In 2007, New York-based pianist Simone Dinnerstein gained an international following with the remarkable success of her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which she raised the funds to record. Released in 2007 on Telarc, it ranked No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Classical Chart in its first week of sales and was named to many “Best of 2007” lists including those of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker.
Eight years later, interested in collaborating with a leading choreographer to develop an evening-length collaboration with movement, music, and performance, Dinnerstein met Pam Tanowitz, whose work had recently been named by The New York Times as one of the highlights of 2014. Tanowitz is renowned for work that is both distinctly modern and influenced by Merce Cunningham and classical ballet, while remaining playfully timeless and extremely musical.
Dinnerstein and Tanowitz met and discussed possible music choices. Dinnerstein proposed Bach. Tanowitz’s past work has favored modern music, and she expressed an initial fear about choreographing Bach. (Tanowitz was quite familiar with and had great respect for Jerome Robbins’ landmark 1971 Goldberg Variations ballet.) Dinnerstein confided that she had thought twice about tackling the Goldberg Variations because of the shadow cast by Glenn Gould’s towering recording of the work. She ultimately felt, though, that pushing against history (and making way for new interpretations) is part of the creative process, and proceeded to record the work, which was widely celebrated. Tanowitz and Dinnerstein jointly decided that any hesitation about working on Goldberg was the exact reason the project should move ahead; the choice was inevitable (and, its premiere would fall on the 10th anniversary of the release of Dinnerstein’s “Goldberg” recording). Tanowitz remembered the words of one of her icons, Merce Cunningham: “the only way to do it is to do it.” Thus, New Work for Goldberg Variations was born.
Instrumental music is in many ways the most abstract of all of the art forms. It conveys deep emotions despite the absence of words and uses patterns powerfully. My own aesthetic approach is to consider a score as a non-verbal language, full of meaning and feeling. I think about gesture, how the phrases of the music are interrupted by breaths, or connect to form long lines. I think about the many layers of sound, each responding to the others and creating an aural texture that thickens and thins to expressive effect.
This was my approach when I first began playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations and it remains the way I work. In terms of explicit choices, each page might present a number of aesthetic decisions that force themselves on an artist — exploring the significance of a modulation, for example, or a change in register. But beyond those explicit decisions there are dozens of aesthetic choices which pass by almost too quickly to notice — when to thin the aural texture to emphasize one note over another; what tonal quality to use for a pattern to make it respond to another; how to attack one note to echo another. All of these choices are constantly in flux and in aggregate they can lead to very different performances.
In February 2016 I played the Goldberg Variations with the Ballet de l’Opera de Paris in Jerome Robbins’ choreography. Robbins’ choreography focuses on a more literal translation of the various compositional forms used by Bach (canons, imitative counterpoint, baroque dance forms). The dance highlights the symmetry in the music. The choreography requires specific tempi to be taken by the pianist, tempi that emphasize certain elements in the music that represent one of many approaches. I’m very curious to be part of two quite different choreographic interpretations of the same piece of music. There are other sides to the Goldberg Variations with mysterious irregularities, asymmetrical phrase lengths, agogic distortion.
I’m fascinated by the idea of collaborating with Pam Tanowitz to explore that aspect of the music. Just as I imagine the lines of the music will take shape before my eyes, I also imagine that the musical lines may break and form new shapes in response to their physical representations. Pam is a deeply thoughtful artist who both looks back at the history of dance and forward to new and relevant interpretations of this art form. I mainly play music from the past, and I’m interested in why this music still speaks to us today, and in the myriad ways that interpretations can differ.
— Simone Dinnerstein
In one way, what I do is not new. I make steps to music. Choreographers have being doing this for centuries. But in another way what I do is quite novel: rather than search for innovation separate from what came before, I embrace the past. I don’t see antiquated steps that have no meaning in contemporary society. I see direct links to the ways we move, express, and relate in the present day. I’m intensely captivated with these connections, and am able to turn a familiar vocabulary into bizarre, distorted movement that still feels at the same time hauntingly familiar, and also relevant and raw and fresh. I see a centuries-old art form steeped in tradition and history, full of possibilities and immediacy for the 21st century, for the future of dance and performance.
Not only do I want to make dances, I want to understand how to make dances, and how these dances fit into the timeline and lexicon of dance history. I investigate the rich, loaded past history of dance and its attendant expectations. I tap into the concepts ingrained in me during my early training. Like an archaeologist, I examine my dance ancestry from Petipa to Balanchine to Cunningham, and then stretch its limits, like a scientist, always experimenting with past and present notions of the rigorously choreographed dancing body.
With this new project, NW for GV, I’d like to examine the multi-layered intimate relationships that make up a dance piece. The intimate connection with Simone and the score, how her performance and interpretation of the score and the structure and composition of the dance relate. All the relationships that are occurring simultaneously — between myself and the audience, the performers and the audience, myself and the dancers, the dancers and Simone simultaneously — and how these relationships are revealed, the process of making the dance with Simone’s Goldberg deeply incorporated into the final work: that is what NW for GV is to me.
One of the biggest challenges of NW for GV is grappling with the iconic achievements of and inevitable comparisons to the past: Simone and Glenn Gould (and many others), myself and Jerome Robbins. How do we as artists explicate something so well known, and reveal together the rich complexities of this score, working together to create something completely new, relevant and contemporary, in conversation with each other and with our third collaborator, the ingenuity of Bach’s composition?
I’ll rely on Simone’s interpretative insight to explore, explain, and interrogate the intricacies of Bach’s compositional structures — canons, fugues, inventions, sicilianas — working together we’ll invent our own world around these systems, riskier and more deeply embedded in our collaborative approach than anything we could generate separately. I want the choreography of this dance to change the way Simone hears and plays the music, forever.
With our joint expertise, I desire to create something that will be inherently dangerous for both of us as artists, in which everything we reveal to each other is woven into the fabric of her playing and my choreography, making a work that builds on the expectations of the known yet demands the audience to travel with us far into spaces of unexpected delight, of emotional resonance and newly transcendent experience. I insist that our conversations about the nature and complexity of Bach’s score, and of Simone’s groundbreaking interpretation, will provide rich choreographic fodder, and push me deeper than ever before into my own post-modern examination of classical dance steps and their significance. I’m thrilled to explore this relationship with Simone, to investigate the wealth of possibilities in making “old” music astonishingly “new” again.
— Pam Tanowitz