Monday, January 21, 2013

800 Words: American Bach - Scott Joplin

I played a puppet show last night. That’s right, a puppet show. I met an art professor from MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) at a party and she needed a band to play entr’acte music at a slam puppet show (yes, Slam Puppet Show) she ran. It was a great experience and an incredibly fun show to play. But no thrill in that show could equal the shock of the familiar I experienced when the strains broke out in one of the puppet shows of Solace by Scott Joplin in the late Marvin Hamlisch’s ultra-slow, soft performance which he prepared for The Sting.  The Sting is an otherwise overrated movie, the greatest accomplishment of which was to do America the great service of calling attention to one of its greatest artistic voices.

(After hearing Hamlisch’s version of Solace, you can never hear another, even Joplin’s. Every other rendition sounds choppy and superficial in comparison. Every other performance puts emphasis on rhythm, but in this performance, the emphasis is on Joplin’s harmonies, which are as masterful as any composer who ever lived. Every other performance of this piece looks forward to the jazz and rock eras, but when you hear Hamlisch play it, it becomes a European work to stand with the greatest miniatures of Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and Bach himself.)

I couldn’t help it, I was instantly distracted from the puppet show and almost broke down in that combustable mixture of watery eyes and adrenalin that you think is only possible when you’re a teenaged music-lover and pieces call to you in a numinous moment that you know will change the way you view yourself forever. There it was, a pure music, an American music, that cuts through you with all the serrated ridges of the European masters. A music grounded in all the European practices, yet completely American. A music founded in all the masters who came before, but a music that uncovers a new world of meaning for a new era.

Just as Bach consolidates all the musical learning of an era that combined science andreligion to create an image of a benevolent universe with a compassionate,loving creator; Scott Joplin consolidates all the musical meaning of an era in which the realization dawned that existence may precede essence, and we are thrown into a world in which, if we are brave enough, we may follow our blissto an enjoyment that is personal to each of us, and as irresponsible to the rest of the universe as we could possibly hope to be.   

(A piano roll Joplin cut of The Entertainer in 1916, in sound that is not altogether impressive. But this piece is perhaps THE kernel from which all later American music was developed.)

Scott Joplin is the beginning, the source, the mouth, of American music. Perhaps even more than Louis Armstrong or Bob Dylan, Scott Joplin’s music is America with the mirror turned in on itself. Every aspiration of this country, every nuance of its temperament, is reflected in Scott Joplin with a definition it has perhaps never received since. The great American music before him John Philip Sousa, which seems to long for the imperial militarism of Europe, and Stephen Foster, which speaks of an era of easy living for rich white folk in the South; and ever since has spoken of nostalgia for that era which many Southern Whites feel unapologetic for their longing to recapture. In both cases their music, however great at times, was constricted by the musical straightjackets of aristocratic European society. Rhythms must always march in strict time, songs must express an extravagantly poetic longing for things most people never feel. In some ways, both Foster and Sousa thrived on their limitations, but they both were contained to the  limited world of expression which it would ever occur to sheltered whites from south of the Mason-Dixon to ever write down. It took the son of a slave from Northeast Texas to express something more.

(The Magnetic Rag, played by Joshua Rifkin. Scott Joplin’s last composition before his death in 1917 – the dark emotions expressed in this piece are unmistakable.)
It’s a little too easy to dismiss Scott Joplin as a writer of rags that are as interchangeable as any Sousa march. But I think the differences become clear when one hears the two played in excellent performances. Sousa becomes merely a writer of marches that are extremely rousing but pointlessly bombastic. They belong as an encore at the end of a program – an evening of them would be torture. But when you hear a Joplin performer of excellence and imagination like Marvin Hamlisch, or Joshua Rifkin, or Gunther Schuller, or Joplin himself, the music becomes as expressive as anything ever written for the keyboard - containing as much tortuous pain within his achingly beautiful chords as uninhibited joy.

(The Pine Apple Rag – another ultra-slow adaptation of a Joplin piece, which savors the harmonies. This time it’s arranged by Gunther Schuller for brass band and conducted by Marvin Hamlisch. There is nothing here but a profound, and extremely American, spiritual darkness – which tries to make light of even the most desperate hours.)

But like Bach before him, Joplin closes an era of musical expression. In Bach, the era of polyphony is taken to its glorious end, and Bach works out a system of how polyphonic voices (many voices which do completely different things yet the parts fit together cleanly) can be simultaneously homophonic (many voices act together as one voice), and in Bach’s music a profound musical drama is enacted entirely through harmony for the first time with no aid from polyphonic ostentation. In Joplin, the era of extravagent expression drawn forth from tonal harmony and strict binary form is brought to an equally glorious end (I don’t say that lightly), and from Joplin’s music, far more than Stravinsky’s or Schoenberg’s or even Bartok’s, a kernel of a new approach to music is created; a music that relies upon rhythm rather than harmony as music’s foundation. After Joplin, music no longer needs a complex harmonic structure to express universal emotions, and harmonies become simple enough that melody and lyric altogether replace instrumental harmony, their place reinstated as music’s primary means of expression. From Joplin, the world transitioned to ever simpler visions of music, first the semi-improvisation of Pops and Duke, to the full improvisation of early Miles and Coltrane, to the song lyrics and electronics of The Beatles and The Stones, to the emphasis on pure rhythm of Public Enemy and Tupac.

(The Gladiolus Rag. Another stunning Schuller/Hamlisch arrangement.)

It is odd to think that this entirely harmonic music, with no accompanying words, could be the antique foundation stone for the contemporary music that 99% of the world population listens to regularly. And yet Joplin unmistakably marked that beginning – and not just musically; he was the first musician whose music regularly sold copies by the hundreds of thousands. His music was, in many ways, the first work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. When Joplin began his career, the world of music was defined by the parlor piano, and any family with middle class aspirations would entertain
themselves by sitting around a piano and being proficient enough at the instrument to play whatever music was at hand. But by the time Joplin passed away in 1917, the gramophone had long supplanted the piano as the focus of home musical entertainment. Once machines could produce sheet music on Joplin’s massive scale, it was only a matter of years before machines could produce music itself. Joplin died nearly forgotten by the next generation of musicians. Jazz replaced Ragtime as the primary expression of America’s spiritual life, and the through composed masterpieces of Joplin seemed too classical, too repressive, too redolent of an era when blacks still had to make their living by pleasing white people.  

(A stunning sounding piano roll of Joplin playing the Maple Leaf Rag in 1916, written in 1902, reproduced on a modern piano. It is said, without definite verification, that the sheet music to this rag was the first to ever sell one million copies.)

But Joplin’s glory outlasted many of the younger musicians who spurned him because only he made them possible. In an age which guaranteed the artist’s freedom to create from ever more basic means, the artist had to reciprocate to his public. In the modern age, if music wants to touch every emotion and sentiment in the human experience, it must entertain first, enlighten second. There were examples of this lighter vision of music from the dawn of Western musical history, but from the madrigals of Arcadelt to the Operettas of Franz Lehar, such music could only entertain privileged classes fortunate enough to partake in entertainment sophisticated enough to require a great expense of time to learn and money to appreciate. But a composer wants to express emotions to which all of humanity can relate in an age when music can be distributed to millions in a matter of days, he or she can no longer aim to be merely understood by a small cadre of admirers. To write in such an mid-19th century manner would be more than a quaint anachronism, it would be a negation of a potential audience of millions from whom one can learn. The standards by which great music, truly great music, is judged in our era is no less rigorous than those of previous eras. But if music wants to express universality, then it must be written for the purpose of attaining a universal reach. However unlikely it seems, perhaps it’s more difficult in our age than ever to create truly great music - which must be complex enough to take in all that experience endows us, from the most joyful and funny to horrible and saddening to witty and lowbrow to civilized and barbaric to real and unreal, to known and unknown to what we are and what we become. And all this must be rendered in a way simple enough to be understood by millions and millions of people. 

That, above all else, is Joplin’s great contribution to music and why he is as important a musician to the Pax-Americana as Bach was to the era of the Great European Powers. Bach celebrates the perfect universe as it seemed upon rationalism’s dawn; during that five-minute fissure when it was conceivable for rationality to coexist with God in a respectful partnership of equals. Joplin celebrates an imperfect universe as it seemed upon the demise of reason’s promised utopia, only for reason’s denizens to find that God had abandoned them. Europe was built as a monument to the glory of God, then sustained as a monument to the reason which God endowed us. But like all sons, the son must feel as though he’s defeated the father, and while Reason defeated God rather handily, reason proved equally impractical to the resolution of human problems.   In our era, the importance of joy, pleasantness, pleasure, and happiness most importantly, revealed themselves as an endeavor to which no ill-born family ever need apologize for aspiring towards, as the profoundest of all our era’s revelations is the realization that in an era of material well-being, nothing but what is in ourselves need ever stop us from being happy. Bach is the beginning of that journey in which catered music away from the tastes of the church and aristocracy to the tastes of the bourgeois. Joplin marked a new beginning, taking musical taste away from the bourgeois to a music whose appeal transcends all class distinctions. Like Bach, Scott Joplin showed us, musically and spiritually, all those unexplored rooms of the new musical house. And precisely what message was sent from that room to his listeners on piano rolls, 331/3 short players, hi-fi LP’s, 8 track cassettes, VCRs, CD’s, and internet streaming? The message is Beethoven’s and Schiller’s Universal Kiss! Music that reaches the infinite of what music may express, to as infinite a number of people as who can listen. In our age, art which leaves entertainment as at least a secondary concern is completely out of touch with mainstream of what audiences demand. Those insisting rhythms of Scott Joplin suggest a world which demands to be entertained, and to which enlightenment is a very subtle secondary concern and requires a true artist merely to conceal it.

(Tremonisha. Joplin wanted to reform opera for the duration of his career into something equally serious and entertaining - sounding rather like the Mozartean ideal - but never managed to get either of his operas produced. The score was thought to be lost until 1972, at which point a vocal score was unearthed and Gunther Schuller prepared the orchestrations.)

Except as an expression of resentment or contempt, high art is a 19th century concept with no meaning for our time. The very idea of art on high implies that the work itself owes your allegiance to it simply for the privilege of its existence. We live in an age which demands that seriousness of purpose not be a virtue. Above all else in our era, we demand to be entertained. Serious discussion and contemplation is in itself a form of entertainment – connected not to struggles to understand the ultimate purpose of life, rather, simple curiosity for the world around us with infinitely less existential importance than discussions of first causes and salvation which previous centuries undertook intellectual endeavor.  No longer do cultural figures express the emotions of great men, as though their experiences are the sole experiences which should elicit comment. Works of art, for thousands of years, were only great because a person with more authority told you it was great. Art itself, with its connotation of its Middle English meaning, when art meant ‘are’, ponders the questions of being as only a culture which believes in the supreme and infinite importance of figuring out what thou art with absolute correctness, lest the margin of error send us to an eternity of bestial torture. But a society with no such infinitely existential corundums requires nothing so weighty to be taken upon one’s person. In entertainment, the sadness of the world is no longer something we must capture and lift so much of it upon our shoulders with the singular aim of ridding the world of its crippling hold. 

Sadness is just one in the seeming infinity of means at an entertainer’s disposal, who passes the time by making your life interesting – in small spurts making you feel as many emotions as the world contains. By 2013, the best among us realize that any art which insists upon a precondition to fully understanding it as its writer intended, like belief in God or reason, is limited in meaning unless the today’s audience finds the piece itself entertaining. And if an ambitious writer/playwright/artist/musician wants to display the entire world, he must be both artist and entertainer – able to capture the world in all its profundity and profound variation, yet also able to display the world in a manner that causes the world to look at itself and listen. That was the accomplishment of Walt Whitman, it was the accomplishment of Mark Twain, it was the accomplishment of Orson Welles, and it was the accomplishment of Scott Joplin

( A suite of Joplin’s music as heard in The Sting.)

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