Theme & Variations

Matthew Bietz —  May 3, 2007 — 2 Comments

There was a time in my life when I hated the Theme and Variations musical form. I couldn’t stand it. I’m sure that I said some malicious and hurtful things about T&V. But in the past few years I’ve come to realize that my opinions were ill-informed and far too negative. In fact, I think it’s time for me to formally apologize to T&V, and renounce my earlier position. As the politicians say, “If I had known then what I know now….”

So why this change of heart? Or, why blog about it? It’s simple: we saw Brad Mehldau last night.

Before I tell you about the concert, though, I want to explain why I hated T&V. I think Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations has a lot to do with it. I think it’s a stupid stupid piece of music. Can’t stand it. Like many (thought not all) T&Vs, it starts out with a cornball theme, and then spends the next umpteen minutes piling on the drivel. Heart IThe embellishments twitter and twirl around the theme, changing the rhythms, or the key, or the harmonies, or the timbres. But in the Rococo (and other bad examples of the form), these embellishments are about as interesting as dotting your i‘s with a heart. It’s cute and all, but it ain’t art.

But then I discovered that those embellishments don’t have to be insipid.

In 1997, I wrote my master’s thesis on what I still think is one of the best examples of T&V: Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated. 36 variations on the Chilean song ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! Six sets of six variations. Each 6th variation is a compilation of the previous five, and the last six variations summarize the entire hour-long piece. But unlike the Rococo, the theme is powerful, and the variations have life. They play, poke, deform, explore the theme, expanding our idea of what it could be. Rzewski gives us humor and sadness and childlike simplicity and quantum complexity. You feel like you’re in the middle of a cat and mouse game, chasing a theme that at times is in plain view, and is sometimes so fleeting and hidden you aren’t sure if you’re hearing it or not.

Last night I was reminded again why T&V is a good thing. Brad Mehldau played at the Athenaeum Jazz at the Neurosciences Institute series. And he played a solo jazz piano concert, which isn’t very common. Mehldau is known for his improvisation, and the T&V is really the backbone of the improviser’s craft. And not having others on stage with him gave him free reign to do what he wanted. When you hear a jazz ensemble (large or small), you’ll hear lots of improvisation. But in order to make it possible to play with the rest of the group, the improv is usually restricted to designated places in the music, and still has to conform to a relatively rigid structure (e.g. twelve-bar blues). When Mehldau improvises on his own, there’s still structure to the music, but he’s got a lot more freedom to suddenly do something different if he wants.

The concert was a little over 90 minutes, without an intermission. I recognized many of the themes and some pieces from his albums, but even the most familiar tunes were given a novel treatment. His version of My Favorite Things was probably my–and definitely the audience’s–favorite thing. And I’ve still got one tune stuck in my head that I recognize but can’t place.

I wonder how improvisation really works. Musical improvisation (especially jazz) is an often- (and probably over-) used metaphor in organizational studies. I think that in that comparison, there is a tendency to forget that the improvisation occurs in the context of incredibly practiced and precise routine. Even though the music that Mehldau plays may never have happened in exactly that way before, I’m sure he’s been practicing these particular pieces for months if not years, and he’s been building up routines on the piano for most of his life. Some new note or phrase or idea finds its way into the music, and that new bit produces a whole series of reactions. But the reactions are comprehensible because they are guided by routine and structure.

I don’t do musical improvisation, so this is an outsider’s perspective. I wonder how Mehldau or other jazz musicians would respond. How do they understand what they are doing? Do they feel in control of the process as it is happening? How do they avoid improvisational ruts? What do they see as the source of the music? Is improv a series of random happy accidents? How much is planned?

Matthew Bietz

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2 responses to Theme & Variations

  1. Matt, it is beyond the scope of a blog reply to deal with, but if you’re interested in improvisation from a practitioner’s perspective, we should have a conversation next time you’re in A.A. I spent most of the 90s playing improv rock, electronic and free music, and still do a litle when I find the time.

    Admittedly, this was all from the garage-band/self-taught side of the music world, so there are definitely technique, training and canon concerns that would be different from a formally trained jazz musician… but I certainly clocked in a lot of hours doing it. We should get a beer and talk.

  2. Thanks Eric – a beer sounds great. I didn’t realize that your music was improvisational. My own background in “classical” music didn’t really deal with improvisation. Your comments makes me realize that I don’t even know how much “popular” music involves improvisation. Is it the norm?

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