Programming for a new audience — Shuffle.Play.Listen

Shuffle.Play.Listen — that’s the title of a Matt Haimovitz/Christopher O’Riley double CD, which I should have blogged about ages ago, especially after I heard Chris and Matt play a version of it live.

Among much else, it revolutionizes the cello/piano repertoire. (Here’s a Spotify link  if you want to hear it.) When I heard it live (at George Mason University in Virginia), the pieces were announced as (or after) they were played, rather than being listed in order in the program. So I had no idea what the first piece was.

Clearly 20th century, I thought. A composer with a lot of cello/piano chops, someone who’s an expert at writing for those instruments, separately and together. And who’s also full of drama. And has imagination. Style a little hard to place. Post-1945, I thought. But who? Couldn’t think of anyone who sounded quite like this. I don’t claim to have exhaustive knowledge of the repertoire, but really, I thought, if someone was this good, wouldn’t I at least have some small clue?

Turned out to be a piece from Bernard Herrmann’s score to Vertigo, the Hitchcock film. Of course I’ve heard Herrmann’s music, so maybe I should have recognized him. But…cello and piano? I wouldn’t think he’d written cello/piano music. So he never entered my mind.

And of course he didn’t write this piece for cello and piano. Chris arranged it, instantly — in my view, anyway — adding a stunning new work to the cello/piano repertoire.

You’ll find an entire suite from Vertigo on the CDs, plus arrangements of Arcade Fire and Radiohead songs, songs by other pop groups, a stunning John McLaughlin track, “A Dance of Maya,” which was a virtuoso highlight of the live performance, just about bringing the crowd to its feet.

Plus (in the CD) the Stravinsky Suite Italienne, and pieces by Martinu, Janáçek and Astor Piazzolla. Stravinsky and the two Czechs of course wrote their pieces for cello and piano. But the arrangements sound just as idiomatic. You aren’t conscious, hearing the pop tracks, that you’re hearing some different breed of music, one in which the roles of cello and piano are simpler. No way. This is terrific cello/piano stuff, all the way through. As I said to Matt and Chris after the concert, they should publish the arrangements, and cellists everywhere should play them.

On the CD, you first get Herrmann and the classical stuff, and then, on the second CD, the pop and jazz. Which makes less difference than you might think, though the simpler, more melodic, less contemporary pieces are on the classical side.

But I loved more hearing the pieces shuffled together life. I never knew what was coming, and could (for instance) lean back into the very classical sound of Martinu, without feeling that it fit into a long classical span. That’s one reason I’m so intent on saying that every piece was serious cello/piano rep. Because, with styles mixed together, that’s how it sounded.

So why is this another model for what classical music can be, when we have a new audience? Because it fits perfectly into our wider world. There are many kinds of music. Here are two terrific players, making their own selection. That’s what most of us do when we listen, streaming or playing CDs. So now a classical concert isn’t isolated from the larger world, or perhaps a refuge from it. It’s part of the world, and every note of the music shows that. Even every note of the classical pieces, because let’s never forget that classical music is — and deserves to be — part of the wider culture. It just hasn’t functioned very well as that.

Which this recording — and the concerts derived from it — help to change.

The crowd at George Mason was hard to peg. Not quite the classical audience we all know, but not a young, tattooed crowd, either. Eclectic people in their 40s and 50s? Anyhow, an expansion of the classical audience, I’d guess, with some classical people in it. Exactly the kind of audience we’d hope to get, once we widen our reach. 


And — this is a point I can’t stress enough — I’m not saying that every moment in every classical performance has to be new and eclectic. We’ll have to see what evolves, but I’d expect a wide-ranging mix. Especially since what gets performed ultimately comes from the musicians! Some will favor older music, some newer. Some will favor classical pieces, others will be more diverse. 

What’s crucial is to rule nothing out. All-Schubert one night, Les Noces the next weekend, Shuffle.Play.Listen midweek, and then a student-crafted concert like the one in my last post happening down the street. Then a Stockhausen retrospective, and then my friend Stewart Goodyear playing his Beethoven marathon, all the sonatas in a single day. If the Kennedy Center here in DC programmed its big events like that, I might be there every week. 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Carlos Fischer says

    I don’t pretend to wane nobody’s musical merits but, are you sure that rock/pop arrangements have the power to revolutionize the classical cello/piano repertoire? in what sense? your assertion sounds to me a bit unfair in regards to those great modern/contemporary truly classical works in this format. Far from pretending to be a specialist in this particular repertoire, please take a listen ( in case you haven’t heard them yet) to Lera Auerbach’ s , Valentin Silvestrov’s ,Peteris Vasks’ and many others’( living composers) sonatas and pieces for cello and piano.

    Just as a footnote: Do you want to hear great modern/contemporary cello/piano music ? pick Leo Ornstein cd : works for cello and piano played by Joshua Gordon and Randall Hodkinson and, a cd of Martinu, Kabelac and Janacek music played by Tomás Jamnik and Ivo Kahánek….Of course and again, these suggestions are in case you haven’t heard this music yet.These cds are a treasure for me from the modern/contemporary piano/cello repertoire.

    • says

      I certainly didn’t mean to exclude other cello/piano music! My only point was that by playing film scores and pop arrangements — and by making them into cello/piano pieces that can stand next to the classical cello/piano repertoire — Chris and Matt made it possible to have a cello/piano concert that would speak to lots of people outside classical music .

      Carlos, have you listened to the album? I’d be curious to know what you think.

  2. Carlos Fischer says

    Thanks Greg for answering ….Finally!! ha,ha….

    I didn’t listen to the cd ; but Greg , this is irrelevant here . What ‘s relevant is that CM has been losing audience and I don’t think that “the transcription way” will help to restore and to increase its audience. Please note that historically , transcriptions inside CM are a commonplace; but, transcriptions and arrangements from other music genres to wrongly called “classical versions” never succeeded to enter and to remain in the CM repertoire. Perhaps the only exception to this is the fabulous Ferde Grofe’s version of “Rhapsody in Blue’ . Also, film music ; that is, “ original soundtracks” are far from being the core of the CM repertoire and never helped to bring and to engage a younger audience to CM in a sustainable way. As I said ; my point of view has nothing to do with Chris and Matt musical merits and nobody’s music taste ; the fact is that generation through generation , the interest in CM is going down which means that the incredible CM repertoire that is continuously renovating itself by its traditional compositional method with new symphonies, new concertos, new sonatas, etc. is becoming an unsung art and I don’t think that to overcome this situation , CM needs to “appeal” to this type of transcriptions as a crutch . Indeed , Chris O’riley is being recording transcriptions CDs for quite a while because , first of all, he likes what he’s doing and surely is a good thing for him ; but as a whole and in a medium and long terms it won’t stand as one of the solutions for CM ; this CD is a kind of sample that CM is in crisis, is “part of the problem” that you extensively point out in your blog ; I don’t know about any pop musician arranging classical pieces , I don’t hear any Jazz musician arranging classical pieces to sell out

    • says

      Pop and jazz musicians work with classical pieces quite a bit. Beautiful example: Enigma’s song “Callas Went Away,” with a sensitive Maria Callas sample. But that’s only one of many, many examples.

      The main thing, though, is that all musical genres are melding, blending, mixing, and matching in our time.

      As for transcriptions, how about folk music transcriptions and paraphrases and imitations from Brahms, Bartok, and many others? Or the use of folk music traits and melodies in larger pieces?

      But the main thing, Carlos, is that we can’t make rules about what the future will or should be. Things are changing too fast for that. In your own work, you can allow or disallow whatever you want. If you teach, or if you’re a critic, or in comments here, you can praise or condemn whatever you want. But the future is moving faster than you are, or than any of us are. Better to celebrate the wonderful things that emerge, rather than saying, “No, this isn’t what classical music should be.”

      Especially when you haven’t heard the music you’re objecting to. My point, after all, was that these transcriptions aren’t recognizable as transcriptions, unless you know the originals. They sound like new cello/piano compositions. If you haven’t heard them, how can you be sure I’m wrong?

      • Carlos Fischer says

        Ups!!! Please Greg , you’re saying things that I didn’t say at all!!!

        First , I didn’t object the music. This album could be fabulous !!!!! Please don’t get me wrong!!!! RadioHead is a great band and Chris is a fine pianist ( I have his CD with Scriabin pieces that stands with the best!) …the probability of good music from this “mix” are high!

        Second, I reiterate that i don’t know about any pop/jazz/rock musician recording and releasing full CDs of jazz/pop/rock versions of CM as systematically Chris, with his classical versions, does since quite a while. Am I wrong on this??? Chris has recorded since 2003 , 5 CDs in a row and all of them, full piano arrangements from Radiohead, Pink Floyd , Elliot Smith, etc. Of course pop/jazz/rock musicians work with CM , but they do it eventually , Just as Enigma does and they don’t brand themselves with this musical approach as Chris O’Riley already branded himself . Everybody knows that there’s many pop/rock /jazz songs and pieces with classical influences in many ways..….please! come on!!!

        Third, you know as I know that classical music is blending, mixing with other music genres from decades to centuries ago. Please be aware that i am not to talk about the innumerable transcriptions and arrangements that CM composers made (and make) from other CM composers’ pieces. Composers like Brahms, Bartok , Dvorak and others adopted folk tunes and themes , ethnic music to compose entirely new classical pieces that fully belong to them and not to the source of inspiration. Chris and Mat can not say that they composed these pieces ; well, they arranged them for cello/piano. Whether these pieces sound like brand new compositions ; from your words, I have no doubt ; but the most probable is that these pieces will remain , will be remembered and referenced as arranged rock pieces . Again, there’s nothing wrong with this; but a fact is that these kind of “direct transcriptions or arrangements” from pieces of other music genres are hardly to be considered as additions to the classical repertoire . Like it or not, fair or unfair , is a provable truth until now. In Chris’ case , since 2003, I don’t see it happening.

        Fourth, since I participate with some comments, you’ve blogged about 4 CDs : O’riley’s RadioHead transcriptions, Maya Beiser’s featuring her arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir , Jenny Lin’s Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and this last one . But I am surprised that you haven’t blogged yet about any CD release with music from living CM composers. Why is that? Perhaps you’re right , it confirms that they don’t speak to our current culture.

        • says

          Carlos, it’s very hard to predict the future, to know for sure what’s going to be important and what isn’t. To a certain extent, I trust my instinct. After working in this field for close to 40 years, and seeing many new developments come and go (and some become permanent), I’m willing to trust my instinct. Especially because I’ve also spent a lot of time outside classical music, and trust my instincts about the culture classical music is surrounded by. So if something feels like a significant departure, one that could make a difference, I’m willing to say so. I can’t prove that these cello/piano arrangements point in an important direction. But — by much the same logic — I’m impatient with abstract reasons for saying they won’t be important. How do we know? We’re all just speculating, me included.

          One transcription that’s stayed around quite a while, by the way, is Pulcinella. Of course, we know that it s not a literal transcription. But can we really say that a cello/piano arrangement of an Arcade Fire song is any more literal? Maya Beiser’s Led Zeppelin arrangement feels very much like an arrangement. One of its subtexts is, “I’m playing Led Zep!” And that’s one of the reasons it’s exhilarating.

          Chris and Matt’s arrangements don’t feel like that to me. They feel like cello/piano music. Though maybe they wouldn’t to you.

          Finally, I have to say I’m flattered that you track what I talk about so closely. I started writing about music publicly in 1980, and in that time I’ve written about countless new pieces by living composers. I suspect, in fact, that I’ve written more about new pieces than about anything else. If I haven’t done so in recent months, I don’t think that requires any special explanation. If anything, it’s because I’ve moved from New York to Washington, and now am in a place where there just isn’t as much new music performance as I’ve been used to in the past. Also, for many reasons having to do with the way I’m forced to spend my time (I do much more traveling than I’d like), I don’t go to as many live concerts as I used to. So I hear less new music. I get a steady stream of new CDs, but it might happen just by chance that no new piece particularly strikes me for a period of months.

          Also, my writing here is focused on particular topics. So maybe new pieces don’t figure as much in what I’m focused on. Take, for instance, the Paul Moravec piece at the concert I loved so much at the U of Maryland. It’s a workmanlike piece, well crafted, energetic. It makes no new statement, but it did make a rousing finish to the concert. I didn’t see any reason to focus on it in writing about the concert, since what interested me about the concert was its overall flow. I could have spent time on the excerpt from the Cage string quartet (which has long been a favorite piece of mine), or the Arvo Part piece (I love Part). But none of that seemed essential for what I was trying to do.

  3. Carlos Fischer says

    Footnote for my previous comment : Erase the word “being” ; It should be : Chris ….is recording……. ….lapsus linguae!