Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival: Man, machine and music with Dan Tepfer

Dan Tepfer is bringing his Natural Machines to the Ottawa winter jazz weekend.

Dan Tepfer has a BA in physics, and training in classical music. But that doesn’t explain his musical project Natural Machines.

Perhaps this will help. Tepfer is also an experienced self-taught computer coder who is capable of writing algorithms for games, graphics and much, much more. And he knows how to improvise at the computer keyboard and on the piano.

Tepfer will be at the Ottawa Jazz Festival’s winter weekend on Feb. 1 when audiences in the Arts Court Theatre will get a chance to experience two sides of Dan’s brain.

Natural Machines is “a free improvisation project,” Tepfer says, “and every time I do it, it’s different.”

“I don’t define it as jazz. I don’t think that is useful or relevant. In fact, if you read the book Notes and Tones by Arthur Taylor who interviews famous musicians about what they think about the word jazz, most are deeply ambivalent about the word. Many actively dislike it. Duke Ellington didn’t want his music called jazz. He just wanted it to be called good or bad.”

Tepfer is of the same mind.

Dan Tepfer juxtaposes improvisational music with computer algorithms to produce Natural Machines.

“The minute you start boxing things in it’s anti-creative.”

Natural Machines is a performance featuring coding written by Tepfer that runs a computer that is connected to a Yamaha Disklavier which is a very high-tech version of the player piano. The computer runs the algorithms, the piano plays sounds and there is a visual component that appears on a screen.

Tepfer is live on the stage too and he responds to the music played by the Yamaha with his own improvisations.

It is a bit of a mind-blower to be honest.

“I have written every line of code in this project, both the music and for the visuals. I have long thought of music as living at the intersection between the algorithmic and the spiritual. That is certainly true of much of the great music.”

For example, he said, consider J.S. Bach.

“On the one hand his music is very much supported by rules. On the other hand it’s very much supported by a mystery and a true spirituality and an intuition. Good art, if it is to stand the test of time,  needs both of those things.

“You could say the same of John Coltrane. He had a very rigorous structure happening on the one hand and he also had this will to explore the spiritual realm. “That’s what Natural Machines is about and why it is called Natural Machines.”

It’s a lot to think about, but that doesn’t deter Tepfer.

“I have found over the years that my happy place on stage is when I am doing something really difficult.”

In 2011, Tepfer put out his take on the Goldberg Variations. “I played them and improvised after each one. It was a huge challenge for me. I realized when I am doing something like that it somehow humbles me. It makes my ego kind of slip away.” He likes that feeling.

Natural Machines is one of those hard things.

“Bach in his life wrote many fugues. He wrote many canons. These are very strict algorithms.”

In a canon, one voice states something and then another voice does. With that, Tepfer said, “you might think all canons are the same, but actually the rules leave lots of room for free expression. That’s the genius of Bach.”

It’s the same with the algorithms in Natural Machines, he said.

“Every track is a different set of rules the computer is applying. I’m trying to be as free as I can every night in response. The project is about exploring the intersection of rules and freedom.

This is an old idea, he said. “What makes it radical is that I am separating the tasks. I’m letting the computer take care of the rules.”

It’s evident that Bach is a huge influence on Tepfer.

“I grew up in Paris in an American family. My parents put me into a conservatory at age six. I played a ton of Bach growing up and was always just fascinated with his music. That led to a fascination with the  Goldbergs and putting out record which did well.

“That recording project forced me to get much deeper into it. Went back and studied counterpoint again. The world of Bach and the world of Baroque counterpoint all that has been important to me. But also I’m really a jazz musician.” What turns him on is the idea of improvisation. Guess what: Bach was famous in his day as an improviser.

As for the computer programming: “My father brought me back a Macintosh Plus from his lab in late 1980s and at nine or 10, I started making little programs on that using HyperCard.”

He continued through his teens teaching himself from books. He never studied coding formally.

In those days it never occurred to him to write programs for music. “I was making graphics; I made games.”

Then, in his early 20s, he was doing ear training and was required wot work with someone else.

“That wasn’t convenient so I realized could write a program that took the place of the other person. I started doing more and more (coding) to help work on music in different ways.”

The continued when the first iPhone came out and he started writing apps.

Eventually he was writing a nonet for a regular collaborator the saxophonist Lee Konitz. While he was procrastinating, he said he went online and a lightbulb went off.

“I figured out how a visual fractal could make music.”

Then, one day he was fooling around with a Yamaha Disklavier and realized, after plugging in his computer to the instrument, he could make it play music he had coded on the spot.

Natural Machines has, in a sense, one half of Tepfer’s brain talking to the other in the language of music.

“Our brains have different ways of approaching problems. We have parallel processing and sequential processing. When we have an epiphany or when we are improvising and we just know a certain note needs to be played, that is parallel processing. Computers are awful at that.

“Computers are designed for linear processing such as following a recipe.” This is what the computer is doing in Natural Machines, he said.

“In the concert, visuals are displayed on a screen and I have a camera on the piano’s keys and people can see what I am playing versus what the computer is playing.

“I do do some explaining. My  goal is to share my process and share a message that good things require structure and intuition. I find that there is such anti-science, anti-expertise and anti-reason around today.”

He is aware of concerns about the place and use of computers in art-making.

“I think people are right to be concerned about the role of computers in art. It happens all the time that people use computers to make something that takes the humanity out of the art. Audiences need to keep ears and senses attuned and keep asking for art that is very human.

“In Natural Machines I’m never asking the computer to be human. I’m asking it to be something it’s good at and leaving the humanity to me.”

Dan Tepfer’s Natural Machines
Presented by the Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: Arts Court Theatre
When: Feb 1 at 7:45 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Also at Arts Court: Dan Tepfer talks about the role of algorithms in music, Feb. 1 at 4:30 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.