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'The Biggest Jazz Riff Ever Written:' Jeremy Denk's 'Goldberg Variations'

Jeremy Denk played Mozart at Carnegie Hall Wednesday with the San Francisco Symphony.
Eric Thayer for NPR Music
Jeremy Denk played Mozart at Carnegie Hall Wednesday with the San Francisco Symphony.

In the classical music world right now, many eyes are focused on Jeremy Denk. The 43-year-old pianist was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in September, his new album of Bach's Goldberg Variations is pleasing critics and this week he played Mozart brilliantly at Carnegie Hall with the San Francisco Symphony.

Denk is also attracting fans beyond classical music. His reputation as a writer, with his disarming mix of thoughtfulness and wit, is growing in articles he's written for the New Yorker, the Guardian and NPR Music.

Weekends on All Things Considered host Arun Rath invited the busy pianist to talk about his new recording of the iconic Goldberg Variations, a nearly 90-minute masterwork that Denk has referred to as "maniacal, in the best way" and as "the biggest jazz riff ever written."

Interview Highlights

On recording Bach's iconic Goldberg Variations

"It's a thrill and a terrifying experience to release a recording of this incredibly well-known piece. It's one of those pieces that's on the public square. You know, everyone loves to have an opinion about it and talk about it. I just had to put out my version of it and see what happened, I guess.

"It's one of the great masterpieces and one of the icons of our keyboard repertoire. It does have built-in problems. It's 80 minutes of G major — mostly G major. And I wrote in one of the other essays that it's a 'fool's errand, and attempted by the greatest geniuses of all time.' But on the other hand, as I've played it, it's like this incredible old friend that keeps coming back."

On what keeps the Goldbergs from being boring

"The piece is about invention and imagination and the joy of re-invention and re-imagination and about how much you can ring out of this 8-note bass idea? How much can you get out of this set of chord changes? In another way, it's like the biggest jazz riff ever written — it's endlessly funny in some ways and endlessly moving in other ways. It's partly an encyclopedia in which every possibility of musical style of the time is explored. And it's partly like an adventure, a journey. The short answer is Bach's genius makes it not boring, and the incredible ways he has of working the same ground."

On the improvisational feel of the Goldbergs

"There's that sort of riffing element. There's a very strong way in which Bach will take a single idea and just go bananas on it. And each variation is like going bananas on a single premise. There are blue notes in Bach, too. There are tremendous numbers of naughty notes, even especially in the most beautiful variations, like in No. 13. At the end of the most serene, arching melody there are one or two naughty notes that creep in, and it's sort of bittersweet and sort of wicked. That's one of my favorite things about Bach is these sort of wicked last thoughts at the end of paragraphs."

On the humor in the Goldbergs

Sort of the Road Runner and the Coyote, after each other for two minutes up and down the keyboard.

"There's a variation — 23 is the one I believe — with the two hands chasing each other in scales going down the keyboard. The left hand begins and the right hand follows one eighth note later. And this joke Bach takes to incredible and ridiculous extremes, sort of the Road Runner and the Coyote after each other for two minutes up and down the keyboard. I can't believe that Bach wasn't attuned to the almost slapstick humor of this variation and how important that is in relation to some of the other, very serious variations. A lot of it has to do with the two keyboards [on a harpsichord], just the fun of the two hands leaping over each other and doing all kinds of stunts and somersaults. Some of the greatest laughs in music are in this piece, I think."

On the hand acrobatics needed in the Goldbergs

"Many is the time on stage I have rued those acrobatics. There are all these places where the hands come at each other and then they have to sneak over each other, and those are always very treacherous, especially in performance. And then the hands kind of cross back around and come back as if revisiting the site of an accident. It was written for two keyboards [of a harpsichord] so there are a lot of problems specifically about the one-keyboard piano. But that's part of the joy of the piece and part of its outlandishness too. Bach, in his invention, really loves to try all the possibilities of these two keyboards at war, in contrary motion, in parallel motion in every possible geometry."

On the forward-thinking 25th Variation

"Bach was capable of ranging pretty far. In a way he's almost ranging backwards in time, if you think of some of the chromatic possibilities in the madrigals before Bach. So it's both future travel and past travel. What is so extraordinary for me about that variation is this idea of the two hands being at war — which is sometimes very funny — becomes this kind of existential problem. They never play together and they are constantly doing dissonances that are never quite resolved and then new problems are set up. And the right hand will go off and play a note that is completely mystifying, and only when the left hand comes in a little bit later do you finally understand. There's this constant ambiguity and disturbance between the hands. This variation makes it clear that maybe we thought we knew where we were going but really, really don't."

On why people love the Goldbergs

"There are so many reasons. But the [main] theme itself is one of those miracles. One of the characteristics of the theme that I find most affecting is in the way, in the last quatrain of it, it does something that has not happened in the theme before. It begins to move and elide over the bars in a way that it never had before and the melody takes off in this beautiful flurry of 16th notes. And only at that moment, at the end, when the 16th notes reach the most beautiful place, then the theme is over. There's something about that confluence of the attainment and the relinquishing of the idea at the same time. I think people really get moved by it and it's something very true to life, also."

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