Arts Beat: Festival Mozaic to pair visual art with classical interpretations of Radiohead

Jul 20, 2018

As part of this summer’s Festival Mozaic, renowned pianist Christopher O’Riley will push the boundaries of classical music by performing songs of the rock band Radiohead, alongside visual interpretations from photographer Bryn Forbes. So the question is: why Radiohead?

Festival Mozaic has a long tradition of bringing world-renowned classical musicians to the Central Coast. For its first 37 years, it was called the Mozart Festival and mainly focused on the music of Mozart and other more traditional composers. But with the 2008 name change, the festival’s focus got wider.

“This concert is part of our series that we’re calling 'Unclassical,'” said Bettina Swigger, executive director of  Festival Mozaic. “It’s a series that we used to call the 'Fringe Series,' but we repurposed that title this year because it’s not on the fringe anymore.”

Christopher O'Riley performed the music of Radiohead on piano during a classical concert in San Luis Obispo a couple of years ago.

“He did a 'Notable Encounter' dinner, and as an encore he played some of his Radiohead songs," Swigger said.  "Everybody went wild. And it was primarily a group of people I reckon had never heard of the band Radiohead before.”

“I’m basically a sucker for a really good sensual harmony," O'Riley said.  "Radiohead has that, as does Ravel. Everyone takes away a different thing from their music, and mine is not lyrical. It is strictly musical and harmonic.”

“Radiohead and other artists that I am attracted to, to remake on the piano, usually have some sort of textural interest, like a Shostakovich or Bach fugue. An interweaving of voices that makes for a particular texture intrinsic to that one piece of music or that one composer.”

O'Riley said one of the best compliments he’s ever received was from musician Claude Frank.

“He’s the first person to ever record all the Beethoven sonatas in the [United] States," O'Riley said. "And he came in and said ‘I didn’t know Radiohead from a hole in the head, but I love the music and I love the piano playing.’"

For O’Riley’s San Luis Obispo performance, there will also be a visual component. Festival Mozaic’s Bettina Swigger had the idea to pair music with the atmospheric images of photographer Bryn Forbes.

“The Christopher O'Riley concert seemed like the perfect fit," Swigger siad. "It’s a little bit boundary-pushing, a little bit edgy, and I think it lends itself to a visual interpretation of sound."

Forbes grew up in San Luis Obispo, and said he’s looking forward to the collaboration.

“I want to add some visual accompaniment," Forbes said.  "His music is the spotlight and this is an ambient addition. It has been an interesting, new venture for me just to listen and think about how this is making me feel and how to make a visual representation of those feelings.”

Forbes said he is excited and a bit nervous about the Q&A session that will follow the concert.

“The one element that makes me nervous," Forbes said, "is that for some of the pieces, I’m relying on a sub-conscience response. I’m not sure why I’m pairing them. So then it becomes hard to articulate onstage other than just saying ‘It felt like a good pairing.’ I’d rather have analytical reasoning behind it.”

Some of his images show movement and others are detailed abstractions from nature.

“The world is full of beauty and whimsy and melancholy, and all the different things," Forbes said. "To bring those elements into our lives is important to me.”

Forbes will be bringing those elements to the collaborative concert with pianist Christopher O'Riley on July 26 at the Cuesta College Cultural and Performing Arts Center. Festival Mozaic has details on their website.

The Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.