Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Blue Whale

Uri Caine gave a lecture at New England Conservatory yesterday. He's best known for his deconstructions of classical music, and he spent most of his time explaining those pieces — or defending them against critics who dismiss them as the facile exercises of a dilettante and as cheap exploitation of dignified art as a gimmick. In fairness to Caine, they're neither. He knows the nature and history of the original music better than most of his critics, and his interpretations come from love and respect.

If you haven't heard his music, an example is his reinterpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The double-disc set includes 72 variations on Bach's aria recorded by instrumentations ranging from solo piano to string quartet to a New Orleans band to a mix by DJ Logic. From one track to the next, Caine takes you all over the map in terms of style with no hint what to expect next. It's a gargantuan project that must have been incredibly difficult to assemble and produce, and any critic who dismisses it as "cheap" only demonstrates his own ignorance.

Having said that, I don't like the music. I certainly respect it; I admire his ambition, and I can appreciate the result — but it's not my cup of tea. There's no question that, having listened to it, you go back to Bach with a changed perspective; and that's a contribution worth discussing. But in my opinion, it has less value as an original statement than as a comment upon Bach.

Yet Caine struck me as ambitious and thoughtful, and here's the thing: I got the impression he was less interested in making music than art — in other words, he seems less concerned with whether his audience enjoys what they're hearing than whether they feel provoked.

I've always said that to be an effective orator, you need to disturb your audience. Not "offend," but disturb: as in, move them. You need to overcome your audience's inertia, to have some effect upon them. Ideally that effect will be positive; but if they hate you, if they absolutely despise everything you say and they throw tomatoes, at least your message will be remembered and that's better than wasting everyone's time.

When I listen to a new piece of music, my first question is whether the artist is doing something different. I've got a shelf of Oscar Peterson records and I love them, but Peterson's most successful music lacks a beauty that can be heard in even the worst recordings by Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill. He's got no ambition. His discography spans half a century, but it's all time and no space. He never moves. He's standing in the same square patch that he occupied in 1950.

I would never recommend Caine's experiments to a typical jazz fan. For all my respect, I admit that I don't like them. I listen because I appreciate the challenge, because they serve as homework for gaining perspective on their roots. But judge for yourself. He's definitely done his homework, and his records demonstrate an incredible degree of knowledge and commitment. If nothing else, I can say this: You won't be wasting your time.


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