The Section Quartet's Second-Rate Radiohead

The quartet's take on Radiohead only whet one's appetite for the real thing.
The quartet's take on Radiohead only whet one's appetite for the real thing. (By Colin Lane -- Umg)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Rebecca Ritzel
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 7, 2008

In 2001, the New Yorker ran a lengthy feature about Radiohead. The timing made sense -- the British rock band had just released "Amnesiac," its fifth studio album -- but the byline baffled some: Why had Alex Ross, the magazine's classical music critic, written the definitive profile of a rock band?

It took Ross 11 pages to explain why. Seven years later, the band remains one of few embraced by both erudite rock fans and classical concertgoers. A handful of musicians have turned the common affinity into a cottage industry. Instrumental tribute albums to Radiohead abound, the best of which are by Christopher O'Riley, a concert pianist and host of the radio show "From the Top." Running second is the Section Quartet, a Los Angeles-based ensemble that makes a living laying down string tracks for pop musicians. Tuesday night, the quartet performed Radiohead songs for a good-size crowd at Iota in Arlington.

It's safe to assume that many Gen-Xers in the audience started listening to Radiohead in college and never stopped. After opening the show with the locally apropos "Electioneering," the quartet tore through songs from "OK Computer" and "The Bends" in quick succession. At their best, the musicians used extended techniques to re-create Radiohead's rich textures. There is something to be said for hearing cello pizzicato so loud the reverb makes your clavicle tremble. Yet full-speed forte got the amplified musicians into trouble. When playing in unison on songs like "Paranoid Android," they tended to hem and haw out of tune, shredding their bows in the process.

And here is where the classical enthusiasts with a weakness for Radiohead may diverge from rock fans who want to hear the band in a different context. O'Riley's impressionist arrangements on piano stand as autonomous artworks; listening to the Section Quartet just motivates listeners to scroll through their iPods and hear the originals.

Pop music transcriptions are not a recent phenomenon -- Kronos Quartet has been playing "Purple Haze" since the 1980s -- but 2008 is shaping up to be a banner year for classical musicians to branch out. Violinist Hilary Hahn made headlines last spring by touring with folk-rock singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. The Ahn Trio, a classical ensemble with pop-crossover potential, has instead swung New Age. The group's new album features, of all things, ambient arrangements of the "Dies Irae" and Cole Porter. And later this month, the Hyattsville-based Low End String Quartet will play the Velvet Lounge. Group members call themselves "minimalist experimental classical" musicians. Believe it or not, that's a burgeoning MySpace genre.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company