Interview mit Uri Caine

Das Gespräch wurde am 4. Juni 2010 per Telefon zwischen New York und Berlin geführt. Gegenstand des Gesprächs sind die 12 Caprices, die Uri Caine gemeinsam mit dem Arditti String Quartet eingespielt hat.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

How did these caprices come to be? And how did the opportunity to work with the Arditti Quartet arise?

The Arditti String Quartet had recorded some music by Fred Frith for Winter & Winter, and Stefan Winter from the record label asked me if I might be interested in doing a similar project. And after I met Irvine Arditti in London and we talked about some possibilities I got excited, because I realised it would be a musical challenge for me both to compose and also play with the Arditti. I have many CDs by them through the years. And so I really admire their playing. And the chance to play with them and write for them was something that really got me excited.

Was it clear from the beginning that it would be a longer cycle? And was the idea for the caprices there from the beginning?

Well, originally it was supposed to be a CD where there was music from other composers, but for some reason – they didn't finish the music or something happened – it became possible to write and record more music. I didn't originally know how long the pieces would be, but once I started writing them and sending them to the Arditti, I decided I would write twelve pieces and see if we could record everything, and luckily we were able to.

Other pieces of yours relate to older classical music, you play jazz music. But these pieces are avant-garde music. Was this a special project for you.

Well, actually I have been composing a lot of music, not that much of that music has been recorded. Chamber music with no improvisation or orchestra pieces with no improvisation. Or also in the last couple of years I have written several pieces for orchestra and improvising piano, the same idea. Maybe it is the question, that that music has not been recorded and put out there, but I hope it will be. Especially on Stefan Winter's label this is the first piece that I guess falls into a different category. In a sense for me all the different projects that I am doing are part of a bigger thing. But I don't really choose or know how to define it necessarily. Except that it definitely reflects my enthusiasm for a lot of different types of music.

There must be a difference for you, whether you write down notes or improvise on the piano. I don't want to make too big a deal out of it. I know musicologists tend to think in genres too much. For you it might not be that important. But there must be a difference.

Well, I think there are several differences. One is that when you are writing for other people, whether or not it's in a more jazz or improvised environment or a more classical environment, maybe the expectation of how they want that music to be notated and what they expect to derive from that notation might be different. That is something that I have seen in my own experience. So in a sense writing for a group like the Arditti, it is good to be very specific about what you want in dynamics and phrasing. In another sense though, as a composer, I am happier for the group to work it out sort of by evolving and not necessarily by talking about the music. And so in this case that is also the way that we worked. We would just play and try different things, and it was very organic. So in that sense it seemed to me very similar to the way I worked with musicians from my own group, where there is a lot more improvisation from everybody. And I think that the second difference has to do with that when you are playing by yourself, I mean obviously when you are improvising a solo piano concert you have a certain kind of freedom. It can be lonely up there on stage when you play solo, but there is also the freedom to change direction at will." You can move from one thing to another quickly. With an ensemble you can also do that, it just has a different type of feeling. So in these pieces what I was trying to do was create these settings, that the piano could either fit into or complement in some way but also be played against, sort of more in a traditional concerto idea where there is the ensemble versus the single instrument.

The piano does have a special part. The piano is you.

The piano is me. At least on this CD. In some of the caprices trying to react to what the string quartet is playing. At other times thinking of myself as much more independently, in fact, all of us are playing independently, and then we come together at certain points and then it breaks away again. So I like all these different nuances in how you set these structures up for improvisation.

OK. So are there improvised parts in these pieces?

Actually the piano part is completely improvised.

Meaning you wrote down the parts of the string quartet, and then you improvised along with them?


And you were reading along the score of the string quartet?


OK. Sometimes it seems to me like you are quoting something, but I am never really able to grasp an original. Are there quotes of other music in this piece?

Not direct quotes. There is one very brief quote of a Thomas Adès string quartet. And it's a recording that the Arditti made. So in a way I was listening to that, it is a very brief quote. But besides that the allusions to other music are, I guess, original, if you want to call it that. I mean they are not consciously trying to quote other music.

There is a tradition of the piano quintet in the 19th century. Did you have older pieces in mind when composing these pieces?

No, I am sure that it did play a part in some of the pieces. Some of the music recalls other composers, like late Beethoven or maybe something by Mahler. But I think that it is more a general impression. I wasn't really thinking about modelling. If anything I wanted to have an idea of the caprice, which is sort an improvisation, something that just is an impulsive piece of music and something that is part of a set. You can go different places whith each of the caprices. You can have a different emotion and also a different texture. And so that's really what I was thinking. Of course, in a way I was modelling it after Paganini's caprices. He wrote twenty-four caprices for the violin. There is a lot of virtuosity in it. But there is a lot of difference between the pieces.

I see. You mentioned lines coming together and drifting apart.

I think in some of the pieces that is definitely what is happening. For instance in the first piece you have this idea that all the different parts are playing different rhythms and rhythmic figures and rhythmic subdivisions even though the gesture of the music is moving upwards or downwards. So again it sets up a certain framework for the improvisation for me to think, OK, I can also play against them. And then at a certain point, more like a punctuation point, we all come together at certain points just to show that we are on the same page, and then it sort of dissolves again. And I like things like that, where there is a sort of shape, an organic shape for the music, that obviously you can describe it harmonically, rhythmically, but also it was sort of a feeling, and as an improviser it was very exciting to move in or out of these different things, to have to react to different things, because I guess I fundamentally think of myself as a jazz composer in a sense that I am enjoying setting up structures, that then somehow get intesified or elaborated with improvisation. That's what we do when we take or write forms for improvising musicians, it is a sort of a game set-up or there is a structure, there is a rhythmic idea, there is a chord progression, there is a motive, there is an overall form, that we are trying to follow, even though it is an invisible form. All those things are normal for the way we play. And so in a way this is an attempt to include other musicians in that way. Another thing that might be interesting is that when we were going to record it, the recording engineers of the WDR wanted the string quartet to play their parts first, and then I would add my piano part later. And they said, that was because of the sound, but also maybe because of the possibilities, that I could do my part over and over again and it wouldn't really effect the way the string quartet was being recorded. But immediately when they started to play, Irvine Arditti asked me to play with them, he said, it is much easier if we all play together. So even though that limited the editing possibilities later, it was much more of a natural feeling of all of us playing together. And once we got warmed up and got going, it became fun and we tried to play it in many different ways. So from that point of view, the recordings are pretty much all spontaneously first or second takes of what we did that day in the studio.

The overdubbing would not have been good for the naturalness of it?

It is and it isn't. I mean at this point many musicians are so used to constructing records by overdubbing or by editing. I mean a lot of the electronic music that I am doing, that is what we work on all the time. It is not that it is such an unnatural thing necessarily, but in terms of immediacy, we are saying, instead of making a sonically perfect record, we are just going to make a record that is much more a document of what went on that day in the studio, which in a way is much more a jazz idea, I think. You know, that you just come in and play, and that is what it is. So in that sense I like that level of spontaneity on the CD.

Did you rehearse a lot beforehand? Did you surprise the quartet?

No, we didn't really rehearse. And I guess I did surprise them. There were certain times, where they were sort of surprised about what I was doing. Hopefully they were good surprises.

Did they surprise you?

Oh, to be playing with a group that plays so intensely as they do, and to see how they work and the musicianship and the ferocity and the passion with which they play was totally enjoyable. It was totally inspiring. Not only to be with a group like that, because I know that feeling when you have a group, it is a very intense feeling between four people or six people. It is sort of like a family. You can be disfunctional and functional at the same time. There is a lot of history that is between all the musicians. So you can feel it. In that sense I step outside of that; I let them work as a quartet on what they work on. But I thought we had a very good communication and I felt that I was accepted by them. In fact, they were sort of encouraging me to even take it further out: let's do this, let's try it this way. So in that way it was really fun.

So you were a distant relative of this family?

Maybe not so distant. I speak with a different accent. The one thing that you can say about the Ardittis is that they are very, very versatile in their playing a lot of music by a lot of different composers in a lot of different styles. So in a certain sense they are attuned to how to adjust to many different styles, if you look at their discography and see the sheer range of music they are recording. I am not sure that they had ever done a project like this, at least that is what they told me, with improvisation, and they were maybe a little sceptical of how it was going to work in the beginning. But once we started getting going and listening back to what we were doing, it was: OK, this is good.

Did you imagine the piano part while you were writing the string quartet?

Sometimes. Sometimes I thought: I see what I could be doing here. Other times I just left it up to the moment. Again that is not so different from other projects that I have done, which might seem like there is a lot of improvisation, but when you are composing for improvisers you are imagining in a certain way what the improvisation could sound like. Sometimes it turns out to be what you imagined, at other times it goes into other directions, that you don't even expect. And that is the beauty and the flexibility of that.

When you improvise, you improvise within a style or an idiom. It might be free jazz or a be bop version of a jazz standard. Here it seems like you are improvising avant-garde music. It seems strange to me that you can improvise in the style of the avant-garde.

I think it is an opportunity. I think that as a musician you can train yourself to do that. And especially if you enjoy playing different types of music. Maybe as a pianist or keyboard player you get a lot of opportunities and chances to play in a lot of different types of situations. But in a sense I am still very interested in what happens in contemporary music, buying scores and trying to study the scores and composing music in that style, it doesn't seem such a leap to just try to improvise. I think that improvisation – there is a certain mysterious aspect to it, but in another way it is not a mystery. It is something you can cultivate and practise and train yourself. In a certain way it is like learning a language, teaching yourself a language, and all the different things that go into that. That you have to study the grammar, the complexity that's behind it. But you also have to speak with real people in different situations and start to appreciate the nuances. Actually that language encompasses many languages within it, and you know that. You speak with certain people a different way then you do with other people. And whether or not that is natural or learned or something that is very subtle, there is a nuance about it, that is hard to describe what it is. Playing music can also be that way, in the sense that you go into a certain situation to play and there is improvisation in that music. You say, you are a musicologist, so you are used to typifying that music. And you have to start describing aspects that say: OK, this music belongs to this family, and this music belongs to this family. In that same sense musicians are studying it, maybe not in the same way of list-making, but in the way of observing the nuances of how people play rhythm or how the harmony moves or what type of instrumentation it is or how the audience reacts to music at any given time. And all of those nuances become a collective repository of knowledge that other musicians share with each other. And then styles emerge and evolve. And so I think that's where to me trying to fit in all these different improvisations with all these different aspects of music becomes a very natural thing. It's a very interesting thing to move between these worlds.

You are talking about how improvising is similar to learning a language. Aren't there ever moments in which you have nothing to say or don't want to say anything?

Sure. Sometimes in a situation like that it might be better to say less or say nothing, but silence. And there is a lot of music that reflects that tendency. Certain music is about that. It is about the space of silence. But I think a lot of times when you have nothing to say it is maybe because you are mentally exhausted or the people you are with, you feel what you have to say has no effect anymore, so you go into a passivity. That can happen in musical groups, too. But certainly in situations where the musicians are inspired, you just have to look over and hear what is going on, it is instantly inspirational. So, I wouldn't say that I rarely had that feeling of having nothing to say, but especially when you are playing with great musicians there is a certain that lends itself to that occasion which inspires you to try your best.

I would like to come back to the twelve caprices. There are twelve. That is a very round number, having to do with the idea of cycle in music. Is this a cycle? And is there a movement from movement to movement?

Twelve is a very mystical number for music. Not just music. Actually, I am hoping to be able to write another twelve pieces to make it into a cycle of twenty-four, sort of as a parallel to the twenty-four caprices by Paganini, that number dealing with different types of music. Whether or not they progress, in other words, if you were to play caprice one through twelve and that would make a whole piece, maybe on some level yes, because there is a lot of contrast. But I didn't consciously think of it progressing that way. I am thinking of it more as this big canvas where you have twelve pieces of maybe the same length, but very different things going on in them.

As in colours ...

Yeah, I mean some of the pieces are definitely concentrated in certain areas of texture or rhythm, again, because they suggest a certain type of improvisation and a certain style of improvisation. Some of the pieces actually have forms within themselves, maybe like an A-B-A form or more like a rondo form, where you have these different sections that keep on intercutting with each other. And then some of the pieces really feel more like through-composed pieces in a sense that they start in one point and then end in another point, they develop toward the ending.

Did you have concepts for each of the pieces? Or did form etc. come in a much more haphazard way?

Well, haphazard is one of those words. Sometimes when you are working on something and you start sketching the idea out and come back to it later and realise, wow, maybe I need to use this in a different way than originally conceived of. That happens to certain of the pieces, but I would say that a lot of the times there is a type of exposition and then a development of the material in the middle of the piece and then, not necessarily a recapitulation, but somehow a climax that then either ends there or there is a coda after that. I think that's the form of a lot of the pieces. The rondo form is much more a call and response idea. There are certain pieces where the string quartet is playing its music and I am accompanying that music, but then there is a clear response from the piano either solo or with the strings accompanying it. And so in that sense it is really much more a dialogue. Some of the pieces might sound more, quote unquote, jazzy than other pieces. Other pieces are much more dissonant or textural. And again I enjoy all those different ideas, because they all suggest different types of improvisation.

You mention that the four parts in the first movement drift apart. Did you write this piece that way? Did you write each part on its own? Or was it much more synchronised than it sounds?

I think that something like that is an effect that you can get. You are thinking about rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint. And the idea of expanding and contracting musical ideas. So the way that I am working a lot of times is that I will sketch it out in a certain way, because I am hearing it in my head, and I might go back later and try to make it more coherent. In other words, the idea, the initial idea becomes refined. And then at that point, that's when you are composing. You are dealing with taking building blocks, music, ideas, motives, something you heard in your mind's ear, and then you start to write it down, and it becomes transformed as you try to put it together and make it connect with other music. Sometimes that process is very natural and it feels that the music flows. Other times you really have to work on it and you try it many different ways. And it takes a longer time to understand what to do with the material that you are given, that you have in your mind. Again, it is something you can't predict. The only thing you can try to do is work on it, and think about it and develop it and see where it goes. And to me that's the fun of it. That's the idea of it. That it is an organic thing that you are playing with all the time. And that it can go in different places.

Does it matter which course a piece takes? If it comes easy or is hard work? They lead to different results and I wonder if both results are equally desirable.

I am not sure that you can tell. Sometimes with great composers, it may look very simple and natural, and then you look at sketchbooks. I mean if you look at Beethoven's sketchbooks and see how he laboured over certain things that sound natural, you realise that different people work different ways. I think sometimes with some musicians you can tell, wow, yes, that seems like they really worked on that. I mean, it sounds like it. And at other times you think this musician is a totally natural musician, they way that they are playing and composing, it just sounds effortless. But I have learned, from my own experience and playing with a lot of other people, that you can't really judge that. Sometimes you are right. But a lot of times you are not right. Because I also see how that process works, when a group is playing. Sometimes a group starts to play music that is, quote unquote, very difficult, and it sounds strained and maybe not so certain. But then when you start to practice and play, night after night it is sounding better and better, and soon it sounds so natural. You go, wow, it really sounds natural. Yeah, but you don't know how we worked on it to get it to that point. And I think that is something that all musicians practise. Maybe that is the goal of practise, when you finally give the concert or play, that it sounds effortless. But obviously it involves a lot of thought and a lot of working out. I consider myself lucky, if you have that easy way of giving birth. But if it starts getting difficult, I don't get deterred, like, oh no, know it is getting difficult and it is going to sound that way. A lot of times it is good to work on something and then let it go. And then when you return to it later you see it with new eyes and you can see what the proper proportion should be and you naturally put it together,so you have the best of both worlds.You worked to develop the material.But the way you put it together in the end has a more natural organic feeling.

I think I am through with my questions. Is there anything about the caprices that is important and we didn't talk about?

Only that how great the Arditti string quartet is. Because we got close and had a good time. And then we actually played these pieces in New York. The Arditti came to New York and there is a club in Greenwich Village now where a lot of people play contemporary music, even though it is a club. It's called the Poisson Rouge. And we played there. It was fun. In a way I thought it was even better than the record, because it was much more wild.

There is a difference when a microphone is there.

True. When we record, it is always at the beginning of a process. And then you play it live, more and more, and then it becomes relaxed. So for a lot of the records I made, I wish I could have recorded them after we had played them for a long time. Because it changes. What we were talking about before, the naturalness of it, it starts to flow a lot better, once the musicians are comfortable with the music. But that's life.