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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Uri Caine - Musician who breaks all the boundaries

By Norman Lebrecht / February 6, 2002

NIGHT drops on the Dolomites like a stage curtain, gracefully and with finality. On the high plateau of Toblach, where the composer Gustav Mahler spent his last three summers, a music festival struggles with the elemental stillness.

The old ballroom at the station hotel, lavishly restored, is too small to accommodate a symphony concert, and Mahler wrote nothing smaller. Bringing his music back home involved mirrors and make-believe - until Caine came along and stamped his mark.

A bearish Philadelphian, Uri Caine saunters over to the piano. The only other stage object is a screen above his head. A still image flashes up: a sunlit slope, somewhere local. Caine starts to play a familiar Mahler heart-wrench.

Over the next hour, to the accompaniment of silent film, he reels out a musical biography of the composer, ranging back and forth through 10 symphonies and Lied cycles with wild scats of variation to relate a life without words. It has taken him a year to research, engaging with Mahler's personality and coming up with new discoveries and startling conclusions. A genre is born: the bio-recital.

But the Caine account is untamed by the correctnesses of history or psychoanalysis. It involves blues, white jazz, klezmer riffs, weird noises and, for heaven's sake, Brazilian rumba. "Turning the Kindertotenlieder into a bossa nova might seem trashy," Caine admits, "but if you have a connection with the heartbreak of certain types of bossa nova, it has real meaning. This is a commentary, and a connection. There has always been a fusion in music history, where people speak more than one language."

Of no composer is this truer than of Mahler, who declared himself "three times homeless" and insinuated gipsy, Jewish and tavern songs into his symphonies. What Caine does is transpose Mahler's method to a postmodern context, as an opera director might set Don Giovanni in post-Franco Spain.

He steps up at Toblach the following night, this time with violinist Mark Feldman, playing both electric and acoustic, a big-kit drummer and trumpeter and a heavy-duty club DJ with turntables. They attack the funeral movement of Mahler's first symphony with screeches and sub-texts, accentuating the conflict of tragedy and revelry over a ground-bass of trad jazz. Mahler fans who save up all year to spend their summer hols at the shrine might have been expected to rush out into the motionless night shrieking "Sacrilege!". But the shocking thing about Caine's creation is that it works - both as music and as musical thought.

The most radical track on his debut Mahler disc, Primal Light, overlaid the Das Lied farewell song with a Jewish cantor intoning the graveside memorial prayer. Musically, it fitted like a shroud, revealing more about the hotly contested Jewishness of Mahler's mind than a hundred learned papers and symposia. "Sometimes," concedes Caine, "I feel it goes too far. But it's a way of extending the tapestry of the music we play."

He has redone Das Lied with a Chinese orchestra, turned the Second Symphony Urlicht into a lonely-heart lament, imposed a Native American chant on the Fifth symphony and given the death of children a smoky nightclub gloss. What started as a fad for subversive Mahlerites has grown into a trans-generic cult. Caine will be centre-stage this Saturday at a South Bank event hosted by the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.

Mahler is not the only cadaver on Caine's path-lab slab. With much the same method, he cut Wagner down to size with a Venetian cafe band, reworked Bach's Goldberg Variations in club rhythms and orchestrated Beethoven's Diabelli Variations for a German chamber orchestra, over which he plays jazz improvisations. "They have security, I have freedom," laughs Caine.

He is composing a straight sextet for principals of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, has premiered a ballet in Vienna and has been welcomed at Pierre Boulez's IRCAM, crucible of ascetic futurism. For Uri Caine there are no musical boundaries, no categories or taboos that cannot be dismantled.

"Growing up in a place like Philadelphia," he explains, "you'd go to hear the orchestra and then go play jazz with Philly Joe Jones. You didn't realise there were barriers and politics involved." With parents who practised law and wrote poetry, Caine studied piano with a French iconoclast, Bernard Peiffer, and composition with George Crumb and George Rochberg, both working against the grain. Earning pocket money as a singers' accompanist, he learned the rigidities of form-bound music, the closing of classical minds.

Working the other side of the street was more liberating. "The most mediocre jazz musician," says Caine, "has an ability to analyse harmony that is way beyond what classical players can do. The risk-taking factor of improvisation is very high and rewarding."

Moving to New York, he met kindred spirits in such men as Feldman, who used to fiddle country for Tammy Wynette in Nashville while also leading the local symphony orchestra. Dave Douglas, his regular trumpeter, is love-torn between Stravinsky and John Coltrane. Don Byron is a jazz clarinettist who, like Benny Goodman, does classics for pleasure. "A lot of musicians," says Caine, "don't want to be narrowly defined."

He keeps his ensemble alarmingly fluid. When we spoke last week, he had not yet decided who and how many to bring over for his South Bank gig. In New York, he has all the right guys at the end of a phone, but the culture is too stratified for his music. There is a steady audience at the Knitting Factory downtown, but no room at snooty Carnegie Hall.

It is in Europe that Caine, 45, found his metier. A pair of Munich brothers, known as Winter and Winter, gave him the run of their eponymous label to record his compositions and speculations. He now spends half the year touring the wrong side of the Atlantic, frightening the horse-faces in Salzburg and working Italy from top to tip. Claudio Abbado murmured something about a commission.

But the biggest accolade has come from the summit of music drama. Read this next sentence carefully because it is going to make tomorrow's headlines all over Italy: La Scala, Milan, has asked Uri Caine to deconstruct Verdi's Otello for production at the end of next year.

Otello? thought Caine. Terrific - a North African folk-hero, lots of street music, real grit. Ahem, coughed the suits from Scala. You'll have to employ 20 members of our orchestra under the union contract. Caine is working on it.

"I like musicians who think of themselves as improvisers," he says. "I want there to be a certain feeling coming out of the music, connecting it to other cultures. Living in an information era, you can track down any kind of music on earth. Most musicians today don't want to be constricted."

He may well be on to something. Uri Caine and his like have shaken off the chains of literalism and restored to ordinary musicians the rights of improvisation and interpretation that they enjoyed in Mozart's time. It's a heady sensation. Most will be too timid to grasp the challenge, but those who do will be rewarded with the broadening of horizons that, in both classics and jazz, have been narrowing for decades.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001