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13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg

“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. Twelve 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.

No one variation exceeds 4 minutes. 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. Pianist Gilbert Kalish then arranged the collection for its debut as a whole work, adding Bach’s theme to the beginning and to the end, and inserting Bach’s Variation 13 in the middle.
However, Kalish clearly states it is up to the pianist to decide how to perform these works, whether as a whole or specific movement(s) only.

In September 2011 Tritone Records announced the World Premiere release of 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERG – new re-imaginings of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations by today’s most remarkable composers.
Hear pianist Lara Downes play and talk about the project:

Listen to four free tracks from the album.

Piano Street caught up with Lara Downes for six short questions on the project and album “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg”:

Patrick Jovell: As we have seen on the video, you were virtually raised on The Goldberg Variations. How is it that particularly this work has earned such historic landmark status in western art music?

Lara Downes: The Goldberg Variations are important in so many ways. For one thing, the piece is considered to be the most ambitious work ever composed for harpsichord, so it stands out as a monument of its own time, as the largest keyboard work produced during the Baroque period.
The piece exists on a level that is radically different from its contemporary compositions in terms of its structural expansiveness.

PJ: Isn’t it true that this work demonstrates not only Bach’s exceptional musical range but also his exceptional abilities as a performer?

LD: Ironically, it is exactly this virtuosic scope and breadth that may have condemned the work to relative obscurity for so many years. The work demands exceptional interpretive and technical skills from a performer, and the negotiations involved in transitioning a work originally composed for the harpsichord to the modern piano would have been particularly sensitive on this large scale.

PJ: Can you describe the work’s path from obscurity up to the grand concert stages?

LD: After Wanda Landowska’s pioneering revival of Bach’s keyboard music in the early part of the 20th century (during which she performed and recorded the Goldbergs on the harpsichord), it fell to Glenn Gould, who chose the variations for his sensational 1955 debut recording, to bring the work to its current place of truly iconic status within the piano repertoire as well as the larger cultural consciousness.

PJ: What actually happened to the work in the hands of Gould’s?

LD: Gould’s energetic, audacious and thoroughly unique interpretation generated a new kind of appreciation for Bach’s music by combining the sensibilities of the harpsichord with the romantic potential and expanded resources of the concert grand. His recording captured the imagination of an entire generation, and brought the Goldbergs, and classical music itself, to life for thousands of new listeners.

PJ: How would you sum up the potential of this masterpiece?

LD: I think it’s the capacity of this work for reinvention and rejuvenation that has earned the Goldbergs such landmark status in the classical tradition. This music seems to speak to generation after generation with a sustained purity, energy and sense of vastness. This is what captures me and keeps me coming back, time and again, to this one piece of music. When I listen to the Goldbergs, I forget about my individual concerns, troubles, perspectives – and I enter a sphere of infinite possibility and vision.

PJ: In this context the contributing composers were both historically inspired and thankful, I guess?

LD: 13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg is, to me, a wonderful acknowledgment of that possibility. This project celebrates the history of Bach’s monumental piece of music, its journeys across the centuries and the generations. In thirteen new voices, this music answers back across time and place to Bach, with all the gratitude and affection that
we musicians owe him, now and always.

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.

The pieces:

Bach: Aria, from Goldberg Variations BWV 988
C. Curtis-Smith: Rube Goldberg Variation
Jennifer Higdon: The Gilmore Variation
Mischa Sarche Zupko: Ghost Variation
Stanley Walden: Fantasy Variation
Bright Sheng: Variation Fugato
Derek Bermel: Kontraphunktus
Bach: Variation 13 from Goldberg Variations
David Del Tredici: My Goldberg (Gymnopedie No. 1)
Fred Lerdahl: Chasing Goldberg
William Bolcom: Yet Another Goldberg Variation (for left hand alone)
(Canon Inversa)
Lukas Foss: Goldmore Variation
Ralf Gothoni: Variation on Variation with Variation
Fred Hersch: Melancholy Minuet
Bach: Aria (reprise) from Goldberg Variations


Hear samples from the album at Amazon.com
Get the scores at Edition Peters
Pianist Lara Downes website


Dr. Walker Making Dead Pianists Come Alive

Imagine hearing great, departed pianists play again today, just as they would in person. John Q. Walker demonstrates how recordings can be analyzed for precise keystrokes and pedal motions, then played back on computer-controlled grand pianos.

What we focus on is representing exactly is how musicians perform, John Q. Walker, Ph.D., Founder of Zenph Sound Innovations said.
Using signal processing, artificial intelligence, and acoustics, Walker’s company developed new computer software that can dissect any recording – note by note.
“If they’re playing the piano, how would they have pressed the keys, where would the pedal have been, how long would they have held it?” Dr. Walker says.

Walker and his team wrote software to take a piano recording – even an old, scratchy one – and determine not only which keys were struck but exactly how they were played, including all the subtle nuances that distinguish great pianists. The result was simply amazing.

“We saw it as a very hard signal-processing problem: Can we get backwards from recordings to the notes? We all know how to go forwards, but can we go backwards? And if we can crack that problem, the whole industry changes” Dr. Walker continues.

Walker’s group indeed cracked that problem. And with their software, they were able to re-create great piano performances of the past. “Reperformance” is the word Walker uses. It may seem like remastering on steroids – but in fact it’s a lot more. Think about turning a mono recording into stereo, for example, changing the acoustics of the room and positioning the microphones differently from where they were placed during the original recording session – even letting the listener experience what the pianist heard sitting on the bench. The commercial value was obvious, which is why Walker’s company was able to strike a deal with Sony Music.

Bach - Goldberg Variations

Bach - Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations was the first album we recorded with Sony, and it’s the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. This was the first recording he made. He was 22 years old. He had had a very successful recital in New York, and Columbia Records said, “Let’s sign him up.” And normally when you sign up a young pianist, the first recording is, maybe, some Chopin or Beethoven sonatas or something. He picked a piece called the Bach Goldberg Variations, which had been rarely recorded on piano at all. It was thought you couldn’t play it on one manual. And he said, “No, I want to do this piece” and made a phenomenal recording in 1955 that has been one of the best continuous piano recordings in classical music history.

Dr. Walker has already staged robotic piano performances in front of some pretty big live audiences, recreating classic recordings at places like Carnegie hall. He’ll be performing at the Newport music festival in July. The first consumer software for piano files from Walker’s company Zenph sound innovations is set for release this summer.

Hear Dr. John Q Walker’s lecture on TED:

Hear a pod interview with Dr. John Q Walker:


Gabriela Montero – Uniting the Worlds of Composition and Improvisation

Pianists post-Liszt, however, blended improvisation with playing from memory so that “Performing a composition by heart fostered the impression that interpretation could have the freedom and spontaneity of an improvisation, but linked to music of greater complexity and–implicity–quality” (from After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, 2008).

While there’s some element of improvisation (interpretation is probably a better word to describe it) in all performances of classical piano music, pianist Gabriela Montero takes this to a different level by taking requests from the audience and improvising her show. Gabriela Montero’s extraordinary ability as an improviser, rare in the classical world, is fast becoming her trademark. From her first contact with a piano, Gabriela Montero has always improvised and she decided to make it public at the behest of Martha Argerich who told her not to be afraid whether people would find it improper or not.

Following her critically acclaimed Rachmaninov, Chopin, de Falla, Scriabin, Liszt recital disc and her Bach and Beyond improvisational album for EMI Classics, Montero recorded a CD of Baroque improvisations at London’s Abbey Road Studios in June 2007. Gabriela takes some of the best known Baroque themes, including Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, Albinoni’s Adagio, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Boccherini’s Minuet and Handel’s Water Music, and brings to her classy improvisations the same passion, poetic musicality and sense of structure that she brings to classical works. And as The New York Times reported following one of Gabriela’s improvisational evenings, “no matter how complex the variations, the original melody always emerges triumphantly from a musical tapestry that might weave blues, jazz, tango and Debussy into a multihued framework.”

Gabriela Montero was born in Caracas, Venezuela and performed in public for the first time at the age of five. Three years later, she made her concerto debut with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra. She was subsequently awarded a scholarship from the Venezuelan government to study in the United States. Despite winning a number of competitions, including the Bronze Medal at the 13th International Chopin Piano Competition, Gabriela kept her improvisational skills under wraps until Martha Argerich heard her and was “ecstatic,” giving her a ringing endorsement: “I have rarely come across a talent like Gabriela’s. She is a unique artist” as well as personal encouragement. Montero says, “Martha persuaded me that it was possible to combine my career as a serious ‘classical’ artist with the side of me that is rather unique.”

Gabriela performs live improvisation sessions via her website twice monthly – for further details visit http://www.gabrielamontero.com.

A live performance from the Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne in August 2007 is presented here:

A rich variety of performance clips are available at YouTube


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