Anyone familiar with jazz knows the drill: A small Dixieland ensemble comprising a trumpet, trombone, piano, clarinet and double bass plays a well-known tune such as “Basin Street Blues” or “In a Sentimental Mood” together, and when they finish the piece (the “standard,” in jazz parlance), each player takes turns in coming up front for a solo riff, to the quiet accompaniment of the others in the background.
What does the soloist play when it’s his turn? He improvises, based on the basic tune, playing it again but differently. He adds notes, decorating the basic tune, going on an inspirational journey based on it, whirling around it, freezing in place or soaring, often changing its character and mood.
Nevertheless, under the layers of improvisation composed spontaneously by the performer, we can always distinguish the basic tune in our imagination.
How is this achieved? His companions in the background maintain the tune’s depth in the background, its harmony and chord progression, as well as its basic tempo. Thus, if the standard tune lasts 32 bars – the units for measuring the length of any piece of music – the improvisation on this tune will also last 32 bars, no matter how adventurous and wild, regardless of how many notes are added or subtracted or the number of silent pauses inserted. The improvisation will also be based on the standard’s harmonic structure.
At the end, after the audience applauds the soloist in appreciation of his imagination and the inventiveness of his improvisation, the performer withdraws to the back of the stage to join his companions who are still maintaining the basic harmonic structure, while one of them now steps forward to show his stuff for another 32 bars of virtuoso musical imagination, used to handle the same basic tune.
In classical music the process is not only similar but identical to that in jazz. The process often becomes a genre of its own, called variations on a theme. However, in contrast to jazz, using the melody as raw material that is repeatedly altered is not done through improvisation, performed spontaneously on the stage, but is written by the composer in his notes. There is a basic “theme,” which the composer then develops as “variations.”
As with jazz, in classical music, as the music became more modern the movement away from the basic theme became more drastic and significant in its exposition. It is now often very difficult or impossible to discern the theme through the variations.
This is what happens in the beautiful album just released by Israeli pianist Benjamin Hochman “Variations,” in which the piano often sounds clear and bright, with sounds cascading like refined pearls, while at other times it can be likened to a full symphonic orchestra, tumultuous in its multilayered complexity and sound hues.
The whole album is comprised, as indicated by its name, of themes and variations. The last and longest piece reflects the classical nature of the genre: “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel,” composed in 1861 by Johannes Brahms. These are 25 variations on a short theme, each one lasting less than one minute on average, showing a different facet, carving out different meanings, processes and colors out of an ancient melody that Brahms chose as his raw material. It’s like chiseling a block of marble, if one can compare it to sculpting.
There is a philosophical aspect to this process, since this is a repetition that is not quite a repetition, an attempt to maximally distance oneself from the source without losing touch with it, with a passion to change things while leaving them as they are. Hochman’s playing reflects the beauty of Brahms’s creation, which is all about a balance between monotonic statics and dynamics.
The opening pieces in the album are quite different. They view the genre of variations on a theme from a modernist perspective, aware of itself and in many ways more riveting. In contemporary music there is no accepted deep harmonic structure that is instantly understood and received by the listener, but one which changes from one piece to the next, either hidden or occasionally non-existent.
The opening piece is by the Scottish composer Oliver Knussen. It consists of a theme and 12 variations, played in seven minutes, all based on a few notes and an exit from them. An early piece by Luciano Berio, composed in 1953 and edited and renewed in 1966, doesn’t even present a theme before going into a set of variations. The imaginary block of marble in this case is only metaphorical and abstract, understood only through the changes that take place as the music is played. This is a particularly refined and beautiful piece of music, as is the “Meditation on Haydn’s Name” by British composer George Benjamin.
The debut recording of the piano variations composed by the American composer Peter Lieberson, from 1996, completes Hochman’s wide view of the genre, as well as of the piano as an instrument of infinite capabilities of expression, a delightful expression under the fingers of this pianist.
Benjamin Hochman, piano – “Variations”. Works by Oliver Knussen, Luciano Berio, George Benjamin, Peter Lieberson and Johannes Brahms. Avie Records.