Lara Downes

Pianist Lara Downes is someone that I thought I just knew from twitter, but I was totally fascinated when I checked out her current CD 13 Ways Of Looking at the Goldberg, a collection of 13 newly-composed variations/re-imagined takes on Bach by the same number of living composers (Among them Jennifer Higdon, William Bolcom and Lukas Foss), along with the original Bach collection’s plaintive “Aria”. On top of this, I realized she’s not just a great pianist but an incredible presenter and conversationalist of the music she plays. She even has, besides a regular cool website, a second one titled On The Bench where she turns the tables and interviews other pianists. This was kind of like those interviews, except I’m not nearly as good a pianist!
Lara spoke to me via Skype.

CM: Can you give us a brief summary of the origin of your music path?

LD: I started when I was 4, and Mom took me to one of those classes where you learn to bang on things! [laughs] I remember sitting at the piano with the teacher, and there was some little kid–he was messing around and causing trouble, and I just didn’t understand why he was making trouble, and not paying attention, because I thought the class was so cool, and then there’s another story where I was sitting on Santa Claus’ lap at Macy’s or whatever, and telling him that I wanted a harpsichord for Christmas, and he didn’t know what that was! He just thought “Who is this weird little kid?”!

CM: He didn’t know what a harpsichord was??

LD: It was Santa at the mall! [laughing]

CM: He’s been spending way too much time in his beer over at the bar across the street!

LD: I had this weird upbringing where we went to everything from opera to baroque concerts to new music concerts. My mom was managing the Kronos Quartet when they first started out, and I remember going to all these modern music concerts with guys in black turtlenecks!

CM: So whose idea was the 13 Ways project? I love the idea of other composers musically weighing in on Bach!

LD: The pieces were commissioned by The Gilmore in Kalamazoo, MI in 2004. The project originated there, and it was not a group commission, they were commissioned individually, but it was envisioned as a cohesive project. So when I found out about the project, Gil Kalish had premiered it in ’04 at the Gilmore Festival, and then it kind of sat, and I just felt like…I, like you, just loved the idea, and thought it was genius. Luckily it came out well, too, in the musical sense, but I thought just the concept was so interesting. I picked it up, and the recording was the world premiere recording, and it’s just been great to bring it to audiences across the country. It’s just a really fascinating forum in which to think about Bach and about the tradition and history.

CM: The pieces themselves within this work range–some people go for something that sounds closer to Bach, and some people decide to write it completely in their own character, or they’ll go for half and half.

LD: The way that I take that is I think that the impetus there and throughout for everyone was really to pay homage to Bach, so in some cases you’re hearing more a tribute to Bach through that person’s voice, and in some cases you’re hearing the person not trying to replicate in any sense, but trying to speak Bach’s language, so there’s two ways that that broke down, but I think that consistently, how else could you approach this project? There’s such a veneration expressed through all of these different voices, and that’s what’s so magical to me. The other thing I love about this is I don’t think anybody in the set took this on as some sort of heavy academic challenge to measure up to Bach. I think there’s a lot of humor involved, there’s a lot of affection, and the correct degree of lightness. It’s a tremendous challenge, and it could have gone wrong had everybody tried to be very, very big and grand about it.

CM: Did the composers have to hear each other’s pieces so they could prevent that from happening, or was it just completely by luck that it didn’t go that way?

LD: I think it was by luck–they worked individually, and nobody heard anybody else’s stuff until it was all done, so, it’s really kind of extraordinary, there’s not any duplication, and there’s such originality and diversity, so, it’s fantastic. It came out as best as it possibly could.

CM: There were 30 of the original Goldbergs–Was there any talk of trying to get 30 composers to write 30 variations, or do you think that would have been way too much?

LD: Well, I’m just such a nerd about words and text, and I love the title of this project so much. For me, it has several implications. The history of this title is from the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, and then Lukas Foss, who’s one of the composers on this set, years before, in the ’60’s had written a piece called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird which was a chamber piece. And so then, I think when this came about, since he was central to the group, the title evolved out of there, and it’s such perfection. There’s something great about the number 13 too, so, I wouldn’t want to lose that title! It’s funny, a friend of mine is doing a project where he’s commissioned a bunch of composers to do new re-imaginings of Sondheim’s songs, and he had planned on doing 12 pieces, and it’s just totally exploded, so now it’s up to 30 or something!

You know how when you live with something, you get this perspective. I have my perspective on this piece, it’s very, very up-close by now, so, to me it makes so much sense and it’s so complete. Of course, there’s so much to say about Bach. There could be hundreds of other composers who could contribute, why not? I don’t know, I’m just happy with the way it is!

Lara Downes performing excerpts from the Thirteen Ways CD at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis; 11/12/11

CM: You did pad out the CD well beyond the 13 Ways pieces with other Bach and Bach-related pieces. Great to see you featured something by Dave Brubeck on this CD. Until recently, I wasn’t aware he composed concert music too!

LD: I’d say most people don’t know that about Brubeck. He actually writes a not-so-insignificant number of concert pieces. Certainly that’s not where his main reputation lies, but he has always loved Bach, and I was actually just really thrilled when I found the Chromatic Fantasy Sonata, a piece that was directly inspired by Bach, because I thought that was such a nice contrast. It’s a massive 40-minute piece, and I’m looking at maybe programming that as a second half of a recital with the Thirteen Ways, because it would balance it really well.

CM: You have some very interesting concert programs like the Duke Ellington one with jazz-oriented themes and voice sample concepts. Is this something that’s kind of regular for you? Is there always a different sort of dynamic in the recitals?

LD: I think it’s all about my ADHD actually! [laughs] I like to keep myself really busy thinking about new things, and I feel like I’m lucky to have a outlet for that, and I subject other people to it, I don’t know! I guess the common thread there between the Ellington project and the 13 Ways project and other ones is really a lot about story and context. What’s really interesting to me about music and the way to share music is “Where does this music live in our common experience? Where does this fit into what we know about history?”. Take that down, and distill that to your own family, to you own experience. Where did Ellington fit in? I think it was just really amazing for me to put that project together for example, to look at all the different connections. Ellington as an African-American figure, Ellington as a jazz musician, Ellington as a person who blurred the boundaries between jazz and concert music, Ellington as somebody who traveled around the world and was a cultural ambassador for the US, but also for music and for musicians of color. It’s tremendous! There’s so many threads to bring into a story, it’s just kind of fascinating for me. It’s something to talk about and share with an audience that’s different than just purely a musical perspective.

Ellington: Long Time Coming (excerpt)

CM: I don’t know how much more we can really get into the discussion of labeling the genre of “classical” music. It seems like I have to ask everyone what their take is on it, and they either have no take or a similar take to mine.

LD: I know, it’s a huge debate right now, it’s a huge question. I have all these friends that are involved in the classical/rock worlds, and that gets called a lot of things, but I think indie-classical is kind of the closest to the truth. It’s funny because when I was watching the Grammys this year, I was listening to some of the new stuff that’s coming out of indie-rock, and I was thinking “this stuff all sounds the same”. If you didn’t tell some twenty-something-year-old from Brooklyn that this was “indie-classical”, what’s the difference? It’s all the same. You would have the same mixed audience. But then I was at the NPR studios in DC, and we were talking about programming streams, because now that they have so much online content, they’re kind of dividing things up maybe more than they used to, and we were talking about what would be the positives around an indie-classical programming stream–Would that draw in more listeners, or would that narrow the field? But then if you take out the “classical” part and just call it “indie” or “independent music”, then our community loses it.

John Cage: Dream

Click here to purchase Lara’s CD 13 Ways on

Upcoming performing dates:
April 22: Sunday Chatter, Albuquerque, NM

April 27: Vaudeville Park, Brooklyn, NY

May 4: Old First Concerts, San Francisco, CA

Lara’s official website

On The Bench
Lara’s excellent blog


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