#BachUpsideDown: Bach’s Goldberg Variations in chromatic inversion, explained

My first project of the 2020/21 pandemic was something I called #BachUpsideDown, an exploration of the sound of Bach’s music in chromatic inversion. During the early months of lockdown, I recorded myself performing the Goldberg Variations as written, and after each variation, I triggered a program I’d written on my computer that played back the notes I’d just performed upside-down. I fell in love with the strange and wonderful sound that results from this process, and decided to make a score so that other musicians could perform the music without the need for special technology. What follows is my introduction to the print edition, which is available for purchase here. You’ll find the YouTube playlist with all 30 variations here, and a May 2020 New York Times feature by Anthony Tommasini here.

Introduction to the print edition

What follows is the entirety of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, published in 1741 under the title Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen, but with a transformation: every note of the original text has been chromatically inverted about the E/F axis. In addition, the ornaments that appear in the original as symbols have been written out. 

What does this mean? Inversion is an age-old musical process in which musical material is turned upside-down, similarly to the reflected text on the title page of this edition. It does not mean that the music is played backwards, which is a different process called retrograde. With inversion, the arrow of time still points forward, but any motion upwards is reflected to a motion downwards, and vice-versa. 

Diatonic inversion

There are two ways of inverting: diatonically and chromatically. In diatonic inversion, the transformation occurs within the frame of a key or scale. We find this type of inversion throughout the original text of the Goldberg Variations. For example, Variations 12 and 15, titled Canon at the Fourth and Canon at the Fifth respectively, are in fact inverted canons. In these two outliers among the nine canons of the Goldbergs, the melody of the initial voice gets inverted diatonically before its repetition in the second voice. In Variation 12, the axis of inversion is between the E and F at the bottom of the treble staff, causing the G at the bottom of the staff to invert to the D a fourth below:

In Variation 15, the axis of inversion is between the Bb and B in the middle of the treble staff:

In both these canons, only the G at the bottom of the treble staff — and no other note — generates a response the appropriate distance away (a fourth in Variation 12, a fifth in 15), which makes one wonder whether the titles of these variations are entirely earned. But it’s not only in these two movements that we encounter inversion. It’s ubiquitous in the work, albeit in a less systematic way. In Variation 26, for example, the 16th-note runs that begin the first and second halves of the movement are mirror-images of each other:

And in variation 27, to choose just one more example among many, the opening canonic voice reappears in inverted form at the beginning of the variation’s second half:

Chromatic inversion

With diatonic inversion, intervals invert to the same interval, but the quality of that interval is allowed to change to fit the local tonality. A major third, for example, may invert to a minor third; a minor second to a major second, as can be seen in the examples above. In contrast, the process of chromatic inversion preserves every interval completely, all the way down to its quality: a minor second always inverts to a minor second, a major third to a major third, a perfect fourth to a perfect fourth, and so on. 

Chromatic inversion operates outside of the confines of tonality; it’s a strict mirroring process with no adjustment for musical context. As we’ll see, there’s no way to preserve the key quality. However, if we choose our axis of inversion carefully, it is possible to retain our tonal center. The Goldberg Variations are in G Major, except for Variations 15, 21 and 25, which are in g minor. Let’s consider our tonic chord, G Major. If we choose to invert chromatically around the Bb/B axis, at the exact midpoint between G and D, then G inverts to D, B to Bb, and D to G. Our G Major triad inverts to g minor:

This isn’t just true for the tonic triad, however. It’s true for the entire key, as can be seen by inverting the G Major scale:

As a result, all twenty-seven variations originally in G major end up in g minor when inverted:

The Goldberg bass line

The Goldberg Variations are built on the bass line and harmonic form of the opening Aria, which itself is an expansion to 32 bars of an eight-bar bass line used by Handel for a set of 64 variations he published in 1733. Bach took Handel’s short phrase and added three repetitions of it, modifying it as he went to move through the related keys of D Major, the dominant, and e minor, the relative minor, before returning to the tonic:

Let’s look at what this becomes when inverted:

The original bass line now finds itself in the treble, supporting the work from above rather than from below. The three modulations structuring each variation’s harmonic form become modulations to the minor subdominant (c minor), then to the relative Major (Bb Major), and finally back to the tonic (g minor). More generally, the inversion process turns perfect cadences into plagal ones, and vice versa. The entire flavor of the work is transformed, even as we maintain every detail of its internal structure.

From minor to Major

So far, I’ve shown the inversion process going one way, from Major to minor. But the same transformation applies in reverse, of course. Hence, if the major-key variations end up in the parallel minor, the three minor ones are recast to Major. But it’s a very complex type of Major, one with much more chromaticism than we’re used to. Indeed, when Bach and his contemporaries thought of minor keys, they considered both the ascending and descending melodic minor modes to simultaneously belong to the key. This results in the highly chromatic composite mode that gives Bach’s minor-key music its darkness and complexity:

When we invert this mode, we get a version of G Major with maximal chromaticism in the upper portion of the mode:

This chromatic mode forms the backbone of Variations 15, 21, and 25, the only movements to find themselves in the major key when inverted. On the other hand, the remaining major-key variations, originally in G Major and inverted to g minor in this edition, find themselves in a much simpler flavor of minor than we’re accustomed to from Bach, with just seven diatonic notes, the notes of G aeolian, and much less chromaticism. There is a joyful lightness to them as a result.

Axes and tessitura

We’ve shown that by inverting chromatically about the Bb/B axis, we maintain our key center of G, although we change its quality. But the same is true if we choose the E/F axis, a tritone away from Bb/B, the only difference being one of register:

This is the axis that I have chosen for this edition, for the simple reason that it’s close to the middle of the keyboard, producing an inversion that maintains most of the tessitura of the original, all while preserving its key center.

One final note on inversion: Bach very often ends his pieces with both the soprano and bass voices on the tonic, which gives a satisfying sense of finality. As we’ve noted, however, in the key of G, the tonic G inverts to the dominant D. Moreover, with inversion, the treble ends up in the bass, and vice versa. So, this final G of the original text, in the soprano voice, becomes a D in the bass voice when inverted. This gives many of the endings here the feeling of asking a question rather than of answering one. One exception is the close of Variation 15, where in the original, the soprano line ends on a high D, with an implication of unfinished business. In the inversion, instead, this high D becomes a low G that gives Variation 15 a rare sense of conclusion, right at the halfway mark of the work.

Ornamentation

And what about ornaments? They’re essential to baroque music, and we find them throughout the Goldberg Variations. To be true to Bach’s careful use of ornaments, which goes beyond mere decoration and often takes on a functional role, it’s essential to invert them along with the rest of the music. To help with this somewhat challenging task, this edition features a written-out realization of the ornaments. A companion edition features the text with the original ornament symbols instead, along with an explanation for how they should be performed.

Counterpoint

What happens to counterpoint when you turn it upside down? Counterpoint is the art of balancing the horizontal with the vertical. The horizontal, in this image, is the movement of notes through time; the vertical refers to the harmonic relationships between notes that sound at the same time. In other words, it’s the art of writing melodies that stand on their own while also functioning well together. In the centuries leading up to Bach’s time, counterpoint became a science, with a system of rules that classified which intervals between notes were desirable (consonances), which weren’t (dissonances), and how one could move elegantly between them. 

An essential aspect of counterpoint, from a vertical standpoint, is that it’s primarily concerned with intervals. As we’ve noted, the process of chromatic inversion preserves intervals exactly. Hence, if the rules of counterpoint have deemed a certain passage acceptable, then it should find its chromatic inversion acceptable as well. There is one exception to this, which is that suspensions — notes carried over from a previous consonance which become dissonances when the surrounding notes change — are traditionally only allowed to resolve downwards by step, a kind of acknowledgement of gravity. In the inversion, they resolve upwards instead, in an escape from that downwards pull. 

As for the horizontal, consider that it is generally true that a strong melody remains strong when inverted, even though it may be unrecognizable to most ears, and we begin to understand why Bach’s music sounds so surprisingly good when turned on its head: its underpinnings — the forces that make it tick — are impervious to inversion. 

Perspective

Why do this at all? Aside from how strangely wonderful it sounds, I believe that hearing this music upside-down reveals something profound about the work. For one thing, it allows us to hear it as if for the first time, a gift when you consider how many times an average music lover has heard the Goldbergs. It’s important to remember that we really are hearing the original work here, in the same way that we are still seeing an original Da Vinci or Picasso if we hang it upside down. It’s only our vantage point that’s changed. It’s easy, for example, to become somewhat blasé regarding the chromaticism of Variation 25 when you’ve heard it many times. But play or listen to it upside down, and you’ll be reminded that this is music that stretches the limits of dissonance in tonality like little else. 

Hearing the music this way also allows us to attend to aspects of the music that may have remained hidden to us until now. Bass lines, for example, have a tendency to play a supporting role in our ears. When inverted, they become the main event, the high voice, and as we instinctively bring our attention to them, we are reminded of how much care Bach put into every single one of his melodies, whether hidden or exposed. This is an essential factor in the success of these upside-down Goldbergs: Bach creates all voices equal, with an exceptional symmetry and balance that is undisturbed by inversion. More broadly speaking, it’s a testament to the soundness of his underlying compositional structures that they can withstand this kind of transformation so well. 

When I play the music in these pages, it’s striking to me how simultaneously familiar and foreign it sounds. There’s no doubt that it’s Bach we’re hearing, but it’s as if he’d been born not on Earth, but on another planet. Mars, perhaps.

Dan Tepfer, December 2021, Brooklyn, NY

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Ruben the Squirrel & the Boston Marathon bombing

Something extraordinary happened to me in the spring of 2013. I found a squirrel. Or rather, the squirrel found me. It’s not all that uncommon, it turns out, but it sure felt special at the time. 

It all started on April 16th. In the afternoon, I biked to pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s house, in Park Slope, to play some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for her. She generously shared her insights into the piece, and I came away feeling inspired. It was a gorgeous day. I took the most direct route home afterwards, through Prospect Park, on my bike. In the middle of the park, there’s a narrow, paved trail that cuts through the woods and connects the western and eastern sides. It rises from the Park Slope side, and then plunges steeply down to the Flatbush side. 

As I reached the top of the ridge, right before the descent, I spotted a small animal by the side of the trail. I was biking slowly, and the strange thing was that as I approached, the animal — a squirrel, I could see now — didn’t run away. It almost seemed to come towards me. I put my bike down. As I approached on foot, it looked up at me and took a shy step in my direction. I couldn’t believe it. I slowly put my hand down to touch it, and it didn’t budge, instead looking up at me with huge eyes, eyes that belonged to a very young squirrel. 

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Lee Konitz, 1927 – 2020

Thanks to JazzTimes for inviting me to write this memoriam. It appeared in their March 2021 issue commemorating lives lost to the pandemic. The photographs are by Josh Goleman, originally taken for our 2018 duo album on Verve, “Decade”.

As someone who likes to think of himself as rational, I can’t bring myself to believe in fate, yet Lee and I seemed destined to meet. Although piano’s been my instrument since I was a child, I had a sax in my teens, and I sound strangely like Lee on home recordings from the time even though I’d hardly listened to him. After I moved to New York in 2006, I put on my mentor Martial Solal’s duo record with Lee one day, Star Eyes, and, moved by a conviction I’ve seldom had before or since — that if I got to play with Lee, I would know what to do — I asked Martial if he would introduce us. Martial gave me his blessing, I went to Lee’s apartment on the Upper West Side, we hit it off immediately on both a personal and musical level, and thus began fourteen years of close friendship and collaboration.

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A Few Things I’ve Learned About Livestreaming

“Thanks” to the pandemic, I’ve spent much more time figuring out how to deal with video and live streaming than I ever thought I would. It’s turned out to be a surprisingly rewarding experience. In no particular order, here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

29.97 vs 30

For historical reasons (i.e. for reasons that probably could have been better dealt with at the time but were instead swept under the rug, having to do with the switch from B&W TV to color), for these purely historical reasons, in the parts of the world that use the NTSC standard, including North America, footage is recorded and played back (on TV at least) not at 30 frames per second (fps) but at an incredibly arcane 29.97 fps. This would be okay if that were always the case.

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TriadSculpture for sale

At long last, I’m now offering my triad sculptures — the ones that I created while developing my Natural Machines project — for sale.

Here’s the Major Triad (ratios 4:5:6) in natural sandstone:

And here’s the Minor Triad, ratios 10:12:15 in the same material:

They will be 3-D printed on demand for you and can be ordered at my Shapeways.com shop, right here.

Augmented and Diminished triads are coming soon! Here’s a sneak peek at the augmented…

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Negative Harmony: a primer

Ever since Five Pedals Deep, my trio record with Thomas Morgan and Ted Poor, came out in 2010, I’ve gotten a steady trickle of emails asking about a particular tune on it called Back Attya.

If you listen to it without knowing what it is, there’s something about the harmonic movement that might feel surprising. You can feel intuitively that it has a really solid structure, but at the same time, the chords don’t seem to move in a way that you would expect. There’s a reason for that: Back Attya, as the name cryptically suggests (ATTYA being an acronym), is an inversion of All The Things You Are, by Jerome Kern. Continue reading

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McCoy Tyner: dance, drums, beauty salons & fourths

The great McCoy Tyner, giant of jazz, huge influence on me and countless others, died a week ago, on March 6th 2020. Back in 2008, when I was 26, I had the privilege of interviewing him for French magazine Jazzman ahead of the release of his album Guitars. Now seems like an apt time to share the interview below, which — aside from the translated and much condensed version that appeared in the magazine at the time — has never been published. Thanks to then editor-in-chief Alex Dutilh for trusting my young self with this assignment and giving me the opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.

Dan Tepfer: Hi, McCoy. I should start by telling you that I’m a pianist. I’ve been playing with Lee Konitz for a few years now. It’s been very special for me to find myself on the bandstand with someone I’ve listened to since I was a teenager. Likewise, it’s very special for me to get to talk to you now, because I’ve been listening to you since I was a kid.

McCoy Tyner: Yeah, well, it’s the same for me. I’m happy to meet you young guys on the scene, and when they say ‘well look, I’ve been listening to you for a long time’, I never think about how old I am, but I think ‘wow, that’s good that I helped somebody’ or ‘my presence has a meaning’, you know. That kind of thing makes me feel good — I have a purpose in life. 

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Creativity and Its Sources / Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

Reading Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, which I love, I’m reminded of a realization I had a while ago: pure creativity is closely related to dreams — a mysterious place where new visions are somehow born. You dream, and you see something, and metaphorically speaking — because “dreams” can be taken to represent any information that comes from the unconscious mind — your conscious job as an artist is to reproduce this vision in real life as faithfully as possible.

These “dreams” could take the shape of memories (as they do in the novel) or ideas which suddenly (and perhaps inexplicably) seem important. While reading John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven earlier this year, I was struck by the fact that the Mormon fundamentalists he writes about seemed to be receiving messages and visions from a source remarkably similar to my own as an artist: they would close their eyes and listen inside. The only major difference is that they attributed this new information to a source outside of themselves: God. To me, because I am merely making art, the source of the message is secondary: what matters is that it’s personal, and that I like it. To them, the identity of the source is paramount: if it’s from God, a murder can be justified; if it’s from the realm of dreams, they are merely delusional killers.

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Sister Canons in the Goldberg Variations

In Bach’s Goldberg Variations, every third variation is a canon at an increasing interval. The first (Variation 3) is at the unison (the canonic voice repeats the leading voice verbatim), the second (Variation 6) is at the second (the response repeats the subject a diatonic second away), and so on until Variation 27, which is a canon at the ninth. (Variation 30, the last of the set, where you would expect a canon at the tenth, is instead a Quodlibet).

But this leaves a question: what direction does the interval in each of the canons go? If Bach writes a “Canon at the Second,” there’s some crucial information missing, isn’t there? Is it a second above? Or below?

One might expect that Bach settled on one direction, and that all of his canons are at increasing intervals above, or below. This isn’t the case. The direction of the canons, in fact, keeps changing, and seems to be an important structural component of the Goldbergs. This is something I’ve been fascinated by for a while, and I haven’t seen it discussed anywhere else before. Let’s take a look: Continue reading

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The question, when performing

The question, when performing, is:

“Am I putting up with anything right now? Is there something that I’m unhappy with that I haven’t addressed?”

For example, awkward posture, which looks uncomfortable, will make the audience uncomfortable too, because it shows the performer to be someone who is putting up with something rather than doing something about it. We want to see someone who is at peace, from head to toe.

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A Container for Nothingness

Two of my favorite jokes rarely get any laughs. I learned them both as a kid growing up in France. The first goes:

Why do Belgians sleep with two water glasses by their bed, one full and one empty?

One is in case they wake up in the middle of the night feeling thirsty. The other is in case they wake up in the middle of the night not feeling thirsty.

Of the two, this is the one that usually gets at least a chuckle. The second is dirtier, but is almost guaranteed to get no laughs at all: Continue reading

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Natural Machines

 

The Natural Machines album is out today, Saturday October 27th. I’m bringing the project to Le Poisson Rouge in New York on October 30th. The fine folks there asked me some smart questions ahead of the gig. Thanks to John Ruscher for asking me to do this interview. Continue reading

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Short songs with absurdly long codas

Form-wise, the Beatles’ Hey Jude is unusual. For 3 minutes and 8 seconds, it’s a conventional song, with melody, varying harmony, A and B sections that repeat in a predictable pattern — what you’d expect from a pop song. Then, for the remaining 3 minutes and 57 seconds, it’s something else entirely, a long vamp where the same static chord sequence repeats over and over again while the melody repeats with small variations and interjections. The proportion of these two parts feels like a bold move — there’s something about the length of the coda in relation to the body of the song that makes you question whether you just listened to a song or to… something else. Are we being tested? Are the Beatles daring us to walk away? If “art is what you can get away with” (Andy Warhol), are the Beatles pushing the limits? Continue reading

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The TRAPPIST-1 System: Listening to Planetary Orbits

(Cross-posted from WBGO.org. Thanks to Nate Chinen for inviting me to write this.)

With most things, I’ve found, what’s most interesting isn’t the thing in itself, but rather how it relates to other things. In other words, everything is relative, which is why I was so excited to see the video below. It shows, using harmony, rhythm and visuals, the relationships between the orbits of the seven planets around TRAPPIST-1, a dwarf star about 40 light years away from us.

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Vancouver

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Interview: Improvisation, Mountain Climbing & the Meaning of Life

I’ve got a little time off from touring so I’m cleaning house. While sorting through old papers I came across the interview below. Most of these answers still ring true to me today. It’s fun to hear from past iterations of oneself, sometimes.

Dan Tepfer interviewed by Gary Heimbauer
Jazz Inside Magazine, January 2010

Jazz Inside: Can you talk about how your unique childhood/young adulthood might have influenced your voice as a musician? You were born in Paris, France to American parents, got a degree in astrophysics in Edinburgh, Scotland and then moved here.

Dan Tepfer: I grew up in a way that doesn’t really give me any choice but to see the outside view, to see music as a pluralist art form. My grandfather was a jazz pianist on the West Coast. As a matter of fact, Nancy King, Ralph Towner and Glen Moore credit him with getting them into jazz. My mom is an opera singer. So I grew up hearing a lot of music, mainly jazz and classical, from before I was even born. I studied classical piano at one of the Paris conservatories through my childhood and teens, but somehow I always mainly considered myself an improviser. Continue reading

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Birdman! Absurdity, theater, music & the importance of madness

birdman-1000I left the movie theater last night, post-Birdman, intensely moved. Rarely has a film gotten to me so directly. Birdman is a wacky movie that seems to be asking a serious question: why live? What keeps us trucking on and floundering and trying as hard as we can to accomplish things, when we’re only specks of dust on a small rock orbiting around an average star, one of billions in a galaxy that itself is one of billions in the universe? How can you explain that we care so deeply about our shit? Our little troubles and tribulations? The movie has a simple answer: madness. That’s what explains it. And the beauty of it all is that madness is at once a curse and a necessity, without which, well, we might as well throw in the towel. Continue reading

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Doing It Bachwards: my unexpected Goldberg Variations

(Cross-posted from UCLA’s Ethnomusicological Review. Thanks to AJ Kluth for inviting me to write this piece for the journal.)

As I look back over the last ten years and the peculiar journey with J.S. Bach that the time represents for me, it’s sometimes hard to believe that I’m here, now, playing the Goldberg Variations from memory in their entirety, for sometimes sizeable audiences, well enough apparently to get enthusiastic approval from the classical section of the New York Times. I’m really a jazz pianist, after all, and the Goldbergs are hard. And the crazy thing is that I never set out to do this in the first place. How did I get here? The best answer I can give, to echo an experience many musicians have reported through the years, is that Bach taught me. Continue reading

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Lee Konitz on Spontaneity, Originality, Drugs & Playing Sharp

Lee and Dan

Lee Konitz will be turning 87 in October, and his long and distinguished career as one of the most singular saxophonists in jazz needs no introduction (but if you need one, it’s here). He is known in particular for his intense focus on improvisational integrity, a desire for each musical choice to reflect the present moment as much as possible instead of a pre-made plan or habit.

It’s easy to overlook how radical this position is. In many other styles of music, from classical to pop, the goal in live performance is the opposite: to reproduce a carefully thought-out plan as faithfully as possible. Even in jazz, it’s not uncommon for groups to take a hybrid approach where a good portion of the material, even outside of written sections, is predetermined. Despite all this, Lee has somehow stubbornly insisted on showing up to his concerts prepared to be unprepared, and has (mostly) delighted audiences in doing so. Continue reading

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The New Logic, Objectification, & Bob Dylan

When I got back home to Brooklyn from tour a couple days ago, one of the things I did was buy Logic Pro X, a big update to a music production app I’ve used for a long time. To get a handle on it, I decided to make a track for a friend of mine. Earlier in the day I’d come across Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do again, which, I was reminded, has got to be one of the most wonderfully simple and profound songs there is, and I thought it would do just fine.

I started hunting around the program for sounds. One of the big additions to Logic is that it now comes with a huge sample library. I focused on the orchestral samples, because I’ve never seriously tried to make a computer sound like a real orchestra before. The music I’ve made so far with sequencers, like my recent score for the film Movement & Location, is what we’d call electronic music: it purposely sounds machine-generated. There are people out there, particularly film composers, who are great at drawing acoustic-sounding music out of a computer, but it’s not a skill I’ve worked on before.

Logic now also has an advanced arpeggiator, which is something that was (amazingly) lacking in the old version — there were workarounds, but they weren’t pretty. In this context, arpeggiation means making melodies out of the notes in a chord by playing them sequentially instead of playing them all at once. Combine arpeggiation and some string samples, hold down a chord, and you might get something like this:

 

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Rhythm / Pitch Duality: hear rhythm become pitch before your ears

I just got home from a five-week tour in Europe and finally have some time to do what I call research. The way I see it, being a touring musician is a bit like being a scientist: you spend a bunch of time in the lab, and you find something that you’re excited about; then you have to go out and give a bunch of seminars to tell the world about it. But very soon you’re itching to get back to the lab, because you want to discover the next thing. So here I am, at home and doing research, which for me, right now, in between practicing piano and writing tunes, means getting into a computer music programming environment called SuperCollider.

Yesterday I was fooling around with it and suddenly realized that with SuperCollider, I could do something I’d been wanting to do for years, which is to make a recording of rhythm becoming pitch, and back again. You see, rhythm and pitch are exactly the same thing, only at very different speeds. How’s that, you ask? Well, let’s start with the harmonic series:

harmonic_series

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Long Island

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Normandy

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Algorithmic Art

My dirty little secret is that I can be a pretty serious nerd sometimes. While I was procrastinating from writing a piece for nonet a few months ago, I reopened a computer program I had started working on in 1998 (!) and modified it so that it would work on my current Mac. The idea is pretty basic: use lines and a little math to make pretty pictures. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it’s an example of what’s called algorithmic art. I remember being totally fascinated by this as a teenager: I would try things, almost at random, and these incredible shapes would appear. Fourteen years later, with a couple tweaks to the program, I still think there’s something really special about these images.

1.

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Questions from the Atlas

I’m bringing my trio with Ted Poor and Ben Street to the Atlas in Washington DC tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 30th, 8pm). Brad Linde, who curates the jazz series at the Atlas and is also a saxophonist/bandleader of renown on the DC scene, asked me a few questions ahead of the gig. (Cross-posted from the Atlas Arts Blog).

Brad: How does your approach to improvising/accompanying/etc change based on the different contexts you encounter?

Dan: The essence of improvisation is context. That’s what’s special about it. Since it’s happening in real time, since we’re actually making music up on the spot, at its deepest level it should reflect everything about the current moment. I’m not only talking about the note choices that my bandmates make, and that I respond to; I’m also talking about subtle things like the sound of the room we’re playing in, what we’ve eaten that day, how we’ve slept, and what the weather is like outside. In improvisation, we have the opportunity to take all this into account at an intuitive level. It’s exactly like having a conversation with a group of people: depending on how noisy the room is, how well you know the people, the general vibe, you’ll participate in a unique way — if you’re really listening, that is (we all know people who seem oblivious to context, interrupting and forcing their point across). So I see the challenge of improvisation as listening to the current context in as sensitive and authentic a way as possible, and letting myself respond. The other side of this challenge is to be able to find yourself in that context: not to give in to it completely but to find the balance between it and who you are. Continue reading

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Montana

 

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Konitz Playlist

A few months ago, JazzTimes asked me to choose ten tracks from Lee Konitz’ recorded work that stand out to me in his career. Here’s what I came up with.

Lee Konitz Playlist – Dan Tepfer

Lee Konitz started recording in 1945, and he’s still going strong today. He appears on hundreds of records, with an incredibly wide array of musical associates. Lee was unique from the get-go: his tone and phrasing are as instantly recognizable on his recordings from the forties as they are now. I’m fortunate that I’ve gotten to play regularly with Lee over the past four years; here are some tracks of his that have struck me along the way.

Marshmallow
Subconscious-Lee (Prestige) 1949
A classic cut of Lee and Warne Marsh tearing up a lightning-fast written line in close harmony, something they did peerlessly. This is Lee’s first session as a leader; he’s barely 21, and he plays a super-tight, blistering solo.

Odjenar
Conception (Prestige) 1951
I like this track because it shows Lee completely at ease in the modernist classically-influenced style that was coming into vogue at the time, two years after the Birth of the Cool sessions. The composition is by George Russell, and the interplay between Lee and Miles Davis is mysterious and fascinating. Continue reading

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All Kinds of Music-Making

The composer Anna Clyne and I got together yesterday evening to catch up, and since we were at my place, and there were microphones lying around, we decided to make a track. I met Anna at the University of Edinburgh when I was 19 or so, when she got me to sing on one of her first compositions, a knotty choral thing where the time signature changed every bar (and they were short bars, too). She’s now the composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony, and has been making some awesome music.

Here’s what we came up with — it ended up sounding like some kind of post-modern tribal thing, with Moby Dick and Beckett thrown in. We used whatever was close at hand.

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Groucho Marx vs. Irving Berlin

Everyone needs to have a copy of The Groucho Letters. Groucho Marx, aside from being very funny, was a great letter writer: he corresponded with many of the memorable people of his day, including (incredibly) T.S. Eliot. This collection is on my shelf next to Mozart’s letters. And when I say shelf, I really mean bathroom.

My fave so far is Groucho’s exchange with Irving Berlin, in 1956:

Dear Irving:
I have taken to singing songs on my show; cute or funny ones, preferably. A few weeks ago I did “I Love a Piano” with Liberace, and last week I did “Cuba.”
I know that you have many songs of this type and if, one of these days, you could stray far enough from your money to peruse your catalogue, perhaps you could instruct one of your hirelings to send me a few of them. They don’t seem to be available in the music shops. I did get “I Want To Be Lazy” — but that’s about all I could find.
Regards,
Groucho Continue reading

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It’s also about the notes

I dropped by 5th Estate in Brooklyn tonight to play some sax at the jam session, and had a conversation there that brought up a nice memory: it was shortly after I started playing with Lee Konitz, in early 2007. I had been introduced to him by the great French pianist Martial Solal, and started going over to his apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan to play. We hit it off right away. I knew Lee’s music from recordings and from hearing him live, but when I started playing with him, what struck me most was how much meaning Lee could put into a single note. You didn’t even realize that he was playing notes unless you consciously focused on that — what came across was pure expression. So after pondering this for a few days, I showed up at Lee’s apartment and after playing a tune with him, I said:

“Lee, I think I’ve figured something out from playing with you. It’s not about the notes you play, really, is it? It’s about the meaning that the notes have to you. It’s about how connected emotionally you are to them.”

To which Lee answered:

“Well, sure, but it’s also about the notes.” Continue reading

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