The man who remade Mahler

In 1995, Uri Caine began his brilliant reimagining of Mahler's music with the help of fellow jazzmen, a Klezmer band and some DJs.
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The Independent Culture

In a musical world where premieres of contemporary works are two-a-penny but second performances rare as hens' teeth, Uri Caine's Mahler project has run and run, becoming part of the essential repertoire of our time. First conceived as the accompaniment to a silent film about the great Viennese composer shown during a JMT Records festival at New York's Knitting Factory in 1995, the music was released on CD as Urlicht/Primal Light by Winter &Winter, JMT's successor, in 1997.

Following the critical success of the album, Caine and his ensemble toured the music throughout Europe, making another recording from a concert at the Gustav Mahler Festival in Toblach, Italy in 1998. After going on to "re-compose" Wagner, Schumann and Bach, Caine has now completed a second Mahler album, which is due for release later this year. Next Saturday his ensemble returns to London as part of Magnus Lindgren's Related Rocks festival at the South Bank, for a Purcell Room performance entitled Mahler Reimagined.

In order to appreciate fully the importance of what Caine did with Mahler's music, you really have to go back to the Urlicht/Primal Light album. A group of up to 14 musicians from the New York "downtown" avant-garde play Caine's interpretations of some of the composer's most famous themes, including the Funeral March and Adagietto from Symphony No 5, the third movement from Symphony No 1, and the Farewell from The Song of the Earth.

While some pieces, such as the Adagietto, are performed almost straight, and others remain fairly faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original scores, elsewhere Caine radically reshuffles the Mahler pack. Priorities are changed to bring out what might be seen as suppressed or sublimated elements in the music, most notably in the foregrounding or reintegration of Mahler's Jewish heritage. This is achieved through arrangements for a Klezmer band, and the use of a cantor singing Hebrew texts taken from the Psalms and the Prayer for the Dead. Caine's wilfully unconventional treatments also include some punkish free- jazz thrash, the weird, wordless vocals of Arto Lindsay, and the contributions of a turntable operative, DJ Olive.

"Stefan Winter was doing this festival at the Knitting Factory and he knew I was into Mahler. His brother had made this movie so he said, 'We'll show the movie and you'll put together a group,' so that was the first time," Caine told me when I interviewed him at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol one December night last year, just before he went on stage with his trio. "Stefan Winter wanted to record it pretty soon after that, but I said I wanted time to develop it a little more and get other musicians involved." It was during this process of research, which took a year to complete, that Caine became fascinated by aspects of Mahler's life, as well as his music.

"I never really set out to make him seem like some reclaimed Klezmer musician, but Mahler certainly had a lot of barriers put in front of him because he was Jewish," says Caine, a Jew himself. "I also think it's fair to say that he was influenced by lots of different types of music, and he included a lot of stuff of which the Jewish element was one thing; he also included Bohemian music, German regional folk music, military stuff he had heard, funeral marches... all that was very much in his imagination.

"The way we play it, we can suggest certain aspects of this music either literally, by having Mahler played by a DJ or by the group, or by trying to approximate, for instance, how Mahler used nature sounds, the sound of the mountains and things like that."

As to whether "re-composition" is the word for what he has done, Caine isn't sure. "I wouldn't want to say that Mahler needs to be re-composed. In some cases the context is different, or the inflections are different. At other times we are really applying jazz improvisation principles or harmonic ideas of improvisation over chords, or counterpoint between written structures and somebody playing totally freely. It's a combination of who you're playing with and the game you're setting up among those players; you're trying to have an architecture for what you're doing, but also have it remain loose enough so it's not too constricting or controlled."

The question of faithfulness to Mahler's music is something that Caine takes very seriously. "Some people have said I'm parodying it or mocking it, but that's not the case at all. I would say that in a way I might be dealing with aspects of sarcasm or satire that are already in his music. It may also be trying to make the point that Mahler belongs to more people than just the self-proclaimed purists and experts. But when we play the Adagietto, we are playing all of the piece. We might be interpolating, or varying things, but the text of that music is really the structure of that piece."

Though Caine never played Mahler in an orchestra, he had studied the composer since his schooldays in Philadelphia (he later studied music at the University of Pennsylvania, where George Crumb was one of his tutors). "When I was 15 or 16, one of the assignments we had to do was to take a Mahler symphony and reduce it for piano, so in a way that showed me what to do. Also, one of my introductions to score reading was Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which is a hard place to start. You have to ask what does this instrument do, what are its capabilities, why does Mahler put it here? Starting to notice all the subtleties of his orchestration makes you realise it's another aspect of his skill; because he was a conductor, he really could use all those sonorities well."

The programme for Mahler Reimagined at the South Bank will be drawn from both Urlicht and the new album, as yet untitled. "It's going to be pretty much the regular band I have, although there might be a cantor from London," Caine says. "Because of the new album, I have a whole new bunch of songs I've been working on. I did a lot of stuff from the Wunderhorn songs [Des Knaben Wunderhorn], some Kindertotenlieder, and two songs from Das Lied von der Erde that I recorded with a Chinese orchestra. There's also some other arrangements of pieces from the Third Symphony, but I don't know if I'll bring them in yet."

Despite his work with Mahler, Wagner, Schumann and Bach (and the choice of composers must surely have a great deal to do with the preferences of his Munich-based record company), Uri Caine still sees himself as a jazz musician.

"I'm coming out of that, if only because so much of my energy – especially when I was first starting – was in that direction. A lot of the stuff I've done since, especially the Mahler, is stuff that I knew, music that was already in my mind's ear, but it wasn't until after the recording, when we started performing, that I realised how interesting it could be for jazz musicians to have different structures to improvise with," he says.

Uri Caine is on such a roll at the moment, however, that the usual generic categories no longer apply, and matter even less. Late last year he released four albums at the same time, and they were all great. At the end of our interview, he goes outside for a quick breath of fresh air before taking the stage with his band, a fairly conventional-looking jazz trio. Can Post-Modernists play the blues, one wonders? Caine does – and he does it brilliantly.

Mahler Reimagined is at the Purcell Room (020-7960 4242), London SE1, 9 Feb at 7.30pm

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