Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Museum of Uncommon Composers #2 - Scott Joplin - The Other American Music - Still A Little More

The Entertainer (stop right before the last note of the A melody)

You know how it goes. Even the people who have no idea about Scott Joplin's other music know this one. Some of you might have heard the astonishingly idiomatic sounding dixieland arrangement by Gunther Schuller?

Gunther Schuller (first half)

But have you heard this colossal, Lisztian, jazz cover from the late great Henry Butler?

Henry Butler (complete)

And have you heard my personal favorite, this version by Jacob Collier, one of the most promising young musicians of our time?

Jacob collier (complete)

More than anything else, this is the extraordinary quality of American music - its endless, infinite adaptability. An adaptability we have only begun to explore. Every great song written in this country has a seemingly infinite capacity for covers, adaptations that can utterly transform the simple foundation of popular music into cathedrals of complexity.

This strikes me as the next logical step in the evolution of American popular music, an evolution that is an extraordinarily bittersweet development. The American empire clearly now enters its second half, and as the so called 'Greatest Generation' dies off, so does living memory of an era when America was not clearly the dominant world power. We can no longer remember a world where the center of cultural influence was somewhere other than right here, and from such insularity comes inevitable decline. And as America becomes more isolated in its own points of view, so the American story begins to be codified, and its art canonized into something far more hardened as people have so many memories of American music that they find it much more hard to admit new music into their daily consumption. Just as happened to Europeans around the 1870s, Americans will demand more and more to hear the repertoire of music they already love, they will become much more gatekeeping in their attitudes, much... more... classical. Jazz has long since arrived at this point, so has old time and bluegrass, soon will rock and R&B, and in the sense of samples, hip-hop has already got there. American popular music will calcify into the repertoire of American Classical Music, and be as ossified as any concert hall; while the popular music of the world becomes something from countries very very far afield from us both geographically and spiritually. And Americans who fancy themselves the most up to date, musically progressive and radical pioneers up for any kind of experimentation at all will find winds blowing from directions they don't begin to understand, and when encountering this music, ape all the attitudes toward it of all the old fogey they once hated.

Concerts of American music, which once could be counted on to inevitably introduce bands with new songs in every concert, will increasingly be demanded to play old favorites. But with the filtering of less worthwhile repertoire, and with repeated performance of the better among old songs, the standard of performance may become unfathomably steep, because with every performance from a great performer the audience will demand something new, opening up new possibilities for songs we thought we knew everything there was to know about. It's the ultimate revenge of European classical music on the music that made it irrelevant to daily life in America.

But this classical music may in fact turn out to be more interesting even than European classical music. In European classical music, however great the original compositions, and compared to most American popular music, European classical music is Original with a capital 'O', the possibilities of interpretation are minimal at best. The performer, however well remunerated or adored, is in every way the junior partner of the composer; a glorified craftsman, and no matter how many liberties taken, the performer is ultimately a recreative artisan through whom the composer speaks. But in what I believe will become known as American Classical Music, the performer is a full partner, perhaps even the senior partner, through whom the unforeseen musical possibilities of the composers' original material present themselves.

Or take this, Joplin's second most famous rag, the Maple Leaf Rag. We'll start with a piano roll of Joplin.

(Joplin - cut at 1:18) (Jelly Roll Morton - splice in - cut at 1:19) (Earl Hines - splice in - cut at 1:09) (Sidney Bechet - splice in - cut at 1:44) (Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops - splice in, cut at 1:49), (Johnny Guarnieri - spice in - cut off at 3:23) (Stephano Bollani - splice in - cut at 1:44) (Marcus Roberts - splice in - cut at 1:57) (Petite Feet - splice in - let finish) (Jon Baptise - splice in - let finish)

And we have to assume that whatever they left for the recording microphone is a cleaned up, edited version of all the bizarre experimentations they tried in concert. That was a kind of Theme and Variations on Scott Joplin playing the Maple Leaf Rag in an authenticated piano reel recording that believe it or not was thought lost until was found just a few years ago on e-bay, followed by Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, and then Sidney Bechet absolutely smoking on soprano sax - that was definitely the best don't you think? Then the Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fiedler, then Johnny Guarnieri doing the astonishing feat of playing the rag in 5/4 meter at top speed - that had to be the other highlight, then Marcus Roberts performing a kind of deconstruction. There are all sorts of Marcus Roberts interpretations of it on youtube, completely different from this one. Then Stephano Bolani performing it with all sorts of interesting subtle modulations and rhythmic hiccups. Then Jon Baptiste, Stephen Colbert's band leader, using the work as background for a statement about jazz. And then what I think is the third highlight, the avant garde jazz band, Petite Feet, for which we finally let go to the B-section so you could experience that jaw dropping drum solo.

In a sense we just saw the process of any piece of music's evolution in performance. Starting with the original conception of the composer, inevitably with some difference in transmission from the score to performance. Then younger contemporaries of Joplin adapt it for their styles, and the more radical, ahead-of-its-time elements of the score are downplayed. Neither Jelly Roll Morton or Earl Hines can quite match Joplin in the sophisticated way the composer crafts his rhythms, melodies, or harmonies. But they're enjoyable and they help popularize a great piece of music. But then we get to this extraordinary pinnacle in Sidney Bechet, who unleashes the full revelatory power of just how extraordinary this music is. By the early 30's when Bechet makes the recording, the music is so familiar that it's fully in the musical bloodstream. The world of jazz that has so many roots in Scott Joplin is now the dominant music of the world, and a musician like Bechet knows so exactly how to bring out everything best in the Maple Leaf Rag that, if anything, Bechet's version is more complex than Joplin's. Don't misunderstand, Joplin gets the vast majority of the credit, but Bechet knows exactly how to tweak Joplin's piece to make it even better. 

But then we get that elephantine, aggressively white performance from the Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fiedler that can only preserve those rhythmic syncopations with extremely Christmasy bells - all the risqué elements of Joplin have been neutered for an affluent and bland white audience, because eventually, every great piece of music gets subsumed by the rich and becomes more their luxury product than a force for revelation. Fortunately, our ears can immediately take a bath with that extraordinary 5/4 piano version by Johnny Guarnieri. By this point, Joplin has become so overfamiliar that to make it interesting, you need to add the novelty of a party trick, but what a party trick! Then we hear a wonderful but subtle version by Stephano Bollani, an Italian jazz pianist who, if anything, is a little too respectful, but he knows exactly where the weird side roads, and dwells on all those weird harmonic and rhythmic figures, drawing them out for all they're worth. By the time you get to that avant-garde rendering by Marcus Roberts, the familiarity of the Maple Leaf Rag is so ripened that it's decadent, and what matters more than the piece itself is how Roberts can transform it into something so completely unfamiliar that you wonder if it's even the same piece. And then, the avant-garde band Petite Feet performs what amounts to a complete deconstruction. Making the rhythmic figures into something so complex that Joplin couldn't have even fathomed it, while the keyboardist dwells on that one transitional sequence for a minute and change! And finally, Stephen Colbert's bandleader, Jon Baptiste, who uses the Maple Leaf Rag as though it is the ultimate jazz institution, so established as a universally known and loved classic that he can literally use it as background music while he talks about the greatness of jazz.

And once all those various interpretive extremes have been exhausted, a piece of music truly has a classical tradition. I know you're probably sick of it by now, but let's hear it just one more time in a very simple classical rendering of the piece from 2004, played more faithfully to what Joplin wrote down than the composer himself played, but with the wisdom of a generations long performing tradition behind him. The pianist is Alexander Peskanov, a Soviet emigré performer who would seem to have no cultural inheritance from Joplin.

(Alexander Peskanov)

It might sound a little bit like a Dvorak Slavonic Dance, but it's simple, unaffected, direct, and with all manner of subtlety, and all sorts of barely noticeable colorings and rhythmic emphases that probably didn't occur to the composer. This is what it means to have a classical tradition. Music exists in the air, but even classical music does not exist in the sky, it exists here on earth, where there are all sorts of meanings that would have never occurred to the composer or the first generation of performers. And from what lawyers and jurists would call stare decisis; the precedent, the inherited practical wisdom of generations of interpreters, the next performer can form a composite of options that he thinks will create the best performance, so that even the most faithful recreation of a composer's original vision, be it John Eliot Gardiner's Beethoven or Wynton Marsalis's Louis Armstrong, will sound completely different from the composer's own performance.

A written text is not a bible, it's just a unidimensional faded facsimile of the original conception in the composer's head. When Scott Joplin plays the rag himself, his right hand swings the beat in a manner he never wrote down, and he plays the B-melody an octave higher, while his left hand interpolates all kinds of embellished grace notes that the score never indicated. 

So being faithful to a score is not a virtue in itself, it's only a schematic outline of what the composer wished to express, but European classical music, at least in the 20th century, made an absolute fetish out of the score that was often antithetical to the spirit of the music, to the creativity of musicians, and to the interest of audiences. 

Nevertheless, it's possible to create a performance of enormous interest that stays completely within the bounds of the score, but even when following the score to the dotted-i you can't simply follow the instructions. You have to sharpen your own perceptions, and without drawing attention to your interpretation, emphasize the rise and fall of the phrase, the rhythmic syncopations, the harmonic tensions. It practically takes a lifetime to learn how to be inwardly interesting while being outwardly boring, and sometimes you wonder, what's the point of being so musically effacing if most audiences are going to be bored? The point is that when you take away all the frills, what remains is pure musical substance removed from any other context that no amount of time can ever erode. And that is the greatness of European classical music. There are many pieces by Bach, and Mozart, and Beethoven, and Schubert, and Chopin, and Schumann, and Debussy, and Sibelius, and Bartok, that are so perfect that all you often want to hear is what's written on the page, nothing more and nothing less, and no matter how great Joplin can sound when improvised upon, perhaps his music is perfect enough to fall into that category as much as any enstatued white male.

The Bible says that a properly allotted lifespan is three-score and ten, and that strikes me as likely. So allow me to modestly submit that it usually takes roughly 70 years or so for a cultural artifact to lose the proper context of its living memory so that we might begin to appreciate the thing in itself for what it is and perceive what value it might retain when removed from its original use. Scott Joplin came to national attention around 1900, and it was in exactly 1970 that a 26-year-old scholar-musician, a recent Juilliard graduate named Joshua Rifkin, released an album of Joplin rags played as classical music that eventually sold a million copies. Some people don't like Rifkin's playing, it presented Joplin's music completely straight, unfettered, with no jazz affectations at all, but it showed that when you remove all the context from Joplin's music, so much of his music is absolutely perfect. It completely works as concert music, and is as fit for piano recitals as Chopin or Schubert. It was in 1973 that the movie The Sting was released - a film about tavern card sharks taking place at the turn of the century which won Best Picture, and Joplin's music was the soundtrack, with some of his piano rags played in Dixieland orchestrations by Gunther Schuller and Marvin Hamlisch. And it was in 1976 that the Houston Grand Opera presented Gunther Schuller's performing edition of Joplin's only surviving opera, Tremonisha, for which Joplin earned a well-deserved posthumous Pulitzer Prize - receiving at 108 the respect from the classical community he should have received when he was 35.

(Salome playing in the background) Joplin was the dominant American musical voice of the 1900s. And think about European music in that first decade of the American Century - in the background you're hearing radically decadent opera, Salome, of the most famously radical composer of that decade, Richard Strauss. And the truth is that by 1900, Puccini's innovations were scarcely less radical than Strauss's. And in addition to the radicalism of Strauss, all sorts of other, very different musical radicalisms, still more extreme, were fermenting: Mahler, Schoenberg, Debussy, Scriabin, Ravel, Sibelius, Janacek, Vaughan Williams, Carl Nielsen, Paul Dukas, and of course Charles Ives... and then, around 1910, along came an Enfant terrible named Igor Stravinsky who blew up everything anybody ever thought they knew about classical music.

How could a layman possibly keep up with all these developments? The only way you could hear music before 1902 or so was to play it, so how can the average middle class music lover, who was far more musically well-trained in the 1900 decade than they are today - every middle class family had a piano and some family member was almost guaranteed to using it for half the hours of every day - hope to understand the etudes of Debussy, or Scriabin sonatas ,or Mahler symphonies in piano reduction, unless they practiced this radical music to the exclusion of all the other music they already loved? Getting Beethoven and Schumann into your hands to the point that they can sound appreciably good is hard enough, but imagine trying to play through this score you're hearing in the background in piano reduction, or imagine trying to sing the vocal lines. Most people love music but they're not obsessed by it, and the average music lover at the time would not be up for this challenge, and they would think to themselves that this music would sound little different once they've mastered the notes than it did when they played nothing but wrong notes.

But at the same time, there were more possibilities for the dissemination of music than ever before in history. The story of how the Maple Leaf Rag became the biggest hit in the history of music publishing are disputed, one biographer says that it sold only 400 copies in its first year. Another biographer believes it sold 75,000 copies in the first six months. Either way, Joplin's big hit took a little while to make its mark, for its time 75,000 copies was as much a huge hit for as it would be for any local musician in our day whose album or single sells 75,000 copies. But even 75,000 copies don't change the curvature of the earth. What does change the curvature of the earth is recording.

(Caruso recording) That's Enrico Caruso, the first ever recording star, an Italian tenor who was a bigger star in the first twenty years of the century, much much bigger, than even Pavarotti ever was. It was a whole new way of appreciating and loving music, and it changed everything about the world's relation to music. Why practice the piano, or singing, or the violin, when you can hear better music making at the push of a needle than you ever could make yourself? Why keep practicing?

But at the same time as Caruso and John McCormack made hearing great music so much easier for millions of people, so became the ability to distribute sheet music.

There's a Willa Cather short story about a Boston woman who'd moved to the prairie and came back to Boston for a brief trip to visit her family for the first time in three decades. They take her to a Boston Symphony concert, a Wagner concert, and hears music for the first time in 30 years, at the end of the story she refuses to leave the concert hall, so moved is she by what she'd heard, and so horrible does the prospect seem of returning to the prairie and living the rest of her life in silence again. But had she lived just a few years longer, she could fill her parlor room with the greatest singers on earth.

I propose that like a lot of 19th century light music, only perhaps more so, Joplin's piano rag had two uses. One was the extraverted, rambunctious use within the smoke-filled tavern and burlesque house and brothel, where it was meant as a lubricant social and otherwise to keep the good times rolling, perhaps the way a piano bar still does today, where it was played at extremely peppy tempos (to use slang of Joplin's own time), probably subject among pianists to all sorts of virtuoso tricks and ornamentations and even improvisations, in other words - 'Jazzed up,' in manners that depart so enormously from the score in exactly the way that jazz pianists eventually did within the standards of the real book. or perhaps some by other composers too, or The other was the introverted, private use, where amateur musicians could learn the music at a slow speed in their parlor, and savor the aching harmonic poignancy.


Even if the rhythm is strict, Joplin's music is the ebb and flow of life, the happiness and the sadness, laughter and tears, intermingled together. How many other artists managed this? In most of Shakespeare's plays and characters he could only do it by compartmentalizing them into tragic and comic - occasionally you get a comic figure like Falstaff or Rosalind who manages both. Perhaps it's easier in music: Mozart obviously did it, perhaps a few other composers did it like Schumann and Dvorak and Janacek, certainly Louis Armstrong and The Beatles from more popular genres. But in literature, all I can think of is Chekhov and Dickens, probably Cervantes and Montaigne, perhaps Mark Twain or George Eliot, or maybe Saul Bellow and VS Naipaul from our century, but even among novelists, where you'd think the tragicomic is the main vein, it's tough to think of writers who genuinely make you laugh at the same time as they move you. It's almost easier in the movies when you get it from Jean Renoir and Ozu, Spielberg and Woody Allen, Chaplin, in our era and country you might consider that we get it from Spike Lee and Sophia Coppola, Richard Linklater and Alexander Payne. In TV you definitely get it from The Simpsons and Cheers, perhaps from The (American) Office or My So Called Life, and if you can stomach it these days, you can certainly get it from Louie. But no matter how you square it, look at this honor roll of a list. No matter what the era, this is some of the very greatest creators in the history of art, and this is exactly the mighty sort of company Scott Joplin should take his place within.


Maple Leaf Rag
The Entertainer
The Easy Winners
Euphonic Sounds
Weeping Willow
Country Club - Ragtime Two Step
Solace - A Mexican Serenade
Pine Apple Rag

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