Inventions / Reinventions, my new solo album, came out today on StorySound Records. Listen here (US & Canada) or here (Europe & UK). It’s also available in physical CD format here. What follows are my album liner notes.
How to tell a story in music? How to improvise one? As a child, I loved to sit at the piano and improvise from nothing. I would start in one place, then follow my nose to the next, then again to the next, until an ending suggested itself. It was fun, but I always felt a little unsatisfied. I’d gone from A to B to C, yes, but how were those ideas connected? How did the ending relate to the beginning? When I watched a movie or read a novel, the story made sense. The action progressed from one moment to the next, but crucially, there was also an overarching unity to it all. The ending resolved tensions that emerged during the course of the story. The way it was told made me want to know what was going to happen next. It made me care. How could I create something similar in wordless music?
There’s an argument to be made that storytelling is what defines us as humans. We have a capacity to believe in shared fictions, like gods, institutions, and money, to such an extent that they become functionally real. Our societies, in many ways, are built on stories. As a result, people have gotten very good at telling them, and have long considered the elements that make them tick. It’s helpful, first of all, to have a central character to care about: a protagonist. Second, something interesting needs to happen to our protagonist; otherwise, why tell the story? In classical narrative structure, we first meet our hero at home, in a position of comfort and security; then, an event takes place that thrusts them into the unknown. At this moment, our natural response is to be concerned for their future. Will they make it back home? Will they be okay? A good story makes you wait for the answer, as our hero is faced with one obstacle after another on their homebound quest. Finally, like a rubber-band returning to its initial form after having been stretched, our hero returns to safety, transformed by the adventure they’ve taken.
In 2011, I recorded Goldberg Variations / Variations, in which I follow each of Bach’s variations with an improvised one of my own. In the Goldbergs, Bach uses the same harmonic structure — that of the opening and closing Aria — as the frame for every variation, similarly to how Jazz musicians improvise over the repeating chord structures of Jazz standards. Theme and variations form is an effective way to tell a story, but it’s one in which the map of the adventure is known in advance, a little like watching an alpinist repeatedly climb a mountain following a known route. Many aspects of their climb — their exact path, their speed, tools, and mood, as well as the weather — can vary widely from one time to the next, but the direction and destination of their journey is known. In the Goldbergs, it’s from the aggregate of thirty different voyages taken through the same terrain that the story emerges. As someone who always thought of himself as a Jazz musician, but who grew up playing Bach, it made sense to me to add improvisations, over the same chord structure, to the sequence. I didn’t worry too much about storytelling, because I was piggy-backing on Bach’s already riveting narrative. I was simply adding my own commentary to a preexisting journey. But as I began to tour this project around the world, the difficulties of Bach’s music made me realize that I needed to better understand how it functioned, and I dove into a renewed study of harmony and counterpoint that eventually led me back to the Inventions, which, like many pianists, I’d studied as a child.
Completed three centuries ago, in 1723, the Inventions are study pieces, intended, as Bach explains on the title page, to teach the student to “play two voices clearly” and “at the same time to obtain not only good ideas, but also to carry them out well”, as a “foretaste of composition”. Bach’s use of the word “invention” to name these pieces is interesting in and of itself. He meant it not in our modern understanding of the word, but as it is understood in rhetoric, where, coming from the Latin inventio, it refers to the subject matter of an argument, the idea that we wish to put forward. As Bach points out, finding an idea is only the first stage; the second, elaboratio, is knowing how to carry it out. And indeed, the Inventions show, exquisitely, how to elaborate simple ideas into complete compositions. But, to me, the analogy to rhetoric only goes so far. In each of the Inventions, we are first introduced to a musical idea, often a short melody, in a known place of comfort: the home key. We get to know it well enough, through repeated exposure, that we identify it as a central character: a protagonist. Then, suddenly, our theme is thrust into a new key, often the dominant or relative major, and I’m convinced that in that moment, we unconsciously ask ourselves whether it will ever make it back home. Like any good storyteller, Bach makes us wait for the answer, taking his theme on an arresting adventure to foreign lands as represented by a series of disparate but related keys, full of dramatic tension and release, before finally returning home. Each of the Inventions, I realized, is a brilliant miniature demonstration of classical narrative form in music, carried out in under two minutes. (The Invention in C minor, with its long canonic subject, is an outlier, but still fits the bill).
When I first noticed this analogy with storytelling, it felt like an epiphany, and it made me wonder if I could use these ideas improvisationally. Of course, I can come up with a musical theme to serve as a protagonist. And I can give this theme quirks — maybe a touch of dissonance, or an insolence in its rhythm — that give it character and make it more than two-dimensional. But it’s not quite as simple as coming up with a melody and sticking with it. One crucial aspect of a good story is believability. Even in a sci-fi film, we object strongly to plot holes. If our hero is faced with a challenge, it needs to make sense within the world in which the story unfolds. But what makes a musical adventure believable? What makes the difference between a development that we accept, and one that feels arbitrary? I’ve found it useful to think of this through the lens of landscape. As we’ve discussed, in the Inventions, our hero’s journey is primarily harmonic. There is a constellation of keys around the home key, each with its own flavor, and our hero is free, through modulation, to visit these and the chords they contain. But these keys aren’t random. They’re related to the home key. They’re places that our protagonist can see, as it were, from where they’re standing. The keys are part of the existing landscape. And when we move to one of them, it doesn’t feel random or like a special effect; it feels real.
In Jazz, we spend our lives perfecting the art of improvising ideas within a given harmonic framework. We practice moving around within a pre-existing landscape, be it that of All the Things You Are or Giant Steps, and exploring its nooks and crannies. What I wanted to do now was improvise the landscape itself, and I didn’t find it easy. Given a certain starting point, say the key of Eb minor, I had to be able to see the geography around it clearly and quickly, and to be able to skillfully move the action to different places within it at will, without losing sight of my protagonist or the emotional charge of the story as it developed. And it’s not only the landscape, but also the arrows that point at destinations within it — what music theory calls secondary dominants — that needed to feel like second nature to me. No-one had ever told me to work on this before. It took me years of practice, a slow but persistent rewiring of my brain, to start to feel comfortable improvising in this way. And then, one day, it was suddenly… exhilaratingly fun. I found myself in a playground with infinite choices, but where every choice made sense. Harmonic destinations, when finally arrived at after being circled around through the same modulatory principles Bach used, felt deliciously gratifying, because they were earned and called for. Individual notes had more substance than in any free improvisation I’d done before, because they belonged to something larger. Rather than standing for themselves, they pointed at the mechanisms below. While my free improvisations used to be primarily concerned with the surface of the music, I now focused my attention on what was taking place underground, and the surface seemed to take care of itself. I was creating the fishbowl, and the fish seemed to show up spontaneously. I loved it.
It was unclear to me, at first, how to present this approach. During the Covid pandemic, I regularly asked the audience during livestream performances for melodies, keys, and time signatures, which I would use to improvise musical narratives in much the same way that a spontaneous storyteller might ask their audience for a character and setting with which to make up a fable. But I wanted to integrate these improvisations with the Inventions that inspired them. And it struck me that Bach had left open a window. Even though there are twenty-four possible major and minor keys, he wrote only fifteen Inventions. For pedagogical reasons, he focused on the most commonly used keys, leaving the more exotic ones to his Well-Tempered Clavier, which, composed around the same time, covers the keys exhaustively.
So I landed on the structure you find in this recording, where I perform the Inventions as Bach wrote them, and, for the nine missing keys, improvise my own inventions. Not in Bach’s style, of course, but in my own voice. I close my eyes, listen inside for a fragment of melody, then take the melody on an adventure, trying hard to stay true both to the principles we’ve discussed here and to the intuition of my heart. Unlike my improvised variations in Goldberg Variations / Variations, each of which was a direct reaction to the movement that preceded it, my improvisations here stand on their own. They don’t react directly to Bach’s miniatures; instead, they react to the abstract and general structural concept that supports them.
It’s worth remembering that Bach was most known in his lifetime as an improviser. People travelled long distances, often by foot, to hear him extemporize at the organ or harpsichord. Despite the perfect compositions he left behind, in which it’s difficult to imagine changing a single note, improvisation was at the core of his being. And I hope, three hundred years after he composed these pieces for his children and students, that Bach wouldn’t be too offended by a modern improviser making up some new musical stories in the windows he left open.
—Dan Tepfer, Brooklyn, December 2022