Arts: 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. Phil Johnson Finds Him Still in Pursuit of the Composer
Johnson, Phil, The Independent (London, England)
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. …