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Composer And Pianist André Mehmari On The Possibilities Of Theme And Variation


The Brazilian composer and pianist Andre Mehmari has always played with the concept of theme and variation. He did a whole album of variations on Beatles tunes.


ANDRE MEHMARI: Since a very early age, I was drawn to improvisation. Even sometimes the classical teachers didn't like it when I got off the score, you know, but was something natural for me. I see improvisation as the door of entrance for the composing process.

SHAPIRO: This week, Andre Mehmari was in Washington, D.C., to play at the Kennedy Center. And we invited him in to NPR to sit down at the piano and talk with us about a theme and variation project he recently posted on YouTube. It's a tune you might recognize.


SHAPIRO: How did you discover the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED theme song?

MEHMARI: I must confess that radio is my favorite medium. So I always composed the main theme for a Sao Paolo radio station, classical music station.


MEHMARI: And then I did like a series of them.


MEHMARI: Like in romantic baroque jazz, all sorts of variations. But that's a very simple tune.


SHAPIRO: Does there have to be something specific about a song that speaks to you for you to feel that door into the improvisation?

MEHMARI: Well, sometimes yeah, sometimes not. Sometimes it can be very simple like this one. And, of course, if it's that simple, you can do anything with it.

SHAPIRO: So tell us what you hear when you listen to the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED theme music.

MEHMARI: I hear something that can lead me to a variety of musical places, so to speak. It's like a travel - musical travel. So I took the theme through different parts of my musical world.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us, sort of deconstruct what you're doing in a part of this improvisation? Tell us how you took the original and what it translated to as you improvised on it.

MEHMARI: Yes, I can try. You have this (playing piano). So this is the famous connecting part of the theme. Then you have the response (playing piano). This is actually really (playing piano) kind of jazzy, you see. (Playing piano). It's like a cell that you can expand into a whole new body. It's like that idea of a germ in a cell that can expand to another more complex organism (playing piano). Something like that.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MEHMARI: Of course you can do - you can go to many places.

SHAPIRO: It almost seems like a parlor game. You could say, how would Mozart do this, or how would Philip Glass do this? Something like that.

MEHMARI: (Playing piano). Maybe a ragtime, like something more jazzy.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Does it have to be a good melody to create a good theme and variations or can variations make a bad tune good, improve upon it?

MEHMARI: You know, that's a very notorious case that Beethoven took a very mediocre theme from Giovanni - variations (playing piano). And then he wrote the most fantastic sets of variations upon that very simple and kind of stupid theme. That's not the case of the NPR - sorry.

SHAPIRO: I was going to say, would it be rude of me to ask which category the NPR theme falls in?

MEHMARI: I think it's - well, it reminds us of that early '70s aesthetics.

SHAPIRO: Which is when it was first written. If I could ask you to put on your composer hat, if you were to sit down and write a theme for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, do you think the one we have could be improved upon?

MEHMARI: I think it's doing a great job. It's been around for quite a while, right? I wouldn't touch it. But, of course, you can also always rearrange it. And I have 30 minutes of variations you can - if you like, you can use it (laughter, playing piano).

SHAPIRO: Well, Andre Mehmari, thank you for spending so much time with our theme and with us. It's been a pleasure having you on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MEHMARI: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me. It's an honor.

SHAPIRO: If you want to see the YouTube video of Mehmari's full 30-minute improvisation, we'll tweet a link from the show's account - @npratc. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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