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The Precedence of Respect

The Magic Triangle Concerts, sponsored by UMass Residential Arts and WMUA Student Radio, began its 13th series with an interpretation of Bach¹s Goldberg Variations by the Uri Caine Ensemble. The ensemble was made up of Cornell Rochester, drums, Barbara Walker, vocals, Ralph Alessi, trumpet, Dave Binney, sax, DJ Olive, turntables, Drew Gress, bass, Joyce Hamman, violin, and Uri Caine, piano.

For the last week, I have thought long and hard about how to approach writing this article. In fact, I thought long and hard about how to approach listening to the concert. The reason is that I have such difficulty with the idea that a jazz musician can overtake a piece of exquisite classical music and turn into music that it was not meant to be. The critical acclaim that Caine’s effort has received addresses the fact that the classical music arena is perhaps dry with the bones of the old masters and even some of the new "masters". The audience longs to hear something new and this "jazzical" rendering of Bach is just the ticket.

Knowing the Goldberg variations as best as I have been able in preparation for the concert, I heard hints of the structure which Bach created, the switches in rhythm leads, the changes in the chords, even the Quodlibet, which is the variation immediately before the conclusion. The Aria of the set Caine played on the piano in the mode in which we are accustomed to hearing the "classical" version of the piece. But, the rest, except for carefully chosen mid-point and conclusion where the "classical" piano style reintroduced itself,Caine artfully managed to put through sieves of musical styles that did not speak of Bach’s music at all, rather Caine’s ideas about the music: wouldn’t it be cool to hear a variation this way, i.e. as gospel, blues, rag, hip-hop, klezmer, or even, say, mainstream groove jazz?

The musicians performed well. The violinist and turntable artist I believed to be especially good. Yet, the ensemble’s performance could not supersede the pretense that existed in the concept behind the music. For instance, how can I talk about the beauty that existed in a contrast of dissonance and heavy backbeat, or the sustenutos carried in the piano when applied in a context where they did not belong. The turntable artist kept the rhythm in a duet with the violinist: this variation was interesting but it was not Bach. Each variation becomes mistakenly the subject of perception as opposed to its indispensibility to the flow of the entire work as, I believe, was Bach’s intention. The piano version of the 32 variations lasts about an hour. This concert took an hour and a half or so-straight through.

I want to know what Bach’s music provided for Caine. What is the motive for remaking Bach? Caine looked extremely tired and even bored at one point in the concert, his eyes glues to the music. Is this the way he felt about the other "classical" compositions on which he has superimposed himself?

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Uri Caine Ensemble
  • Concert Date: 2/17/2002
  • Venue: Buckley Recital Hall / Amherst College
  • City State Country: Amherst, MA
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