Dan Tepfer plays Bach like you’ve never heard him before: backwards: NPR
Josh Goleman / courtesy the artist
Sitting at the Yamaha grand piano in his Brooklyn apartment, surrounded by two laptops, an iPad, a monitor, a video camera and studio lights, Dan Tepfer plays the first of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. The piano is a Disklavier, which can record and play. When he’s done, Tepfer presses a button on his iPad, triggering the piano to play what he just recorded with the notes reversed, as if the sheet music is backwards.
Tepfer says the project, called “#BachUpsideDown“, is the result of his stopping his live performances last year.” As soon as the pandemic hit, I asked myself, what can I do? “he said.” What can I do that gonna make musical sense right now, when the bottom fell? And the first thing that came to my mind was this #BachUpsideDown project, because it was something I knew I could easily do from home. ”
This helped the 39-year-old musician write code to program his piano to invert Bach’s familiar work. “When you describe what he does, it looks like a gimmick,” says New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini. âBut then when I actually heard them, I was like, oh no no no: this is beyond the gadget. It’s really interesting. Ultimately I think the point of the stuff at the upside down is to make ourselves heard better, or in a new way, ‘Goldberg’ Variants. “
The next project Tepfer tackled during the pandemic was a series of jazz concerts with other musicians in their apartments miles away, broadcast live over the internet.. But in order for that to happen, he had to find a way to overcome the lag between the signals.
âNecessity is the mother of invention,â he says. “I discovered this software, JackTrip, it’s actually about 10 years, this pretty obscure academic software that’s brilliantly written. And it carries music information over the Internet as fast as it can get, much, much faster than something like Zoom, for example. ”
Tepfer began hosting weekly concerts, over 50 in all, with renowned musicians including saxophonist Melissa Aldana, percussionist Antonio Sanchez and bassist Christian McBride. Last summer he broadcast a program of French songs with the singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, who says she admires Tepfer for the breadth of his knowledge. She describes her talents as vast– starting with his mastery of live broadcasting technology.
âHe teaches people who are completely technologically incompetent like me how to set it up and make it work, that’s one thing,â says Salvant. “But then bring it with his beautiful piano playing, his amazing taste, his sensitivity as a musician, then he writes his musicâ¦ it’s so exciting to see someone so daring with the way they mix their interests. “
Maria Jarzyna / courtesy of the artist
Dan Tepfer was brought up with mixed interests. He was born in Paris in 1982 to American parents: his mother sang at the Paris Opera, and his father was a biologist. He started classical piano lessons at the age of six, but spent his summers in Oregon with his grandfather, who was a jazz pianist. He began writing programs for his father’s Macintosh Plus at the age of nine.
At the University of Edinburgh, Tepfer majored in astrophysics. âThat’s what always fascinated me, it’s the underlying structure on the surface of what we see,â he says. “And physics shows you that you can explain an incredible amount of that in the language of mathematics.”
This way of seeing the world, he says, has directly influenced his work: #BachUpsideDown consists of extracting DNA from music and then improvising it. His training in mathematics is at the heart of another project he calls Natural machines, a project that involves an algorithm he wrote that allows his piano to accompany him while he improvises.
Tepfer says his next project is a virtual reality app that will allow users to experience Natural machines inside 3D visualizations of music. But the more he diversifies with Bach’s algorithms and experiments, he says, the more he feels the need to deepen his roots by playing with jazz musicians. Tepfer studied jazz composition at the graduate school of the New England Conservatory. When he moved to New York City, he performed and recorded with the late saxophone legend Lee Konitz to launch his career.
Today, between 60 and 300 fans from around the world tune in to each of his ongoing live concerts, during which he reads and responds to their commentary in real time between musical numbers. Tepfer says this is the thing he is most proud to have accomplished during the pandemic: “engage in real dialogue with my audience and create a sense of community.”
âAt the end of the day, I think the most important thing about music is that it brings us together,â he adds. “That’s his role. And especially when we’re so isolated, we need it more than ever.”