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Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context

By Published: October 9, 2006

AAJ: I like the originals that are on that record. Do you write specifically for this band? Were those songs composed for the trio?

UC: Yeah. A lot of times, when I'm just writing, I can imagine it being played by bigger groups with horn players. I'm not necessarily thinking of the trio when I'm first thinking about writing pieces and working them out. I guess, since it's the group that I'm playing with the most, a lot of the things that I'm writing end up being played by that group. You know, if I'm dealing with other projects where people are saying, "We're getting together a group and we need some music, or if I'm writing for a very specific concert or occasion, where I have a different instrumentation, then I write in that situation too. And then I later transform it back for the trio—just playing it on the piano, trying to approximate what that would sound like. But I think a lot of times what happens is that when you're on the road, that music you're playing there is in your ears. That group is in your ears. So naturally what ends up coming up when you're composing is for the group that you're thinking about at that point.

AAJ: I think we're going to be moving into a rather large area now, because the recording that came out before the trio set is your Gustav Mahler exploration Dark Flame, from 2003. This continues your creative interaction with Mahler that began with 1997's Urlicht/Primal Light, and your overall engagement with various classical composers that include Wagner, Beethoven, Schumann, and Bach. I get the impression Mahler's your greatest love, however—and Dark Flame is really too remarkable, too dense, to sum up in a few lines. Let's just say you've composed pieces that utilize Mahler compositions and that include lyrics, both sung and spoken by a variety of sources—Mahler and his frequent librettist Friedrich Rückert, of course, but also from some contemporary poets and some ancient ones as well. The arrangements cover a variety of styles and instrumentation—it's pretty fearless and very good. Your approach to these composers isn't always the same, but there is always a willingness to use the materials to create something new. Any insight into this area of your career, and into this work in particular?

UC: Well, as you said, the first Mahler record that I made was back in '97. Since that record came out, I've had the opportunity to play that music a lot on the road and to sort of develop it with a core group of players. And because Mahler's forms, especially his symphonies, are so long and complex, in the beginning I was gravitating towards his songs, which are shorter forms, but which really encompass a lot of different types of emotions and feelings. So I think that Dark Flame was an attempt to make a CD that was really derived from Mahler's songs, which, in a way, have certain forms and certain references which I used as a jumping-off point to make my arrangements. So all of the pieces—almost all of them—include some form of lyric and some form of either singer or poet who's being supported by this group. Certainly, there are many strands of thought in Mahler's songs, as well as his symphonies. You've got some of the Kindertotenlieder that have a very folk-based feeling referring to Bohemian folk music, maybe klezmer music. There's the "Song of the Earth ["Lied von der Erde ], which was the big song cycle which he wrote at the end of his life based on Chinese poetry—which is interesting because a lot of Mahler's chinoiserie, based on that idea that he was going to capture Chinese music, ends up sounding very much like another type of folk music. So I just thought it would be interesting to take the songs that had the most, I guess, stereotypical Chinese sound, the pentatonic scale, etc., etc., and actually have Chinese musicians play that music as if it were folk music.

AAJ: Like on "The Lonely One in Autumn.

UC: Right. And it was very interesting to work with musicians who didn't necessarily know who Mahler was, but who, by the end of the session when we listened back, said it sounded like Chinese folk music. Then, when I played them the original Mahler, they were shocked. That's something that happens a lot to the musicians that play in my group. I mean, some of them know Mahler very well, but some of them don't—and I think if you present it as a certain form and let the improvisations give it a life of its own, and then when they go back to the original Mahler, they see what transformations have taken place. I guess I met Sepp Bierbichler about five years ago when I did a concert at the Munich Opera. He's an actor who's sort of a singer, but also he declaims the poetry, and working with him was really interesting, so I included him. In a way, some of the arrangements for his songs are straighter, but it's the idea of, instead of having this operatic singer singing them, to have this German actor declaiming them—sometimes in a kind of cynical manner. Because the lyrics reflect that. So he's talking as if he's a soldier going off to war; he's a drummer boy that's going to be killed. Or he's a prisoner in the tower, and doing this sort of duet with the poet Julie Patton. It gives him a chance to declaim, but the music has been transformed to reflect his distress. Other things, like taking a Kindertotenlieder—this is a well-known part of Mahler's mythology, he wrote these songs on the deaths of children, and then one of his children died and he felt that he'd jinxed the situation and even caused his child's death.

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