BEAUTY of music | cages

"There’s something about cages that magnifies freedom," muses 2007 American Pianists Awards winner Dan Tepfer. Born in Paris to American parents, Tepfer studied astrophysics in college, mastered pieces of the classical canon, and has become a unique voice in American jazz. Touring with his trio which recently released the acclaimed album Eleven Cages, Tepfer visits the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis October 20.

2007 American Pianists Awards winner Dan Tepfer
2007 American Pianists Awards winner Dan Tepfer

I’d like to talk a little about cages — they’ve been important to me ever since I started composing and improvising. There’s something about cages that magnifies freedom. Whether you’re inside one or outside, freedom can’t really be talked about without considering the cage, can it? Constraints — be they physical cages or a formal structure we choose to create within — surround freedom and give it a frame.

Inside well-chosen constraints, the creative act moves from the question “what would I like to create?” to the much less paralyzing, and more stimulating, “how free can I be inside this particular cage? How much wiggle room is there?” Because, at the end of the day, we are all encaged in some way — by the limits of our bodies, of our minds, of the political system we find ourselves in. The best we can do is find the wiggle room, and use it.

The great saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter once told a friend of mine that when you’re making music, you need something to push against. Likewise, J.S. Bach, perhaps my biggest inspiration in the classical realm, never composed without a logical system in place. At the very least, he always operated within the rules of baroque counterpoint; but very often he imposed additional constraints on himself, like the strict canons, at every interval from the unison to the ninth, that govern every third movement of the Goldberg Variations. Not to mention the fact that every one of the variations follows the same harmonic framework. It’s what Bach made himself push against, perhaps more than anything else, that I found most inspiring when making my solo record Goldberg Variations / Variations, in which I follow each one of his variations with an improvised variation of my own.

My new trio record, released earlier this summer on Sunnyside Records, is called Eleven Cages. It features two of my favorite musicians, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Nate Wood, both exceptional navigators of constraints. Taken together, the common thread of my own compositions there is the malleability of time, the possibility of stretching and fracturing it. In Roadrunner, a cliché rock groove is subtly fractured, beats added, then taken away, like looking at a known object through refracting glass. In Little Princess, a chromatic descending bass line is ceaselessly compressed and expanded, ultimately to a near breaking-point. Hindi Hex uses a tihai, a traditional North-Indian form in which an intricate rhythmic pattern is repeated three times, and displaces it over shifting backgrounds. In 547, four beats are alternately stretched over five and seven, and later over six, nine and eleven; I find the cross-rhythms this creates fascinating. Beyond the appeal of the sound of these transformations, the challenges these tunes present — the particular cages they put us in — focus our attention as players when we’re improvising over them, forcing us to fight for our freedom. There’s something about high-wire acts that engages both the mind and the heart.

Dan Tepfer | Eleven Cages
Dan Tepfer | Eleven Cages

On the record’s cover picture, which I took in Normandy at the top of an ocean cliff, a birdcage stands forlorn, enclosing empty space. On the beaches behind, my grandfather fought for America’s conception of freedom in World War II.

Constraints are essential in physics — imagine our difficulties if we couldn’t count on gravity to keep our feet on the ground — and they’ve proved to be invaluable to human society, too. Systems of laws give us all something to push against in our everyday choices. Likewise, the rules of romantic relationships frame the actions of lovers. In both I Loves You Porgy and Single Ladies, the two covers on the record, one side fights for stability, the other for freedom. In Porgy, written by a man, it's the man who wants to settle down, the woman who needs to fly; in Ladies, co-written by Beyoncé, the lady reproaches a man for not taking the chance to commit when he could have. Both songs seem to portray love as a negotiation with boundaries: you're either in a cage or breaking out of it.

The key, of course, is in carefully managing the wiggle room. Bach only used systems that left him sufficient degrees of freedom for his tremendous emotional and spiritual intuition to shine through. I would argue that the Total Serialism compositional movement that blossomed after the Second World War suffered above all from being overly deterministic — the logical system being used left virtually no room for the composer’s personality. I tried to make sure that my compositions on Eleven Cages left ample room for self-expression. Cages are only useful where they condense and amplify freedom, not when they squash it. The best art lives at the intersection of the spiritual and the algorithmic.

Wherever you find yourself, I hope you can find as much wiggle room as possible, and perhaps even a little more.

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Dan Tepfer brings his trio to the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis on October 20 and will perform music from Eleven Cages. The album is available now on Amazon and iTunes.

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