Classical Music
8:13 am
Sun November 17, 2013

'The Biggest Jazz Riff Ever Written:' Jeremy Denk's 'Goldberg Variations'

Originally published on Mon November 18, 2013 10:01 am

In the classical music world right now, many eyes are focused on Jeremy Denk. The 43-year-old pianist was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in September, his new album of Bach's Goldberg Variations is pleasing critics and this week he played Mozart brilliantly at Carnegie Hall with the San Francisco Symphony.

Denk is also attracting fans beyond classical music. His reputation as a writer, with his disarming mix of thoughtfulness and wit, is growing in articles he's written for the New Yorker, the Guardian and NPR Music.

Weekends on All Things Considered host Arun Rath invited the busy pianist to talk about his new recording of the iconic Goldberg Variations, a nearly 90-minute masterwork that Denk has referred to as "maniacal, in the best way" and as "the biggest jazz riff ever written."


Interview Highlights

On recording Bach's iconic Goldberg Variations

"It's a thrill and a terrifying experience to release a recording of this incredibly well-known piece. It's one of those pieces that's on the public square. You know, everyone loves to have an opinion about it and talk about it. I just had to put out my version of it and see what happened, I guess.

"It's one of the great masterpieces and one of the icons of our keyboard repertoire. It does have built-in problems. It's 80 minutes of G major — mostly G major. And I wrote in one of the other essays that it's a 'fool's errand, and attempted by the greatest geniuses of all time.' But on the other hand, as I've played it, it's like this incredible old friend that keeps coming back."

On what keeps the Goldbergs from being boring

"The piece is about invention and imagination and the joy of re-invention and re-imagination and about how much you can ring out of this 8-note bass idea? How much can you get out of this set of chord changes? In another way, it's like the biggest jazz riff ever written — it's endlessly funny in some ways and endlessly moving in other ways. It's partly an encyclopedia in which every possibility of musical style of the time is explored. And it's partly like an adventure, a journey. The short answer is Bach's genius makes it not boring, and the incredible ways he has of working the same ground."


On the improvisational feel of the Goldbergs

"There's that sort of riffing element. There's a very strong way in which Bach will take a single idea and just go bananas on it. And each variation is like going bananas on a single premise. There are blue notes in Bach, too. There are tremendous numbers of naughty notes, even especially in the most beautiful variations, like in No. 13. At the end of the most serene, arching melody there are one or two naughty notes that creep in, and it's sort of bittersweet and sort of wicked. That's one of my favorite things about Bach is these sort of wicked last thoughts at the end of paragraphs."

On the humor in the Goldbergs

"There's a variation — 23 is the one I believe — with the two hands chasing each other in scales going down the keyboard. The left hand begins and the right hand follows one eighth note later. And this joke Bach takes to incredible and ridiculous extremes, sort of the Road Runner and the Coyote after each other for two minutes up and down the keyboard. I can't believe that Bach wasn't attuned to the almost slapstick humor of this variation and how important that is in relation to some of the other, very serious variations. A lot of it has to do with the two keyboards [on a harpsichord], just the fun of the two hands leaping over each other and doing all kinds of stunts and somersaults. Some of the greatest laughs in music are in this piece, I think."

On the hand acrobatics needed in the Goldbergs

"Many is the time on stage I have rued those acrobatics. There are all these places where the hands come at each other and then they have to sneak over each other, and those are always very treacherous, especially in performance. And then the hands kind of cross back around and come back as if revisiting the site of an accident. It was written for two keyboards [of a harpsichord] so there are a lot of problems specifically about the one-keyboard piano. But that's part of the joy of the piece and part of its outlandishness too. Bach, in his invention, really loves to try all the possibilities of these two keyboards at war, in contrary motion, in parallel motion in every possible geometry."

On the forward-thinking 25th Variation

"Bach was capable of ranging pretty far. In a way he's almost ranging backwards in time, if you think of some of the chromatic possibilities in the madrigals before Bach. So it's both future travel and past travel. What is so extraordinary for me about that variation is this idea of the two hands being at war — which is sometimes very funny — becomes this kind of existential problem. They never play together and they are constantly doing dissonances that are never quite resolved and then new problems are set up. And the right hand will go off and play a note that is completely mystifying, and only when the left hand comes in a little bit later do you finally understand. There's this constant ambiguity and disturbance between the hands. This variation makes it clear that maybe we thought we knew where we were going but really, really don't."

On why people love the Goldbergs

"There are so many reasons. But the [main] theme itself is one of those miracles. One of the characteristics of the theme that I find most affecting is in the way, in the last quatrain of it, it does something that has not happened in the theme before. It begins to move and elide over the bars in a way that it never had before and the melody takes off in this beautiful flurry of 16th notes. And only at that moment, at the end, when the 16th notes reach the most beautiful place, then the theme is over. There's something about that confluence of the attainment and the relinquishing of the idea at the same time. I think people really get moved by it and it's something very true to life, also."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Once again, thanks for listening. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

And about a year and a half ago, concert pianist Jeremy Denk wrote a surprising essay for our NPR Music website. It was called "Why I Hate the Goldberg Variations."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

JEREMY DENK: The best reason to hate Bach's "Goldberg Variations," aside from the obvious reason that everyone asks you all the time which of the two Glenn Gould recordings you prefer, is that everybody loves them. Not a moment goes by when someone doesn't release a new recording accompanied by a breathless press. They're like a trendy bar that infuriatingly keeps staying trendy.

DENK: Yes, I'm suspicious of the Goldbergs' popularity. Classical music isn't really supposed to be that popular. I worried for years that I would be seduced into playing them and would become, like all the others, besotted, cultish. And that is exactly what happened. I have been assimilated into the Goldberg Borg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

RATH: That's the sound of assimilation. You're listening to Jeremy Denk's new recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations." And, as he predicted, critics love it. Jeremy Denk is in our New York studios. Jeremy, thank you for joining us.

DENK: Thanks very much for having me.

RATH: So the title of the essay was "Why I Hate the Goldberg Variations." Obviously, there is, you know, that was tongue-in-cheek. You don't really hate them as such. But do you have conflicting feelings about the Goldbergs?

DENK: I don't know if I - I mean, it's one of the great masterpieces and one of the great icons of our keyboard repertoire. It does have - it has built-in, you know, problems. It's 80 minutes of G major, which is - mostly G major. And I wrote in one of the other essays, I think, that it's a fool's errand attempted by the greatest genius of all time. And that's sort of true about the piece.

RATH: Well, what's funny is that, you know, used to music essays that tell us why we should love something. And it's interesting, you have very compelling reasons why we should hate the Goldbergs. And, well, let's start off with the 80 minutes of one key. Why isn't it utterly boring?

DENK: Well, the piece is kind of about invention and imagination and the joy of reinvention and reimagination and how much can you wring out of this eight-note bass idea. In another way, it's like the biggest jazz riff ever written. It's endlessly funny in some ways and endlessly moving in other ways. And it's partly an encyclopedia in which every possibility of musical style of the time is explored. And it's partly like an adventure, a journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

RATH: You mentioned jazz, and it's something that still amazes me after, you know, I've listened to this piece of music a lot over the years. But with all the architecture and the technical issues that you talk about, it sounds free and almost improvisational at times.

DENK: Yeah. There is blue notes in Bach too. There's tremendous numbers of naughty notes, even in - maybe even especially in the most beautiful variations, like in Number 13. At the end of the most serene, arcing melody are these sort of one or two naughty notes that creep in. And it's sort of bittersweet and sort of wicked. And that's one of my favorite things about Bach is these sort of wicked last thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

RATH: There's this kind of silly stereotype of Bach as being, you know, especially brainy, you know, in writing these multi-part, you know, all this fugal material. And I like how you really embrace the humor. I think you use the phrase, there's a cartoon silliness about some of this. Where are you hearing that?

DENK: Well, some of the - there's a variation - I always forget the numbers, actually, but 23, I believe, is the one with the two hands chasing each other in scales going down the keyboard. And so the left hand begins and the right hand follows one eighth note later. And this joke, Bach takes it to an incredible and ridiculous extreme so that the - it's sort of the Road Runner and Coyote after each other for two minutes up and down the keyboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

DENK: Many is the time I have onstage rued those various acrobatics. And there's all these places, you know, where the hands come at each other, and then they have to kind of sneak over each other. And those are always very treacherous, especially in performance. And then the hands kind of cross back around and come back as if revisiting the site of an accident. I have a whole - I mean, obviously, it was written for two keyboards, so there's a lot of problems that are specifically about the one-keyboard piano.

RATH: So Bach, back in the day, was set up like the keyboardist in one of those '70s supergroups; he had...

DENK: Oh, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: You have this great line about the Goldbergs that - describing it as a vast desert of happiness with occasional oases of sadness. Those are the three minor key variations. When you hear the first one - I think it's variation 15 - it's all of a sudden like you're on another planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

RATH: What's that doing to you emotionally when you're feeling that, playing that?

DENK: Well, what's so beautiful is that the two hands are mirrored around an invisible center, in a sense. There's like an axis holding them and governing their motions. And sometimes they wander far from the center, and then they come crawling back to the center and always kind of echoing each other's ideas. And there's a really profound way in which those canons become like little essays in time because you have an idea that's said. And then when you hear it the second time, it's as if the first idea is put in the past tense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

RATH: Why do you think people love this piece so much?

DENK: Well, the - I mean, there's so many - I mean, the theme itself is just one of those miracles. One of the miracles of this piece, and one of the characteristics of the theme that I find most affecting, is the way that in the last sort of quatrain of it, it does something that has not happened in the theme before. And it begins to move and sort of elide over the bars in a way that it never had before, and the melody takes off in this sort of beautiful flurry of 16th notes. And only at that moment, you know, at the end, when the 16th notes reach the most beautiful place, the theme is over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

DENK: And there's something about that particular, the confluence of the attainment and the relinquishing of the idea at the same time. There's something about that. I think people really get moved by it, and it's something very true to life also.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS")

RATH: Jeremy Denk. He has a new recording of the "Goldberg Variations." It comes along with a fascinating DVD. Jeremy, thank you so much.

DENK: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDBERG VARIATIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.