Dan Tepfer: Variations on Variations


By Michael Gallant

“I’ve always thought that it was kind of a holy grail to be able to squeeze the maximum amount of music out of the minimum amount of material,” says renowned New York jazz pianist Dan Tepfer, who was voted one of the best new artists of 2010 in the JazzTimes annual critics’ poll. With Dan’s newest release, Goldberg Variations/Variations, the pianist puts his theory into action, playing the original, revered variations by Bach and alternating them with his own improvised interpretations thereof.

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Based on Dan’s experience recording the highly-creative Goldberg Variations/Variations, here are some tips to help you build your own original variations on a theme — and make classic pieces of music truly your own.

Play through a creative filter. “Fred Hersch once asked me to play Thelonious Monk's ‘Pannonica’ several different times while thinking of various words, like regal, pointy, drunk,” says Dan. “That was kind of a revelation to me — how the same material could turn into dramatically different things.”

When creating your own variations, the same strategy can push you in new directions. “Try using various words, moods, or images when you play the same piece,” says Dan. For example, he recommends playing a tune like “All the Things You Are” while imagining a car race, a sunset in the mountains, a politician’s speech, or something equally rich in emotion. “Try thinking of evocative words like sarcasm, beaming, or cathartic,” he continues. “All of these should lead you to play a specific variation of a song.”

Do your homework. When it comes time to create variations on a theme, deep knowledge of the subject matter can be a blessing. “Take the time to really get to know the piece,” says Dan. “Don’t just learn the notes. Learn the performance history. Read about the composer. Get a feel for what the work is about.”

Change a musical element. To push a piece of music into a new orbit, Dan recommends making choices that will be structurally disruptive — make all of the chords in a song augmented, repeat every line you play once, jam with a specific groove in mind, or play everything with two contrapuntal lines at all times. “Any idea that is strict while leaving you a good amount of freedom will generate its own variation,” he says.

Go with the flow. As with many things creative, becoming fixated on a concrete end-point can stifle some of your most original impulses. Instead, Dan recommends, see where your fingers take you. “In my case, I didn’t set out to ‘update a classic’ work,” he comments. “It happened organically. I was studying the Goldbergs because I love them and, after, a while, it just seemed natural to improvise on them.”

Mix it up and think big. When you’re creating variations, try thinking of them in terms of an overall composition, suggests Dan. “If you played two short variations of ‘Solar,’ say, that are each exciting and fast-moving, it might be time to play an ultra-slow, dirge-y variation next,” says the pianist, who recommends studying classic theme-and-variation sets by Mozart and Beethoven as expert examples. “Notice how intelligently the variations follow each other. If done right, each variation calls for the next. By the end, we feel like we’ve checked out every possibility contained in the theme.”

Keep it fresh. If you’re improvising your variations, as Dan did on his album, the artist recommends staying in the moment as much as possible. “Most of [my variations] were first takes, the way they first came out,” he says. “Start planning this stuff out too much and I find that it becomes less and less alive.”

Take your time. Making a great work your own can take years, Dan advises. “Don’t force it,” he says. “A work of art is like a person. If you’re too forceful, it’ll turn away.” 

**Photo by Vincent Soyez.

Click here for an extended interview with Dan.