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Interviews

Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context

By Published: October 9, 2006

AAJ: What's interesting about this approach, and this particular work, is that the listener can go as deep as he cares to. Someone knowing nothing about any of this can still respond to, say, the sighing string chords of Variation XX. And someone could enjoy the entire piece without recognizing any of Beethoven's or your references. You can swim down as deep as you care to.

UC: That is the challenge. All of these attempts should make sense no matter what. If you didn't know any Mahler, if you didn't know any Beethoven, it's a success if it still sounds like something that can work. And, of course, if you know what the references are, or at least the history of the composers and how people are dealing with that through time and tradition, there's also that something there.

AAJ: Tell me what you've been doing recently. I know you premiered a double piano concerto in May with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra.

UC: Well, that started maybe a year ago. I was their composer-in-residence, so part of that meant I was composing music to perform with them. The conductor of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra is a musician named Jeff Kahane, who is also a great pianist. I think he was originally a pianist, but he's become the conductor of this group and now also the Colorado Symphony and other groups. This year is Mozart's 250th birthday, and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra played—or are playing, they're still in the process of doing it—every piano concerto that Mozart wrote.

So this piece was to be premiered on a concert where two other Mozart piano concertos were being performed. Not that the piece really refers to Mozart in any way, but the idea of writing a piano concerto fit in with these other works. And also because Jeff is a great pianist, one who improvises. I'm not sure that he would consider that his main thing, because he is primarily a classical pianist, but he does improvise. He's really a fantastic pianist. The idea was to write a concerto for the group which would have two pianists.

Actually, Mozart did write a two-piano concerto—there's not really any reference to it in this piece, but the form of it could be seen as reflecting that. Anyway, all of the orchestra parts are written out, completely composed. Jeff's part is almost totally composed, although there are some improvisational things where we're playing sort of back and forth. And my part is written, but there is also a lot of improvisation. The piece is written in three movements. I hope we'll be able to record it because it was a lot of fun writing and practicing and playing it, and it's a very good group. Some of the projects that I've done in the last couple of years have involved writing more for classical groups, and that's a challenge because it's dealing with composing in a different way, learning about orchestration. So for me it's been a really interesting experience.

Now I'm writing another piece that we're supposed to go on tour with next year in Europe. I'm going to be writing the piece mostly, I think for their principals; in other words, it'll be a chamber piece with maybe five strings, wind players and some of the horn players. And just one piano—me—with Jeff conducting. So my relationship with that group continues. And it's also really interesting because I get to go out to L.A. maybe three or four times a year, and a lot of the work involves teaching in schools where there are really no music programs at all—so you're just really bringing music to kids who maybe have never heard any live performers in jazz or classical or other types of music. And also, to try to involve them in some of the software that allows them to deal with the music that I know they're really interested in, so they can create that music. So there's that element. Also, playing around in different parts of L.A. So for me, it's the first time that I've ever done something like that and it's been a really interesting experience.

And in terms of other pieces that I've written for groups—before this, I wrote a piece for the BBC Orchestra which we played at the London Jazz Festival last November, which was a 25-minute piece with the trio with Ben and Drew as the soloists. So we were improvising a lot while they were playing the written piece. And I've also gotten a chance to write for other smaller chamber groups, like the Beaux Arts Trio. I wrote a trio for them which was premiered last year. And I wrote a piece based on the life of Isadora Duncan for two pianos that was premiered in Germany. I haven't really recorded that much of this music. Hopefully I will, because I sort of have a backlog of other stuff that I've done for Stefan Winter, and I don't want to just put out classical-type stuff. I want to be able to have a balance between a lot of the different stuff that I'm doing. So we'll see. I hope that it comes out.

In Rome, there's a new auditorium designed by Renzo Piano; it's this incredible concert hall with many different performance spaces and I'm doing concerts there this year. One of them is a piece that I wrote last year that's based on aspects of Luciano Berio's music—the Italian composer who passed away two years ago. He was working with an electronic music studio that he founded, which is, I guess, the more traditional, old style of electronic music studio where they're transforming live musicians. So the piece involves Jim Black on percussion and Ralph Alessi on trumpet as well as Julie Patton as a sort of vocalist and me on piano—with the electronic element transforming what we're playing as we're playing it. So I think that that piece will be recorded when we play it live again in Rome in November.

So in terms of writing concert music, that's one of the activities I'm doing. And in terms of writing for other forms, I'm writing some big-band music that's going to be played next year. I'm doing a project based on Hungarian music; it was originally supposed to be sort of around Bartók's music, but it's now transformed itself more into taking Hungarian music and playing it with a group of improvisers. We'll be doing it in a couple of months in Hungary.

I also do some theater stuff, mostly in Europe. I wrote a ballet for the Vienna Volksoper which is based on the story of Noah. Again, it hasn't been recorded. But hopefully it will be. And I would like to do some other CDs which have bigger groups in them—with improvisers, and maybe involving some of the musicians I'm playing with. But maybe adding more horn players.



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