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Uri Caine Goldberg Variations

Uri Caine Ensemble


Winter and Winter 910054-2


If you had to explain to someone with a good knowledge of music, but none of philosophy, what post-modernism is, you could simply play them this disc. Bach's legendary variations are varied again, in a bewildering variety of styles. Uri Caine's imagination is breathtaking; its versatility extends not just to juxtaposing Bach and more modern styles, but to seeing how other textures illuminate different variations within a Baroque idiom.


There is no attempt at completeness or unity; the idea is to show the infinity of composition and invention. As reviewers have remarked, there is more openness to Caine's Bach than there is to his Diabellis or his Mahler.


Among the most interesting results he shows how Bach's variation can be played as a sort of ground over which a very different improvisation, in jazz or ragtime, can be simultaneously heard. To vary the style, in other words, not wholesale, but as part of the aural picture. Or, to enact more than vary – the Quodlibet, for example, as if sung by a group of drunken revellers.


As PGW remarked when he reviewed this disc at time of release (original for S and H, appended below), the documentation is curiously patchy, emphasising jazzy modernity of presentation over actually telling the reader the source of and influences on each variation. Why? Caine could argue that re-interpreting art is not about scholarship, but about experience. The New Goldbergs function much as an installation in visual art; it is something of itself, it challenges, it does not present itself as ‘like' anything else.


While admiring Caine's skills, I have two caveats. First, listening to the Goldbergs, original or regurgitated, requires a significant emotional effort; some may well feel they would save such effort for the rewards the spiritually unified original brings. Second, something has to come after post-modernism; this endless chopping up and fragmenting is all very well as a self-analysis of Western civilisation, but leads, after a while, to a dead end. This is a recent piece; there is already something dated about it. But Caine could reasonably argue that no-one else in music has truly solved this problem either…..


Ying Chang


- - Also of considerable interest is Caine's working up of Bach's Goldberg Variations , which looks at this masterwork from many perspectives, yet without quite the meaningful assimilation which gives his Mahler project such an enduring resonance. The double CD Aria and 70 Variations for Various Ensembles ( W&W 910 054-2 ) has Caine playing a copy of a Silbermann fortepiano, a modern piano and a Hammond organ, with an assemblage of tracks from classical choral and instrumental groups, jazz players and vocalists (no way they could have been brought together for a live presentation!) reflecting the current scene, in which musicians are happy to collaborate with those from other genres.

The listing as provided seemed perverse, taking up some twenty thick pages with trendy typography (art & design Stephen Byram) but without giving any help about the non-Goldberg sources, which were tantalisingly recognisable, but hard to pin down out of their usual context. However, Uri Caine has kindly written to me personally and explained that " the Variations that are based on other works by Bach include his first cello suite, his cantatas, his organ preludes - those Variations are meant to recall in a general way other music by Bach, but not necessarily to specific pieces! Other Baroque composers that Bach studied are also referred to and I tried to write pieces in their general style, but was not referring to specific pieces of theirs - the kaleidoscopic nature of theme and variations allows for many different styles in one piece. "

I did not find that this major exercise cast any significant new light upon Bach for me, but it is an interesting novelty and may well encourage Caine afficionados to explore the original masterpiece.