In the early 1720s, Johann Sebastian Bach composed a set of Two-Part Inventions to help his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, learn to play the keyboard.

Now, 300 years later, jazz pianist and composer Dan Tepfer has extracted the framework and narrative from these deceptively simple exercises to guide new improvisations for an album he calls Inventions / Reinventions. "The musical content, what's going on underneath the surface is so profound that it's really this wonderful way of introducing children to what the greatest music can be," he tells NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer.

Bach's pieces help the learning pianist master harmony, rhythm and technique. They are called Two-Part Inventions because there are two separate voices distributed between the pianist's two hands. "So not only is there a dialogue between two voices here, but there's also a dialogue between two hands," Tepfer explains.

The New York-based pianist initiated a conversation with Bach across the centuries by emulating the composer's narrative structure: A musical idea, or theme, is like a protagonist, introduced before experiencing various adventures — expressed musically through modulations — and ultimately returning to the home key.

"The chief goal here is to be in conversation with Bach and to stay in my shoes — not to be playing on his turf, but to be using his ideas on my turf, which I think is what any good conversation is," Tepfer says. And in doing so through improvisation, Tepfer is also drawing from the beating heart of Bach's music. The Baroque master was renowned in his own time as an improviser, one people would travel from all over Europe to hear.

It's not the first time Tepfer, 41, has improvised in ways that build upon Bach. In his 2011 album Goldberg Variations / Variations, he played the original 18th century composition (an aria and a set of 30 variations) alongside his own 21st century improvisations. During the pandemic, Tepfer, who also has an undergraduate degree in astrophysics, wrote a computer program that plays back each Goldberg variation, but flipped upside down.

Essentially, Tepfer inverted the multiple lines of music (counterpoint) Bach had composed. Where a melody might fall in the original composition, the pattern would rise in what Tepfer called the #BachUpsideDown project. While the flipped versions are completely new music, they also are an echo of the original piece and sound oddly familiar.

With his new Two-Part Inventions, Tepfer's improvisations are in the nine keys not covered by Bach's cycle. Out of the 24 possible major and minor keys, Bach only composed these exercises in 15 of the most commonly used keys. But Tepfer is quick to insist that nothing is missing from the original compositions.

"I don't believe those gaps need to be filled at all. I never want to improve on what Bach has written. I think it would be foolish to do so," Tepfer says. Instead, he adds, "I suddenly realized that Bach had left open a window for me to respond to him in."

This interview was conducted by Sacha Pfeiffer, produced by Barry Gordemer and edited by Olivia Hampton. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.

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If any of you listening are piano players or used to take piano lessons, you may know Johann Sebastian Bach's "Two-Part Inventions."


PFEIFFER: Pianist and composer Dan Tepfer says the short pieces are in the bloodstream of many young pianists.

DAN TEPFER: These inventions really shape how everyone plays the piano. They're so deceptively simple, but the musical content is so profound that it's really this wonderful way of introducing children to what the greatest music can be.

PFEIFFER: Bach wrote these exercises for a total of 15 major and minor keys out of the 24 available. So Tepfer improvised pieces for the missing keys.


PFEIFFER: You can hear his reinventions on his new album out today called "Inventions/Reinventions." Dan Tepfer told me he thinks about music as telling a story.

TEPFER: In classical narrative structure, you have a protagonist - a hero or a heroine - to follow on the journey, on the story. And then something happens, and they're thrust into chaos, into the unknown. During Act 2, the protagonist will go on a series of tests or some kind of journey, and Act 3, we typically find them back at home. And this is exactly what Bach is doing in the "Inventions." And I was so struck by it that I asked myself, could I do a free improvisation that tells a story following these same principles?

PFEIFFER: So although many people would think of narrative and protagonists as writing or a book, you see the parallel, the equivalent in music.

TEPFER: Absolutely. Just to give an example, the first invention goes da, da, da, da, do, di, do.


TEPFER: That's our character. And we are constantly reexposed to the same character, and we start to get to know them.


TEPFER: And then Bach turns that character upside down. Ba, da, do, do, da, do, da, da.


TEPFER: And so what we're seeing is different facets of this character, in the same way that a writer might make a character more than two dimensional in a play or a movie.


PFEIFFER: Dan, the best way for our listeners to understand what you've done would be for them to hear it. Is there a particular one you think is best for explaining what you've done and your approach?

TEPFER: Absolutely. For example, if you listen to my first improvisation in D-flat major...


TEPFER: ...I came up with a theme. Ba, da, da, da, do, do, da.


TEPFER: And that immediately is my character. This is my protagonist on the story I'm going to tell, but suddenly we'll find ourselves in a new key.


TEPFER: The minor keys, for example, have a real bitter sweetness to them. You know, if you're telling a story, our character might have a moment of loss or be challenged with some deep emotional reflection. But eventually it's time to go home. And then as gracefully as possible, we return.


PFEIFFER: Some of what you've done feels almost jazzy, like a blend of jazz and classical music. Is that what you were aiming for?

TEPFER: I'm aiming to be myself, to be in conversation with Bach, not to be playing on his turf, but to be using his ideas on my turf, which I think is what any good conversation is. I am a jazz musician. I grew up with jazz. My whole approach to improvisation really comes from jazz. So if you hear a moment that sounds jazzy, that's just because there's quite a bit of jazz in me.


PFEIFFER: The pieces in minor keys, not surprisingly, often sound less cheerful, more dissonant. The opposite of that is that some of your music had me actually tapping my head and my feet along with it, which some people might think you'd expect from poppier music. Are you trying to get listeners to think differently about what classical music can be when you're improvising?

TEPFER: I'm not trying to get my listeners to do anything. I'm just trying to express myself. On the other hand, one of the things I love about Bach is that he is able to bring a sense of sincere joy to his music. And when I listen to it, there's never anything about it that feels corny or silly or superficial to me. The joy is fully earned and fully owned, I would say.


TEPFER: That's something that I think has been challenging for me, is to bring sincere joy to my music. I think in jazz there can be a tendency to want to act cool, a tendency to not wear your heart on your sleeve and to be embarrassed at doing that. And that's actually one of the things that I enjoyed doing the most in this project is searching for that sense of joy and not shying away from it. So whether I'm dealing with the music of Bach or whether I'm dealing with my own music or whether I'm dealing with the music of my peers, it really comes down to the same thing, which is, can I be myself today?


PFEIFFER: What do you think Bach would think about you filling in gaps in his work?

TEPFER: I mean, I hesitate to even use the term filling in gaps in his work. There's nothing incomplete, really, about the "Inventions." It's worth remembering here that in his own lifetime, Bach was most famous as an improviser. In fact, people traveled from all over Europe to go hear Bach improvise. And it's really only after his death that he became most famous as a composer. So improvisation was absolutely at the core of Bach's being. And I would hope that he would be at least intrigued and maybe touched by the fact that someone 300 years after he wrote these pieces is trying to, in his own way, engage with the abstract ideas supporting Bach's work.

PFEIFFER: That's pianist and composer Dan Tepfer. His new album, "Inventions/Reinventions," is out today. Dan, thank you. And I loved listening to this album.

TEPFER: Oh, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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