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Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context

By Published: October 9, 2006

AAJ: You rearranged Beethoven's Opus 120, the Diabelli Variations, for your 2002 CD of the same name. You performed this work with Concerto Köln. These are Beethoven's variations on a Diabelli waltz, and it's certainly one of the best sounding records I've ever heard—the 1839 piano you play here being a huge part of that. I'm no expert on Beethoven, but I particularly like Variation XIX and XX; they're wonderful arrangements. I will say that I was struck by the information being carried in your piano work here—I heard bits of Wagner and Mozart, for example. Variation VII alone contains quotes from Beethoven's Fifth and Third symphonies. It's remarkably dense and information-packed. Was there any intention behind this?

UC: I guess that I tried this in another way with the Goldberg Variations. But the connect between theme and variation is a form that's used in classical music where a simple theme is then developed. The harmony of the theme is used as sort of the underlying grid upon which the composer then composes many different pieces in different styles. But using that same recurring harmonic pattern really recalls how jazz musicians take standards and then use the harmonic pattern of that song to generate chorus after chorus of improvisation. There's sort of a direct correlation between those two things. I'm not saying that jazz musicians study theme-and-variations, but when we realize that we can improvise on these songs, it's the same principle of harmonic structure yielding a whole flow of different pieces.

And in classical music, it's a much different form than, let's say, the more developmental forms like the sonata form, where the composer will propose one or two themes and then develop them, and then conclude with those themes—so you have this whole journey where these themes are subjected to all these different changes. In a theme-and-variations, especially in the really great ones written by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, it's more about showing the composer's versatility. The variations—and usually these are short pieces—follow one another, and they're seemingly disconnected. You can go from something that's very complicated to something that's very simple to something very contrapuntal to something that doesn't have any counterpart to something that refers to other composers' styles. But underlying it is the same harmony throughout the whole thing. It's static and also very changing. So it has a different feel than the sonata form.

I read a book about the Diabelli Variations [Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, Oxford University Press, 1989] by a pianist named William Kinderman. He now teaches at the University of Illinois. It's really a wonderful book. He takes the sketches of Beethoven and he sees how Beethoven is struggling. A famous story is that there was a publisher in Vienna named Diabelli who wrote a very banal waltz and then asked 50 composers in Vienna at that point to write one variation and he'd put them all out in a folio of all 50 variations by all the composers. And when he asked Beethoven, Beethoven famously refused and said, "I'm not one of 50! And then, in total sarcasm, started writing these variations that parodied what he thought were the banalities in Diabelli's theme. Then Kinderman starts relating how Beethoven stopped; he didn't finish the piece. He went on to write other pieces, but in the meanwhile, he'd become fascinated again by Bach's counterpoint—he was studying that. And that's reflected in a lot of his later works. Then he went back to the Diabelli Variations and added these very contrapuntal pieces that, in a certain sense, are sort of an archaic idealization of Bach. So it goes from being these very cynical, sarcastic pieces to these very, very contrapuntally intense pieces.

So when I read that, I was thinking about that maybe it would be interesting to take this piano piece and orchestrate it—but have the piano be sort of the free agent that could parody the parodies, but then, by the end of the piece, add counterpoint to the counterpoint. And then also have variations where the pianist would be playing by himself and again, make references, using the same harmonic framework that the Diabelli theme had—to quote other pieces by Beethoven to refer to other music. So Variation XVI has this bass line that Fats Waller could have played, and when I've played it after that recording was made, I've usually played it on a modern piano and with a modern orchestra. But if I felt like commenting on different elements, if I was playing in a certain place, I could do something else—in other words, it's a very flexible form because you can use the chord changes to make up your own variations. Then, while the orchestra is playing the Beethoven arrangement, you can still improvise against that.

I think it's a really different idea than the theme-and-variations I did with the Goldberg Variations; there, I really wanted to emphasize the fact that in that piece, every variation is played by a different ensemble in a different style. Even when we're playing the Bach original variations, we're using different instruments, sometimes adding improvisations, sometimes adding electronics. And then I was writing my own set of the variations also based on the Bach theme. But in the case of the Diabelli Variations, it's much more static. It's more like a piano concerto. This was written for Concerto Köln; this is a group that plays ancient instruments. They're not improvisers. And this was my solution to that problem; I would be the improviser and it would sort of be this mini-piano concerto.

I have to say that I've had the chance to play that piece with a lot of different orchestras at this point, really all over the world, and it's interesting to see how the players respond to it. Because usually, you're playing it with classical symphony orchestra musicians, and you can tell that some of them are scandalized by it. You know, like, "How can you be playing all this stuff over Beethoven? But on the other hand, to those that understand about improvisation, it's okay. And you can bring in moments of Beethoven's sarcasm by, as you say, bringing in other elements that are, I guess, meant to be humorous. But then, there are other times where the music becomes very solemn and very—well, I use the word "archaic, not to mean old-fashioned, but in the sense of that veneration of the past, that idea of referring to tradition without it being a straitjacket. You're actually being liberated by being able to refer to all these glorious monuments from the past in a contemporary way.

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