Goldberg’s Variations … Not Bach


Legend has it that Johann Sebastian Bach composed the Baroque masterpiece known as the "Goldberg Variations" for an insomniac ambassador to be played on sleepless nights by the diplomat’s teenage harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756).

The clarinetist Andy Biskin had Bach’s work in mind when he playfully named his latest composition "Goldberg’s Variations." But the only person losing sleep in this case was the composer himself.

A full-time video producer and first-time dad, Biskin has been spending his spare hours creating the music-and-video homage to Reuben Lucius Goldberg (1883-1970). "Rube" Goldberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, is best known for drawing complex mechanical solutions to simple problems.

Biskin used his home computer to animate a dozen Rube Goldberg "Inventions" – wacky contraptions like an Automatic Sheet-Music Turner or a Modest Mosquito Bite Scratcher. He then composed scores to accompany the motions of each intricate machine.

The Andy Biskin Sextet performs "Goldberg’s Variations" May 16 at Symphony Space.

Biskin, who picked up the clarinet at his parents’ insistence nearly three decades ago, didn’t have to stretch far to devise musical sound effects for, say, apples falling onto a kettledrum or a Mardi Gras tickler filling with air. Many of his previous compositions have a notable cartoon-theme quality.

A native of San Antonio, Texas, whose father played timpani with the city symphony, Biskin was Forbes magazine’s "Best Underappreciated Jazz Musician" in 2001. Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times that Biskin has "the perfect radar" for finding "gentle humor in jazz."

"I don’t think I set out to write cartoon music," Biskin told The Jewish Week as the first track from his first CD, "Dogmental," played in the background.

"I think this was inspired by a car alarm," he said of the tune "Laughing Stock," snippets of which can be heard between news stories on National Public Radio.

Had Rube Goldberg turned his pen on blaring car alarms, said Biskin, he likely would have found a more imaginative, if convoluted, way of alerting owners of imperiled automobiles. Poking fun at people’s fascination with gadgetry, Goldberg filled his detailed diagrams with pulleys and gears, animals, plants and characters that to Biskin seem pulled from "some weird central casting for cartoons."

Students across the country update these elements annually in Rube Goldberg machine contests, which challenge participants to construct devices that accomplish tasks like sharpening a pencil or screwing in a light bulb in no fewer than 20 steps.

For "Goldberg’s Variations," Biskin found himself building Goldberg machines – on his Macintosh G4 computer.

"You have to make it so that the fish gets pulled and the apples bounce and the caddy runs," he said, referring to his animation for "A Sure Way to Keep Your Head Down During Golf Shot." The invention also involves a bag of peanuts, a squirrel and a dollar bill.

Goldberg’s cartoons "point out that people are often overwhelmed by overcomplicated technology," states the Rube Goldberg Inc. Web site (

Biskin experienced Goldberg’s philosophy firsthand.

"It’s a very complicated thing to give someone a little two-minute cartoon," he said.

The Andy Biskin Sextet plays "Goldberg’s Variations" at Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater, 95th Street and Broadway, Manhattan, at 8:30 p.m. Friday, May 16. Tickets are $21. For information, call (212) 864-5400, Web site,