The attempt to do justice to Bach’s objective content by directing this effort towards abolishing the subject is self-defeating. Objectivity is not left over after the subject is subtracted.
—Theodor Adorno, “Bach Defended Against his Devotees” (trans. Samuel & Shierry Weber)
Like an ocean, or a living body, the keyboard cycle by J. S. Bach known as the “Goldberg Variations” owes its awe-inspiring qualities to an unfathomably complex interplay of forms, both micro- and macro-cosmic. There is the descending bass line, the fundamental generator of harmony, the basis, in Baroque music, of meaning and truth. There is the binary structure, with internal repeats, which sets a limit for each variation, establishing boundary lines, local borders. There is the pattern of threes that governs the character of each consecutive variation (genre/dance piece, technical piece, canon), allowing the cycle to reproduce and spiral, as if towards infinity. There is the “Overture,” variation 16, which sets a halfway point, creating a finite, two-part structure to complement symbolically and structurally the repeating groups of threes. There is the relation between the major and minor modes that eventually (as in another of Bach’s masterworks in variation form, the Chaconne in D minor for solo violin) broadens the cycle’s scope, taking it a step outside its established tonal atmosphere, revealing heretofore uncharted realms.
But among all of its beguiling forms, it is the final notation on the score, the words “Aria da Capo e Fine,” that most firmly establishes the Goldberg Variations as a masterwork of post-Reformation modernity. The verbatim reprise of the opening aria, the return to the source, sets a point at which all this reaching for the infinite must cease. The concluding aria occupies the position of the total authority that must be produced, but that—in modern, Western, secular art—cannot be represented outright. Like the epilogue of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which the survivors sing a fugue after the Don’s eternal damnation, the reprise of the Goldberg aria screws on a cap on a steaming valve. Having demonstrated that he could go on forever proliferating forms—having conjured an unrealizable, transcendent end-point, having proven the existence of God—Bach turns back, with gentle familiarity, to face the human, the real, the now.
Directly before the reprise of the aria, in variation 30, the “quodlibet,” Bach evokes most vividly the human community of whose potentials and limitations this art so provocatively speaks. Combining two popular songs of the day (stripped of their words in a keyboard performance, but not in the knowing listener’s ear), Bach pours one final libation into his binary-form container, inviting us, in the spirit of companionship, to seek consolation in purely earthly pleasures: “I have been so long away from you,” one lyric yearns. “Cabbage and beets have driven me away,” jokes another. Here, at the edge of his imagined horizon, Bach returns to the sounds of living, of singing, eating, loving. Then, “Aria da Capo e Fine”: in the end, you are merely human. Your circle, while filled with song, is, must always be, closed.
Of the many inspired performances of the Goldberg Variations available on recording, one reveals the essence of the work in a way that no other can match. And this is the case because the performer remains true to Bach’s score precisely by deviating radically from it, thereby increasing its immensity. The 2000 recording, The Goldberg Variations, by pianist Uri Caine is a multifaceted, genre-bending sonic experience, a resoundingly humanist trope on one of secular music’s most sacred documents. On the one hand a complete performance of Bach’s work, Caine’s Goldberg includes some forty additional variations, composed and arranged by Caine, and performed in collaboration with artists representing a diversity of musical traditions and styles. Whether it be in ragtime or salsa, gospel or lounge, electronics or klezmer (the rollicking and hilariously titled “Luther’s Nightmare Variation”), Caine has an answer for every turn of Bach’s aria. Indeed, oftentimes the characteristic descending bass line is front-and-center in the mix, startlingly—in this kaleidoscopic world—intact.
The process unfolds in stages, old and new forms building upon one another slowly. As soloist on a Silbermann fortepiano, Caine performs the Aria as Bach wrote it. Authenticity lies at the source: if we didn’t know better, we would hear this as the beginning of a straightforward account of Bach’s work on a historic keyboard instrument. The path away from that route begins with a small detour: Bach’s Variation 1, performed note-for-note, but arranged for fortepiano and viola da gamba. Timbral color begins to dominate our hearing: the contrapuntal lines pop out, painted with broader strokes. Duo becomes quartet in Variation 2, with a pair of Baroque treble instruments, trumpet and violin, expanding the palette. Before the same ensemble can reach Bach’s Variation 3, however, Bach’s score is interrupted by a series of four new variations. Caine’s troping becomes suddenly more intrusive. In this mixed-up, ahistorical space between Bach’s notes lie infinite sound alternatives: “posthuman” electronic jittering; earnest gospel vocals; straight-up smooth jazz; even the garbled mutterings of a mysterious character whom we quickly recognize as the great Baroque composer himself. We’ve begun to make detours from the detours. Adopting Bach’s encyclopedist pose, Uri Caine produces a contemporary interpretation of the Goldberg Variations entirely true to the spirit of the eighteenth century.
Caine’s treatment of the Overture/Variation 16 (appropriately, the opening track of the second disc) plays compellingly on this notion of radical juxtapositions. Ever the internationalist, Bach often drew upon the characteristic French dotted rhythm of the day to conjure, in both secular and sacred contexts, the royal. The French opera overture, which Bach evokes here, is all about the beat. Caine’s beat, while it eventually finds its way back to the Enlightenment-era dotted figure, begins prehistorically: a male voice (at first, plausibly mistaken for the similar muttering voice of J. S. Bach that we’ve already heard on the first disc) chants rhythmically in guttural monosyllables, punctuated with rudimentary drum beats. The beat now established, an arrangement of Bach’s variation for period instruments begins, with the caveman and his drum continuing, now a both cognitively and musically dissonant overlay. It is an absurd concoction, a postmodern musical joke that is certain not to be to most people’s taste. But upon reflection, and with an ear tuned to difference, the gesture begins to make sense. The superimposed beats, each summoning its own time and place, produce an asynchronous, discordant unity. Their proximity, disturbing at first, is now a provocative challenge for the musical imagination.
Nearing its conclusion, Caine’s Goldberg features two quodlibets, and turns Bach’s final pair of movements into seven tracks. Bach’s “original” is played in an arrangement for the Quartetto Italiano di Viole da Gamba, over which Caine, again on fortepiano, spins out his own, jazz-styled improvisations on such popular standards as “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” This leads, without pause, to an ethnographic field recording of the men and boys of the Kerrwiger Bach Ensemble singing, drinking-hall style and a cappella, the German songs whose melodies Bach had employed. It is an emotionally charged moment, Caine extending even further the idea that Bach, at the penultimate click of his musical clock, turns back from abstraction to tangible thing, and from solitude to togetherness. Next are a pair of organ preludes, one brief and electronic, recorded and produced by DJ Logic (whose work appears frequently throughout the album), the other an extended solo by Caine on Hammond organ, with a splash of vocalizing choir at the end. These tracks both bring the solo performer back into the spotlight, after the communal song, and maintain the electronic-acoustic dichotomy that has marked the work from the beginning. “The Blessings Variation,” which follows, is an organ-heavy, soul-tinged R&B track, with Barbara Walker singing her own lyrics, and concluding with an ecstatic, Otis-Redding-style double-time jam. This extension conjures another community, one to complement the singing Germans and all of the other characters we’ve met along the way, and it employs another musical style to keep the question of authenticity, and the finality that it demands, at bay. Lastly, through an electronic haze that emerges out of the “Blessings” coda, we hear Caine on piano (not, significantly, fortepiano) playing the aria in a highly embellished version that teasingly adheres to and departs from Bach’s score in turn; even here, at the proper end of the cycle, both the textual deviations and the use of a modern instrument further reinforce the refusal of full-circle closure. When Caine finishes, when Bach’s score is exhausted, one further nod to the infinite remains: “The Eternal Variation,” a formless, floating soundscape performed and recorded by Danny Blume and Chris Kelly. By this point, Uri Caine, the solo artist, has vanished without ceremony.
These acts of negation—of self, of closure, of stylistic purity—raise essential questions about the Goldberg Variations, and about the totalizing Enlightenment project to which it, and works like it, belong. But Uri Caine is no mere postmodern parodist. Nor is the value of his work limited to its potential critical implications. Instead, with these interventions and re-focusings, he reaffirms and renews the project of the Goldbergs, celebrating it as an opportunity for the display of generosity, acceptance, openness—a musical circle somehow turned outward, a book of love. We may not need Caine in order to understand this about Bach’s score; we may feel something along the same lines while listening to the Goldbergs of Murray Perahia, Glenn Gould, or Wanda Landowska. These are indeed great performances with a great deal to offer. But what Caine produces that other keyboard interpretations cannot is an experience in which the listener must overcome biases and obstacles if this love is to remain true. It’s not so much a question of accepting jazz and gospel as playful (or, for that matter, ominous) distortions of a canonic, “classical” keyboard composition. Rather, it’s a matter of accepting many and continuous stylistic disparities, of dealing with these differences in uncomfortably close proximity, and of knowing that the integrity of the whole—the still revered masterwork—survives only to the extent that we allow the mismatched parts to fit together, that we accept their total form as something beautiful.
Along with a series of compelling jazz recordings, themselves representing a diversity of styles, Caine’s discography includes similar reimaginings of music by Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other canonical “classical” composers. There appears to be a special kinship with Gustav Mahler, whose own much-discussed identity crises readily lend themselves to an interrogation like Caine’s, of borders and differences. In splintering and rearranging the already heterogeneous music of the “thrice homeless” Mahler—who characterized himself as a Bohemian among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in the world—Caine forces essential questions: who owns a musical style, who is represented in sound, how is power negotiated culturally, whose freedom is at stake in performance?
Caine’s Gustav Mahler in Toblach was recorded live at the 1998 Gustav Mahler Festival in the Austrian/Italian border town of Toblach/Dobbiaco in South Tyrol, where, ninety years earlier, Mahler had composed his Ninth Symphony. (He would return for two consecutive summers and compose Das Lied von der Erde and what remains of his incomplete Tenth Symphony.) In this alpine setting, itself a natural obscurer of borders, Caine and friends gleefully set free Mahler’s sounds into the limitless sky. The freestyle improvisatory section that precedes the opening trumpet fanfare of the Symphony No. 5, imposes a radically different voice on this epic symphony from the outset. With creaking and rumbling fragments, and fleeting hints of the motto from Beethoven’s Fifth, Caine signals his revisionist perspective, grounded in a history that seems to contain not only the past but the future as well. When the trumpet sounds, it is not from a void, but from a well-established cacophony. By contrast, the hodgepodge of nature sounds and background noises—stealing the show, a stridently neighing horse—that fill out the texture of a relatively straightforward account of the First Symphony’s third movement place this music soundly in a mountain village. In an intriguing expressive marker in the score, Mahler instructed that this movement’s middle section, which directly references klezmer, be played “mit Parodie.” Given that, some years later, in 1897, Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism in order to secure the position of Music Director at the Vienna Hofoper, the indication conveys endless layers of meaning to students of Mahler’s work. In Caine’s blown-up recomposition, Mahler’s klezmer music is all there, but alive and kicking with new energies—a double-time mash-up of Mahler’s tunes that gives way to an extended jazz trumpet solo by the formidable Ralph Alessi. Such artistic companionship without borders advances the possibility of coming together in countless other human realms.
The final track on Mahler in Toblach is Caine’s reimagining of the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde, which is titled “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”). Appearing here is another stunning collaborator, the cantor and oudist Aaron Bensoussan, who, substituting for the mezzo-soprano (or baritone) of Mahler’s original, delivers a passionate account of various liturgical chants in Hebrew, beginning with the Hallel prayer, sung over Caine’s arrangement of the score. Mahler’s original Orientalist impulse—adapting his texts for this six-movement work from a German translation of Chinese poetry—is maintained but redirected. For those familiar with the work, and its German text, the substitution of Hebrew in this hallowed space—this final, epic movement of this last completed work—creates a shocking effect. It is an act that reinstates, beautifully but forcefully, the Jewish element in Mahler’s music, enshrining its place in his oeuvre even as it breaks the established forms apart.
In his Grammy-nominated The Othello Syndrome, which reimagines Giuseppe Verdi’s penultimate opera, Otello (first performed in 1887), Caine similarly reinstates matters of race and geography in a score whose creators (Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito) had consciously downplayed these elements, so essential in Shakespeare’s original. The result, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2003, is one of Caine’s strangest concoctions, an experimental assault on one of the few scores in Italian opera that is considered utterly untouchable (none of the aria substitutions and omissions of repeated verses common in this repertory). It is easy to imagine a negative reaction to the 2008 record, which substitutes Verdi’s miraculously controlled, immense orchestra for lightweight town bands of the sort one might hear in an Italian coastal village, and in which operatic voices are often replaced with spoken-word deliveries that take such identities nearly to the border of caricature. But by the end, emerging from Caine’s hall of musical mirrors, one again senses that, with an open ear and mind, these sonic reflections have opened up new interpretive possibilities.
The opening sonority of Verdi’s score—as described by musicologist James Hepokoski, “the most aggressive initial gesture in opera: a wild, tutti eleventh chord grasped, Zeus-like, and hurled forward in syncopation”—also launches Caine’s arrangement. But instead of establishing the driving rhythm of the opening scene by maintaining Verdi’s syncopations, Caine strips the chord of rhythm, letting it sustain, linger, settle, and ultimately disappear over the course of thirty-plus seconds; thunder and lightning are substituted for an evaporating mist. And instead of launching a tense crowd scene in which the citizens of Cyprus watch anxiously to see if their commander’s vessel, returning victorious from battle, will be crushed against the rocks in the storm, Caine’s extended chord reveals, eventually, another geography: not the Western world in which our title character finds himself a doomed outsider, but the Arabic world, the site of his origin. Out of the mist, a male singer vocalizes, using scales and rhythmic-melodic gestures that place him squarely within Othello’s world. With this gesture, Caine whisks his listeners south, across the Mediterranean, into North Africa. One imagines Othello standing on the Cyprian shore, hearing the call of his ancestors. We are driven into his memories; we approach his soul.
Like the insertion of a cantor in the Mahler project, it takes other stunning and original voices to produce the re-orienting effects of Caine’s Othello. The responsibility falls this time to an array of vocalists from diverse traditions: singer and songwriter-producer Bunny Sigler, one of the architects of the “Philly Sound” of the 1970s; Tunisian singer and oudist Dhafer Youssef; performance poet Sadiq Bey; Italian actor Marco Paolini; and singers Julie Patton and Josefine Lindstrand. In his instrumental arrangements, too, Caine employs an array of styles to keep the action shifting in space: at any given moment, you might imagine yourself in a Mediterranean town square, or at an urban-American spoken-word performance, or a jazz club, or a hip-hop show. The story of Desdemona and Othello—and, most crucially, of Iago—is universalized in ways neither Shakespeare nor Verdi could have imagined.
In “She’s the Only One I Love,” Caine demonstrates just how spot-on his musical transformations can be. Act III, Scene 3 of Verdi’s opera finds Otello alone, having just called his wife a “vile courtesan” and, in Verdi’s stage indication , “with a motion of his arm, but without changing his position, push[ing] Desdemona out of the room.” In the following musical soliloquy, “Dio! Mi potevi scagliar,” he cries out to heaven at the injustice of his situation. Verdi employs two despairing, repeating figures to accompany the monotone vocal part and to musically capture Otello’s eventual downfall. The first is a descending, chromatic line (from the earliest history of opera, a signal of death) with a staggering, dotted rhythm that allows the tenor to gasp and sob with effective (and affective) support. The second is a turning and falling figure in the upper strings, a stab of pain and remorse, a harbinger of dawning terror. Within the context of his maximalist score, Verdi’s achievement of such profound expression using so few materials is remarkable. Certainly he aimed here for the most internal of probes, in the lead-up to the monumental, ensemble-rich conclusion to the third act.
Caine seizes the sparse texture, retaining the dotted rhythm of the first motive in the refrain of each verse, keeping the turning figure intact, and notching up the tempo from Verdi’s adagio to a moderate swing groove. The result is a hit number of pop-inflected jazz, strangely-but-surely as natural sounding to Verdi fans as it would be to those hearing the music for the first time. Playing Othello here is Bunny Sigler, lending his smooth tenor stylings to the lament, now recast in plain, pop-appropriate English: “Take away my throne / Take everything I own / Take away my power / You can have it all.” One can imagine hearing it on the radio, yet it somehow retains all the truth of Verdi’s original.
In “Bach Defended Against his Devotees,” his 1951 “defense” of J. S. Bach, Theodor Adorno took aim against historical-performance-practice purists who, looking to the past for evidence of an authentic, objective truth upon which to base their musical interpretations, fail to grasp the continual necessity of the subjective present in the unearthing of such truth. Adorno praised (not surprisingly, given his aesthetic affiliations) the high-modernist orchestrations of Bach made by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, calling them “models of an attitude to Bach which corresponds to the stage of his truth.” For Adorno, this “stage” was the modern; for today’s critically engaged listeners, it is the postmodern in the sense that Jean-François Lyotard famously understood it—“the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo).” A similar paradox of time and historical position informs Adorno’s understanding of Bach: “If Bach was indeed modern, then why was he archaic?” Adorno stressed the difficulty of Bach’s art according to broad categories—Renaissance polyphony, Baroque basso continuo—that are too narrow to contain it. Bach, for Adorno, “does not feel himself blindly bound” by one style or the other, but is concerned always with reimagining their relationship, pulling together new points of contact. Such “liberty vis-à-vis the ancient” allows Bach to occupy the spaces between styles and traditions. Always connected to the past, his music, if it is to remain true, must be perpetually oriented towards the future. And Uri Caine’s attitude towards Bach (and Beethoven, Mahler, and so on) responds beautifully to that same position’s aesthetic demands.
As an artist, Caine lives in the contact points between genres, eras, and styles, and he does so freely. Prehistoric, early modern, modern, postmodern, classical, jazz, popular: styles and categories, disparate in time and space, mingle and merge, defying singularity, resisting isolation. His vision attacks the same parochialism that troubled Adorno, a mode of listening prominent not only in the classical context, but, as Caine intimates, in jazz and popular realms as well. Moreover, he proves time and again that when it comes to musical meaning, the performance is everything. The score is a mere skeleton frame, lifeless, cold, eager for human contact, a touch, a breath. In his exuberant and virtuosic experiments, he urges us to value equally the grandeur of the work and the necessity of the interpretive spark, the objective and the subjective, the limit and the limitless. Above all, he requires of his listeners a refusal of bias, an opening of ears, a leaving behind of fear.
Indeed, with respect to time, the impact of Caine’s work goes beyond all of these other concerns—the history of musical style, the sociology of listening, the nature of musical meaning—and leads the involved listener to deeper realizations. Records like The Goldberg Variations and The Othello Syndrome encourage positivity and affirmation. They ask the listener to stay in the moment, to abandon desired outcomes and relations, to accept whatever comes next. No master key to unlock meaning, no meta-narrative to chart progress, no telos to compel forward, no demonstrative delaying of death. Only the continuous stream of living, the unpredictable flow of the multitude of drops that form an ocean—provided you can keep your arms open, like Uri Caine, capable and unafraid.
Mark Mazullo is Professor of Music at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches piano and a variety of courses on the history of music. He is the author of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues: Contexts, Style, Performance (Yale, 2010).