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Fascinating Algorithm: Dan Tepfer's Player Piano Is His Composing Partner

Jazz musicians, almost by definition, seek an active dialogue between the impulsive and the rational. For some, the terms of that negotiation become a central feature of their art. Dan Tepfer is one of those: a pianist and composer who sees improvisation as the ideal expression of freedom within a framework.

He's fond of interrogating this process, finding new pathways by way of self-imposed restrictions. Tepfer's new album, Eleven Cages, consists of terse, sometimes tricky compositions that his trio, with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Nate Wood, negotiates with slippery grace. "Constraints surround freedom and give it a frame," Tepfer writes in the album's liner notes, "be they physical cages or a formal structure we choose to create within. They challenge us to ask: how free can I be inside this particular cage?"

It's clear that this conviction extends further, for him, than any one particular album. The premise also underlies Tepfer's work in the field of improvisational algorithms, which he recently unpacked for Jazz Night In America.

You could say that Tepfer, 35, was programmed to operate this way. His mother was an opera singer, and he grew up an artistic environment in Paris. From his father, a biologist, he inherited a love of science and the natural world. Tepfer studied astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh before moving to the States for a master's degree in jazz piano, eventually finding his way to Brooklyn and an estimable solo career.

Last summer I spent a few weeks at the MacDowell Colony, an artists' retreat in rural New Hampshire. Tepfer happened to be there at the same time; when he wasn't presiding over the ping-pong table or scoping out the night sky with his telescope, he labored over a piece for string quartet and piano commissioned by a European festival. And one evening, by popular demand, he performed an hourlong excerpt of a project of his that explores improvisational protocols in a classical mode: Goldberg Variations/Variations.

The piece, for which Tepfer has received substantial acclaim, approaches J.S. Bach's famous "Goldberg Variations" as both a touchstone and a springboard. When he performs it, he plays each of Bach's variations as written, but also interpolates his own spontaneous responses: a quick-fire illustration of improvisation on a theme. The performance that night at MacDowell was engrossing and elegant — but what I most remember about it was seeing how the schema helped demystify the act of jazz improvisation, even for a roomful of accomplished artists. Each Bach piece was still fresh in mind as Tepfer offered his own variation, made in real time.

This methodical yet whimsical approach, I came to learn, was true to form. Every colonist at MacDowell works in a free-standing studio, and Tepfer turned his into a sort of musical laboratory — where, in addition to composing his chamber piece, he tinkered obsessively with algorithms at a Yamaha Disklavier. He was still ironing out the kinks, but had already devised some of the rules that guide this project: hair-trigger reactions to the notes he plays.

What's striking about Tepfer's algorithmic experiment isn't just the whiz-bang factor, or the notion that computer coding could lead to such hyper-dynamic results. (The computer-music pioneer George Lewis also works with improvisational algorithms, often using a sampler, rather than a piano keyboard, to generate his input. Pat Metheny, the guitarist and composer, has devoted enormous resources to the translation of digital signal into mechanical music-making.) The project reflects his larger preoccupation with restrictions and freedoms, the analytical and the willfully unruly. As he says in our video: "I'm not writing a piece, I'm writing the way the piece works."

Video Credits
Producers: Alex Ariff, Colin Marshall; Editor: Colin Marshall; Documentary Audio: Colin Marshall, Dan Tepfer; Videographers: Colin Marshall, Tsering Bista; Supervising Sound Editor and Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Supervising Producers: Nick Michael, Katie Simon; Executive Producers: Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundmann, Amy Niles; Funded in part by: The Argus Fund, The Doris Duke Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Wyncote Foundation. Special Thanks: Mana Contemporary, Yamaha Artist Services, Kristiana Roemer.

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