Dan Tepfer: Goldberg Variations / Variations

J.S. Bach's "Goldberg Variations" has seen many a performance and recording, but never one quite like this.

Dan Tepfer

Goldberg Variations / Variations

Label: Sunnyside
US Release Date: 2011-11-08
UK Release Date: 2011-12-05

Back in the days when real men wore wigs and died by the age of 50, products of musical improvisations were called variations. Since the only way to document a piece of music was to write it down on paper, these variations on pre-existing themes would be played again and again by its composer, gradually being worked into a piece of music in its own right. It was a luxury you could afford if you were well established, like J.S. Bach. Otherwise, the idea of toying around with someone else's melody, or one that you had already written long ago, was considered to be a waste of time. Even an esteemed composer such as Beethoven, who loved to improvise for hours on end while he was just cutting his teeth as a composer, had to hide his love of variations for a while. It wasn't until he was caught by one of his mentors, leading to brief embarrassment, that he was openly encouraged to pursue the art of the variation.

One of the most famous examples of a mass-scale classical music born out of improvisations is J.S. Bach's "Goldberg Variations" for the harpsichord (though it is commonly, as is the case here, performed on piano). It has been recorded many times, twice by Glenn Gould, but it's safe to say that Dan Tepfer's new release is unlike any other currently out there. The original "Aria" that gets things started is there, with the writing co-credited to Tepfer himself. He performs the thirty variations just like anyone else and then wraps up the whole thing with another "Aria" rendition, switching the order of the names in the writing credit to Tepfer/Bach. But what's different is that each variation, all thirty of them, have a corresponding improvisation on the variation he just played. Goldberg Variations / Variations just about doubles the length of the original work, bloating it to 62 tracks spanning more than 77 minutes. It really is quite an undertaking. Not only does Dan Tepfer have to learn the whole original score, but he has to work out thirty individual vignettes to stand apart from one another while fending off claims that old Johann must be spinning in his grave.

It goes without saying that the nature of improvisation has changed since the time of Bach. Back then, the performer could musically explore their spontaneous ideas while staying within the confines of classical forms. It proved to be good enough for the time since Bach was able to wring 30 little tunes from the same progression of chords. But Tepfer, who is primarily a jazz pianist, doesn't feel the same pressures. His own improvisations find his piano skills taking off into a strange, third direction – not really jazzy, not at all classical. The harmonies will hold together the way you think they would one moment, then unravel in a pattern that only a 21st century education would explain. Tempos are of little concern as Tepfer's left and right hands refuse to perfectly match up. Not every improvisation movement gives you an aggressive fistful of modern. Some of them would not cause anyone to blink if they were coming from a Dave Brubeck or a (decidedly weirder) George Winston solo record. But it's nevertheless easy to tell which kind of piece is playing without having to look at your CD player/media player.

And there is the issue of musical sacrilege, which I haven't yet addressed. Sure enough, there will be people who think this is a terrible idea. Why try to improve upon a time-honoured composition with your own modernist ideas? And why sequence them to be part of that overall composition? Tepfer isn't trying to improve upon anything, though. You wouldn't say such a thing about a saxophonist giving the world its millionth solo for "A Night in Tunisia," so why treat Bach any differently? Tepfer realizes this can be thin ice. If he were to try any of these new variations in 1741, he would have had his ears boxed by his patron. His humming accompaniment, much like the vocalizations provided by Keith Jarrett and Glenn Gould – two notable performers of the "Goldberg Variations," can also be a turn off for listeners. As far as yours truly is concerned, I'm more partial to eclecticism than consistency most days of the week. In this case, eclecticism and irreverence can be mutually exclusive traits. If anything, Dan Tepfer is just telling us how he feels. He puts it best in his press release, so I’ll let him have the last word: "What I'm doing is definitely loving. But instead of recording the 'Goldberg Variations' and then writing lengthy liner notes about how I feel about them, I'm expressing how I feel about them in music, with my improvisations on Bach’s variations."






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.