2.15.2012

LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERGS, Part I: Dan Tepfer


For the past year and more, I've been immersed in the world of Bach's Goldberg Variations,  with the making of my new album 13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined. I've been examining the history of this monumental piece of music, its place in the world and in my own life as a pianist. LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERGS is a series of conversations with other pianists who have likewise lived intimately with the Goldbergs, looking at this piece in many different ways.

Dan Tepfer is a brilliant NYC-based jazz pianist, whose wonderful new CD Goldberg Variations/Variations intersperses each of Bach's 30 variations with original jazz improvisations.



Mr. Tepfer not only enters what to many pianists is hallowed ground — he leaves his self-assured footprints all over. His jazz roots show through in the crisp articulation and rhythmic clarity of his counterpoint, in his glass-sharp attack and, above all, in his supple approach to time... He builds a bridge across centuries and genres to spark a dialogue with Johann Sebastian Bach.
—Corinna Da Fonseca-Wollheim, Wall Street Journal
Dan and I recently spoke about reinventing the Goldbergs, the power of transformation, and truth in music.


Lara: I thought we could start by sharing the histories of our initial entries into the world of the Goldberg Variations. Mine came from my babyhood, listening to the 1955 Gould recording with my dad. When did you first encounter the Goldbergs?

Dan: Mine was pretty early too, although not quite as much: I was playing chess with a good friend of mine (who later became the drummer in my first trio), at his place, when I was 14 or so, and he put on the Gould '81 recording. I was blown away with the Aria, and really shocked when the 1st variation came in!

Lara: Ah! So, starting from opposite ends of the spectrum, with those two recordings!

Dan: Yeah! Isn't that interesting? Which one is your favorite nowadays?

Lara: Well, still the early one - something about that totally audacious energy. And that version is pretty well burned into my consciousness.

Dan: So here's the funny thing— my favorite is still the later one, although I actually recognize that the earlier one is more amazing, probably better, really. But the late one is the one I first fell in love with.

Lara: But the very existence of the two recordings, that gives me tremendous hope as an artist, for the possibility of transformative growth and change during a lifetime.

Dan: Couldn't agree more. Of course it's hard to compete with Gould; the way he used this totemic piece to frame his life is just amazing. Like he had it all planned out ahead of time. So much of the magic of great music is that it allows the 'transformative growth' you talk about to come through. Something like the Goldbergs, which is so perfect, but leaves so much room for personal expression at the same time, is pretty incredible!

Lara: Yes! How have you dealt with the challenge of not playing the piece like Gould, not copying or emulating him? I was very afraid of that for a long time, for myself.

Dan: I think a big part of it, for me, was discovering other recordings that I loved. There's one in particular that I actually love just as much as Gould's: the later Pierre Hantaï harpsichord one. That was a revelation to me: a totally different take, but equally compelling. After listening to those two (and the many others that offer different views as well), all options are open.

Lara: I just played 13 WAYS in Toronto last week, and I was so moved to be playing the piece there, in Gould's birthplace. One more question about Gould. I guess I feel like that early recording of his took Bach pretty close to jazz. I think that's a large part of what reached out to the whole bebop generation. So how much did Gould's innovations open the door for future efforts like yours and mine, do you think?

Dan: That's a great point. I mean, I think it's clear that Gould is responsible for placing the Goldbergs in the international consciousness — making them universal music, as opposed to some specialist treasure. And that's a step that's essential before doing what we've been doing can even be possible.

Lara: Right. And I think that, just as his expressions were so clearly timely and meaningful for his generation, our projects are probably expressive of the genre-bending freedom that we're so lucky to have in our time, and the reality of bringing this music into the modern world, modern audiences.

Dan: Indeed.

Lara: I was talking to an interviewer the other day about the new place that Bach seems to have for very young musicians, kids. When I grew up, there was still this very "holy" atmosphere around the music, an almost overwhelming array of rules and restrictions. Certainly studying in Germany/Austria I felt that. But young kids now are approaching Bach in particular with a real freshness and boldness, very free and loose. A lot of real commitment to rhythmic pull, again that energy that Gould found in the music.

Dan: In a way it's hard for me to even picture seeing Bach’s music as restrictive. It's so pure, so open to interpretation. Just the notational aspect of it makes that clear.

Lara: Interesting to think about what is speaking through so strongly across these centuries.

Dan: Yes. It's truth. That speaks incredibly strongly, to everybody.

Lara: So, when you are combining both the original work and new improvisations in concert, are your takes on the original being influenced by the improvisational component? Or vice versa, or both?

Dan: Yes -- that's one of the most fun aspects of what I've been doing. It really feels like a conversation with Bach, to me. I start with him, then I react, in a way that's specific to the time and place of the performance. Then I let 'him', via me, react to that — as in, how would this particular variation be cast in response to the improvisation that came right before? And the way that variation comes out, in turn, influences the next improvisation, etc. So it's really like a dialogue, and it feels more and more like one the deeper I get into the text of the Bach and make it my own.

Lara: Oh, I love it that you're talking about a conversation! That's what I've been feeling about 13 WAYS. Those pieces are a three-way conversation: Bach, the present-day composers responding to Bach, and I as the interpreter translating both voices in real time. It's amazing. I can see exactly what you mean. It must be so incredibly different, every time you play.

Dan: Yeah, it changes quite a bit. But here's a question for you: have you considered including some of the original Bach variations in your playing of the 13 WAYS? Just to bring out a contrast, or to bring out Bach's own 'view'? Or do you feel that Bach’s variations are lurking sufficiently in the background?

Lara: Well, in the original set, as Gil Kalish premiered it at the Gilmore Festival in '04, there were only 12 new variations, because one of the 13 commissions didn't work out. So Gil inserted the 13th variation from the Goldbergs at the center. It was a lovely contrast.

Dan: That sounds great!

Lara: I have been thinking lately about extending the set with the addition of more of the original variations, some of Bach’s variations that match the new pieces in mood or direction.

Dan: I think that could be an interesting avenue to explore.

Lara: I know. It's funny, right now, with my album so recently out, I'm feeling a little bit wedded to that version, in terms of ordering of the pieces, etc. But I feel that changes are coming soon! How are you dealing with your recorded version of Variations/Variations, vs. the inherently new versions that come out each time you perform?

Dan: Well, I'm lucky in that I'm explicitly an improviser — that's part of the game. So I expect my audience to be ready for things being different. It even means that they might be interested in hearing it live more than once, to hear how it comes out on different nights.

Lara: You should bootleg all your shows and give audiences a choice of live/recorded versions! We all should do that, actually.

Dan: That's a great idea — and actually, there are already a bunch of versions creeping out on youTube. That said, I think there's something special about saying “here's a version that I think is worthy of being listened to”. That's not necessarily going to be the case with all the live performances!

Lara: Here's a funny story: I recently heard a recording of myself playing the Aria in a live radio broadcast, only I didn't realize that it was me, and I thought it was much more beautiful than my own playing, and very different!

Dan: I LOVE those sorts of moments. They're rare, too. Let's talk about the Aria. It's the only Bach that you play on 13 WAYS.

Lara: Yes, the Aria. Is there anything more exquisite in the universe? It takes my breath away every single time.

Dan: I think one of the appeals of the Goldbergs is the transformation of the Aria. Once you go through all of the variations, it is fundamentally different at the end. And, at once, the same. How do you feel it gets transformed with the pieces that you play in between? Presumably, quite differently than if you were playing the Bach variations?

Lara: Different, but not completely. Playing 13 WAYS, I find that every night, when I return to the Aria at the end it is tremendously different than the first iteration. It absorbs all the weight of everything in between. Don't you find that it is always weightier at the reprise? Almost with a sadness?

Dan: Is the Aria weightier at the reprise? Let me think — I'm not sure. Sometimes I feel like the opening aria is weighted down with expectation, and the closing one is simple, pure, cleansed — at that point there's no longer anything to prove. It's 'found itself' by then.

Lara: Oh, interesting. I can see that too, a letting go. Tell me about your audiences - are they mainly jazz audiences, classical, both/mixed? How does response vary from audience to audience, or from traditionally jazz-centric venues to classical ones?


Dan: My traditional audience has been a jazz audience, but this project has really opened it up, to the point where it seems to be very mixed now. And hopefully there are people there who are not particularly jazz / classical either. Because as you said earlier, that's where we're headed, and fast: to a post-genre music situation.

Lara: One thing I was expecting was some degree of suspicion, around "messing around" with something so iconic, but my listeners have been so open, so receptive to this new take on Bach. It’s been very moving. Did you have any of that trepidation, going into your project?

Dan: I also was a little bit apprehensive while I was making the record, but I figured that if it felt like it had integrity to me, then at least a portion of my listeners would hear that too. And the response has really been fantastic.

Lara: Right, the belief in it is what makes it work. The essential truth in this music, like you said before.

Dan: The thing is, Bach is untouchable — it's not like any of us can actually 'do' anything to him. So if our love of his music is clearly there, what can go wrong?

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