In 2003, the American composer and jazz musician Uri Caine is director of the music festival at the Biennale di Venezia. For more than 100 years – ever since Gabriele d'Annunzio gives his address "Allegory of Autumn" at the first Biennale in 1895 – Venice has held a regional display of the arts every two years, and since 1930 a music festival too. Here, in 1995, Luciano Berio is given the Leone d'Oro (Golden Lion), and – shortly before his death – he brings Caine to Venice for the Biennale, and Uri Caine is named Artistic Director of the Biennale for 2003.
Caine's programme for 2003, the 47th Biennale music festival, is entitled "Remix – Structures and Improvisations", and brings not only artists engaged in new and electronic music to the lagoon city, but jazz musicians too: a novelty in the Biennale's history, but a venture crowned with success. At the Teatro alle Tese, the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale and in abandoned workshops at the Arsenale, groups and musicians like Speculum Musicae, Bang on a Can, Fred Frith/Han Bennink, Gary Lucas, Ursula Oppens, the Amsterdam String Trio with Ernst Reijseger, the Ethel Quartet, David Krakauer with Klezmer Madness!, David Moss, Emanuele Arciuli, Otomo Yoshihide, Dave Douglas and many others celebrate not the coexistence of composed and improvised performances, but the combination of them that has come about quite naturally since the end of the 20th century. Caine dedicates these performances to the Italian composer Luciano Berio: "He was an innovator and a great lover of the many musical traditions, past and present that coexist today. (...) A great man and a great artist passed away this year (2003) but will not be forgotten – he will be sorely missed by those of us who loved him and his wonderful music."
Caine himself develops a completely new project for this Biennale. A seemingly incidental factor has inspired Uri Caine to engage with Giuseppe Verdi; not far away from his apartment, he meets Verdi almost every day, since a statue of the composer stands in the heart of Manhattan. Performances and the chance to experience the most varied musical styles can occur in New York within a very small area; so at the same time as Gustav Mahler is working with Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera, the young Israel Isidore Beilin (Irving Berlin) is writing songs at his specially redesigned piano in Tin Pan Alley, for sale as sheet music. But they probably don't hear one another, and this is what has changed basically over the past 100 years. "The music of the New York of today has a unique characteristic: it is a mosaic of currents reflecting the city's thousand ethnic groups, a power station of musical energy open to every type of influence. Perhaps for this reason I'm not so interested in trying to circumscribe the music to a precise current (which would clearly be restrictive), so much as to celebrate the vitality of the many musical traditions that live alongside each other today." The task of shaping the music programme for the Venice Biennale inspires Uri Caine to engage with one of Verdi's most important works, adapting it and recomposing it in terms of his 21st century musical mentality. Verdi's "Otello" becomes Uri Caine's »The Othello Syndrome« (Winter&Winter Nº910 135-2).
The Venetian Stefano Bassanese, who developed the electronics for Mauricio Kagel's "Kidnapping in the Concert Hall", and Bruno Fabrizio, who took parting the premiere of Reginald Smith Brindle's "Le Chant du Monde", open the singspiel with electronically distorted sounds. Within this sonic overture, Dhafer Youssef, born in Tunisia but now living in Paris, an artist and – not just on geographical grounds – border-crosser between the cultural worlds of North Africa and the West, presents the tragedy of the Moor of Venice, written (after Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi) by Shakespeare (The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice) 400 years ago, then adapted, on commission from the publisher Giulio Ricordi, by Arrigo Boito (Otello) so as to stimulate Giuseppe Verdi to resume composition after a break of ten years forced by the shadow of Richard Wagner. Uri Caine's musical interpretation of this chess match of power and love begins; with great verve, the ensemble with Joyce Hammann on violin, Achille Succi on clarinet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet, sets up "Othello's Victory", the victorious return of the hero after war against the Turks, sung by songwriter and producer Bunny Sigler, who produced Patti Labelle's million-seller "Somebody loves you Baby" back in the 80s. The "Fire Song" (Fuoco die gioia), within Nguyên Lê on guitar, leads into the "Drinking Song", Iago's intrigue against Cassio, aimed to disgrace the latter. The first part ends with "Love Duet with Othello and Desdemona". Desdemona is spoken by the New York poet Julie Patton and sung by the Swedish Josefine Lindstrand, who Uri Caine got to know through the British composer Django Bates.
"Introduction to Act II", with Uri Caine's jazz piano solo, leads into "Iago's Credo" (Credo in un Dio crudel), which reveals his villainy. Arrigo Boito's original text is spoken by the Italian actor, poet and director Marco Paolini, and Iago's ego is personified by the New York poet Sadiq Bey, who lays bare his (and thus Iago's) character in a text collage. Tim Lefebvre on e-bass and Zach Danziger on percussion – together they form the innovative Drum'n' Bass-project "Boomish" – and Nguyên Lê on e-guitar form the excellently attuned rhythm group for "She's the Only One I Love", Othello's almost blind declaration of love for Desdemona, with Bunny Sigler, the unmistakeable R&B and Soul voice that set its stamp on the Philly Sound. "Iago's Web" – Iago is probably the most interesting and striking character in this play. With calculated chess moves, he manipulates others to do things that only benefit him and bring him closer to his goal of seizing power. He is the accursed force that drives Othello and those around him to a tragic end, but he is no standard rogue: he plays his part uniquely, he is sophisticated and clever, an astute observer able to assess people perfectly, and use them to his own ends. "Desdemona's Lament" – with Chris Speed on clarinet, his close travelling companion Jim Black on percussion, and John Hebert, bass player from New Jersey, born in New Orleans and raised in Louisiana – is Desdemona's (Josefine Lindstrand) hopeless attempt to plead Cassio's innocence, after Iago has discredited him with Othello. Othello seems to suspect he is being mocked and abused; Bunny Sigler sings "Am I a Fool?", and Caine stages a rousing Rhythm and Blues Show for the supposed cuckold. "The Lion of Venice" leads into "Othello's Confession" (by Sadiq Bey). Othello's jealousy, which Iago has aroused so immaculately through his intrigues, leads at last to the grim Finale. Desdemona draws back and sings "The Willow Song/Ave Maria", convinced of Cassio's innocence and with a certain premonition of what threatens. The voice of the Moor of Venice (Dhafer Youssef) returns, and Othello kills his beloved Desdemona ("Murder"), but Iago's victory is short-lived, for his devious machinations are exposed. But the game is over, the queen has fallen, and all that is left for Othello is suicide.
In this work, created for the Venice Biennale, Uri Caine adapts Verdi's "Otello" using elements of jazz, Philly Sound, R&B, and electronic and experimental music. Caine remains true to Verdi; William Shakespeare's plot interests him only here and there – he wants to create his own musical world, engaging with Verdi's score and the sounds of Italian opera. Caine's investigation of the Othello Syndrome is a work that would hardly be conceivable without the influence of the current New York music scene, especially in Manhattan, where Verdi's statue stands and, at the start of the 21st century, very different, formerly incompatible musical worlds meet and unite. And in the booklet for the Biennale, Uri Caine writes: "There are forms of music that draw from the past and those that are inspired by more recent traditions. I listen to all of them freely without feeling myself bound to a particular style. Perhaps the public will not agree with my opinion concerning so many traditions, but it is just this debate that for us is vital for the evolution of music."
– Stefan Winter (Translation by Richard Toop)