Obsessed by a desire for perfect interpretation—his standards as a conductor were revolutionary—Gustav Mahler went so far as to note in his scores when players should raise their instruments after a rest. What would he have made of Songs of the Death of Childrenarranged as a bossa nova? Of the “Titan” symphony breaking into a double-time freylakhs?
That question is the heart of Mahler in Toblach, a reimagining by pianist Uri Caine of the composer’s lieder and symphonic movements for jazz improvisers, illbient DJ, and cantor. (The group differs slightly from the one that recorded a 1997 Mahler volume, Urlicht). Such collisions transcend kitsch, to be sure. What’s more, they transcend the simplistic irreverence licensed by the “death of the author.” First of all, Mahler was a superb melodist: Antonio Carlos Jobim himself would be proud of the sauntering sax line Caine gives to “I Often Think They Have Merely Gone Out!” Also a great colorist, Mahler created spooky effects with orchestra—like the dead souls DJ Olive summons from old vinyl.
This works because Mahler’s high modernism (like T. S. Eliot’s) was only a step from postmodernism. Conservatives and squares noted the mockery of tradition (e.g. a polka dropped into a march), the eruptions of the popular into the elevated, the uneasy mix of mysticism and despair—and concluded that Mahler foretold the doom of European civilization. “Dead on,” says Caine. Mahler’s compulsive disruptions were the end of Beethoven’s line and the avatar of art music since. And true to Austria’s establishment anti-Semites, they were fundamentally, not incidentally, Jewish. “In the confrontation,” Caine has written, “between … [Mahler’s] musical and cultural heritage, he prophetically articulates the Holocaust of the 20th century.” Remove the H word and the statement holds.
Most poignant of all is that Toblach/Dobbiaco is the Alpine retreat sacred to Mahler faithfuls, and the site of an annual festival. Caine honors by desecration in order to give his subject the justice of history, and he does it here live, in public, on the record.
The Uri Caine Ensemble’s Gustav Mahler in Toblach: I Went Out This Morning Over the Countryside was released by Winter & Winter in 1999.