest to find that perfect frequency. I’m a dreamer. I love thinking that a special combination of notes can create something utterly magical. I’m looking for the grail, like Indiana Jones… Just a bit less risky physically, although that could be up to debate…

I love taking risks when I play, and it is not as easy as people might think. Playing the right note at the right time and interval, and by improvising, you never know what you’ll find – like Indiana going nuts in the first film with that whip. I don’t use leather; I love animals too much.

About Tetris, well, let’s say notes put themselves together in a unique order, and by doing that, they create this magic. When those notes are together, they shine. It makes me think of Tetris, where each block finds an arrangement of cubes, and when they fit, the blocks go down. Oh, and they are geometric forms, like music notes, by 2, 4, 6, 8.

Ahead of your performance in the crypt, how did you anticipate the space would impact your sound? Did the results meet your expectations, or were there any surprises?

I had to change the set. The natural reverb was quite big. I absolutely loved it, but I could not play the same sequences the way they were intended. I played those pieces that I knew would fit the space and sound of that room. How gorgeous is that acoustic. I would not try a rock band in there, that’s for sure…

When you began working on Thrive, at what point did you decide you would include strings and additional accompaniment to your piano, and how did that impact composing?

Right at the beginning. I composed that way. I composed with the strings at the same time, hearing all those notes “tetrising” or rippling…It all started with “Costa Da Caparica” and the staccato strings. I loved doing that so much

Three notes in “Costa da Caparica” are so familiar… 

“Costa Da Caparica” was inspired by Satie’s famous “Gymnopédie“!

Each piece on Thrive has a self-contained mood. Is there an underlying theme that ties the songs together? 

Yes, Thrive. 

What’s one of your favorite pieces on Thrive?

It is hard to say one of my favorites as it does not sound fair to the other. I don’t want to make anyone jealous, but I could say that “Piano Allegretto” was the craziest to write. Every time I finish a record, after recording, mixing, etc., I go to the piano – it is pretty much a ritual – perhaps as a thank you note to my dear instrument. I just let go and start playing… “Piano Allegretto” is that sequence, composed and played at the end of Thrive‘s whole process, as the album’s latest one. 

I started playing those notes again and again, then recorded it the way I played it. Weird. I would not understand what I would play. I would not understand intellectually how that piece worked. It drove me nuts for weeks. I would wake up in the middle of the night trying to understand how that sequence worked…

Then, after a few weeks of struggle, my left brain finally got it. I was changing timing within the piece, moving from 3/4 to 4/4 all the way through “Piano Allegretto”, which is a very particular way of playing. It is so fluid and eerie that one would not think there are changes in time, like a variation one cannot really hear until one thinks about it. I’ve had OCD my entire life; I always count everything. The music needs to be geometric and in order. “Piano Allegretto” was not a straightforward number – quite the opposite – yet it sounds so “forward”. 

You are signed to Warner Classics. I find the typical usage of “classical” to be too constricted. How would you define your music? How would you define “classical” in the sense that there are other classical traditions outside Western or Euro-centric classical? Can we better separate traditions?

I love that. Yes, we should. I do not know how to see myself. I’d rather not know. Otherwise, I would feel trapped in something that I would try to leave at some point. Every time I feel trapped, I look for an exit inexorably. An exit music for a dream. Ha ha! (Sorry. Had to say that, from Tree of Light).