Lara Downes: 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg
J.S. Bach, Fred Lerdahl, Jennifer Higdon, Bright Sheng, Lukas Foss, Derek Bermel, Fred Hersch, C. Curtis Smith, Stanley Walden, Ryan Brown, Mischa Zupko, David del Tredici, Ralf Gothoni, Dave Brubeck
Just like the Hubble Telescope can now see the universe around 200 million years after it was created, almost any given major cultural trend or event can be seen duplicated years after. In reality, overwhelmingly powerful telescopes certainly aren’t needed to see these reoccurrences. After a while, it’s easy to get tired of the sequence, especially when these identical ideas are thought of as new and cutting edge. There are always exceptions to the dry cycle; or, rather, occurrences that take the cycle itself and shape it into something completely different.
One of these occurrences appears on a CD released September 13th called “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” performed by the pianist Lara Downes. Not only is this collection of music a gorgeous album of piano playing, but it’s also a significant reinvention of one of most classic and respected anthologies of piano pieces. The “Goldberg Variations” themselves, especially Gould’s multiple renditions of them, stand on some of the highest pedestals in the gigantic museum of musical legends. So, logically, one would either have to blow Gould out of the water or make something magnificent and different in order to stand out among the height of these pedestals. Lara Downes, with the help of 13 others, has done that.
“13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” is a set of new pieces inspired by the aria of the Goldbergs, the piece that is the subject of the original variations themselves. Thirteen composers were commissioned to write these solo piano works by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in 2004, where they were originally played by the pianist Gilbert Kalish. From baroque tinged to unmistakably Chopin to fugal, the variations on the Goldbergs take the listener’s lens on the iconic pieces and throw it into an entirely different realm.
The project was inspired by the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, a minimalist and mind-blowing portrait of perspective. The fifth stanza of that poem includes the basic idea of the “13 Ways” project:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Instead of taking the aria itself and simply placing it in a different genre’s template, the composers took those inflections and innuendos and created pieces that reflected them in unique lights.
Remember the game “telephone?” One person would think of a phrase, they would whisper it to the person next to them, and it would go along a line of people. The last person it reached would have to repeat the phrase, but it often got morphed during the passing into something that still adheres to the original phrase but has its own meaning and mood. Well, the results of these 13 composers feels similar to that, only the composers weren’t oblivious to the starting point. They were, in fact, the opposite of oblivious.
On one side of the spectrum, there are the composers that stayed with the general baroque feeling of the Goldbergs. Fred Lerdahl’s “Chasing Goldberg” uses the original melody of the aria and places it inside an energetic form—it jumps around the piano like releasing 100 bouncy balls into a racquetball court. Jennifer Higdon’s “The Gilmore Variation” feels like a loosened yet alert and playful version of Bach, but inserted are several unique transitions that one probably wouldn’t encounter in Bach’s time. One can feel the influence of the aria’s melody, but Higdon’s melody goes off on its own as well.
Then there are the pieces that move a little further on the genre spectrum. Bright Sheng, the Chinese-American composer, wrote a piece in fugal form, unlike the aria, which is a sarabande. The piece, appropriately called “Variation Fugato,” begins seeping with tension, hanging only on singular outlines of fifths that begin to intertwine with other voices and eventually resolve. C. Curtis Smith’s “Rube Goldberg Variation” (who doesn’t love a little wordplay?) moves further off the aria scale as well. The moods in Curtis Smith’s piece are dark, Edgar Allen Poe-esque, and definitely don’t sound like the aria—at first. However, when in succession with all these other lens-bending works, the innuendos and inflections are visible.
There are too many variations on the Variations to mention at length, though all of them contribute to the experience of listening to the recording. Derek Bermel’s “Kontraphunktus,” besides being labeled with the best tongue-in-cheek title on the album, is a piece constantly searching for a landing spot, but seems to be frantically looking the entire time in dissonant ways. Both Fred Hersch’s “Melancholy Minuet” and David del Tredici’s “My Goldberg” give neo-romanticism looks on the project. William Bolcom’s “Yet Another Goldberg Variation” is all for the left hand. And yet, they all still seem to at least be looking up at the Goldbergs like children, because they are, in a sense.
Downes’s playing on the recording is perfect for a recording of this type. She has a personal connection with the Goldbergs; she was “a little girl in my father’s big chair, listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldbergs, wondering at the twists and turns of Bach’s creation and Gould’s imagination.” Her emphases in each piece seem just right—they’re not too pronounced and overzealous, something that shouldn’t happen when tipping the hat to Bach, but shape the pieces in a ways that brings them full circle. Her skills were certainly tested; from Lerdahl’s staccato to Dave Brubeck’s jazzy “Chorale” (a piece Downes’s added to the recording, along with another Foss piece and the “Sarabande” from Bach’s French Suite V), she adapts and also keeps a centered pace throughout.
Some people, after hearing about the “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” project, might say superior things like “nothing will ever compare to Gould” or “you can’t mess with the classics.” But Downes and these 13 (plus one) composers didn’t try to recreate Bach’s original “Goldberg Variations.” They didn’t use the Hubble Telescope and copy the image. They studied it, saw how it evolved, and shifted their perspective.
This was also published on Neo Antennae.