Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Museum of Uncommon Composers #2 - Scott Joplin - The Other American Music - 70ish%

This podcast is about the composers who slipped through history's cracks; composers so distant from the wellspring of cultural history that few were there to listen to them, and therefore few to tell others they're worth hearing; composers of such forward vision that there was no place for them in the world of their present, and the future has yet to catch up with them.

But there are also some well-known composers who are extremely well known, and yet they too fall through history's cracks. Composers whose music is so misunderstood and sometimes even dismissed that the era for proper redressment is long since passed, and all we can do now is talk about how and why they were dismissed. In the case of Scott Joplin, the African-American founder of modern American music, the reasons seem rather obvious, and yet it's not quite as obvious as it seems.

What does it mean to be thought of in the Pantheon of great composers? Is it really that much of a reward? You know the stories as well as I do of the suffering: of how Bach buried a dozen of his children, of Beethoven's deafness and Mozart's pauper's grave, Schubert's manic depression and Schumann's insanity, Bruckner's obsessive compulsions and Brahms's loneliness, Tchaikovsky's secret homosexuality and Mahler's neurosis, Sibelius's alcoholism and Scriabin's drug-induced delusions, Shostakovich's political terrors and Britten's un-acted upon love of children. The list goes on and on and on, and the notion of the suffering artist continues from generation to generation.

But is it true that artists must suffer? When I was a somewhat younger artist, perhaps more self-fancied than the real thing, but already beset with more mental agonies than I care to ever share in this podcast, I would rail against that notion as so many young artists do, and about how it's just an excuse to treat artists badly and dismiss their concerns. But as I've gotten older, and life seems still more difficult than it ever did before, I have a somewhat more forgiving view of that notion.

In any field at all, making something good is really, really, really hard. Whether it's effecting even the most minor social change, or getting a business off the ground, or becoming professionally good at a sport, or even raising any child but one possessing the most obedient sort of temperament, the wear and tear of creating an achievement you're proud of is colossal. How much more colossal must it be for an artist? 99.9% of us are not celebrities, and more than half of us can barely make ends meet. When you sail right against the prevailing winds - when 99% of the population will perceive you as the type of person who flaunts their disobedience of everything that's acceptable socially, aesthetically, and even ethically, you will spend the vast majority of your day feeling utterly, completely alone. You're such a misfit that even many other artists won't tolerate you - nobody is more merciless to one another than people on the margins fighting each other for the smallest piece of dignity.

And for those of us who can realize this vision more often, it's better, but at least compared to any other white collar profession, it's a pretty miserable living. For a vast swath of artists, perhaps even the majority, the state of being this type of person even is agony in the best circumstances. You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't, but at least if you do, the itch temporarily goes away. Some artist hear rejection every damn day of their lives, nevertheless, they persist. And furthermore, because the situation of artists is inherently so vulnerable, there are all manner of psychopaths and narcissists who, if they rise to a powerful position within the artistic community, exploit the vulnerable. And how do they rise to positions of such influence, often they rise precisely because they are psychopaths and narcissists, and therefore have the ambition and obsessive drive that propels them to the top of their fields, the charisma and social sense to charm people who can make enable their brilliant careers, and the willpower and lack of conscience to step on all those people who could be hinderances to their careers.

So why do it? The reason you do what you do is that you are responding to an inner itch so unbelievably strong that to let it remain unscratched is agony. Think of all those people in the stereotypical American family who go to seed because their minds are literally dying from a lack of outlet; intelligent, creative people who live within communities which demand they conform to expectations for which conformation is impossible for them. Nobody can figure out why they go in and out of hospitals, nobody can figure out why they abuse substances for decades - either outwardly or in secret, nobody can figure out why they commit suicide, nobody can figure out why they seem so sad, or angry, or weird.

What so many of them lack is an outlet - be it creative, intellectual, professional, or athletic. An outlet is small consolation to people whose other life-circumstances are un-conducive to letting them live a tolerably decent life, but for so many millions, a neurological outlet where a person can realize at least a vision their best self it is the difference in their lives between living, and living death.

So yes, there is no question in my mind, artists suffer for their art, and they always will. The vast plurality, and perhaps more, of the people who will engage in the sheer amount of hard work it takes to become good at an artistic craft will be people whose life circumstances are such that they require an enormous amount of respite from them. And if they weren't predisposed to feel as though their lives were terrible before they became artists, the conditions in which they have to work will make the potential for mental illness within them that much more likely to be triggered.

And furthermore, there's a still more difficult question. Why be an artist when you can be a star?

Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. But if you're a movie star or TV star or a rock star, the rewards of being one almost always have very little to do with your finest achievements. No actor of our generation starred in more quality movie projects than Leonardo DiCaprio, but the reason he's a star is Titanic, where his acting was mere scenery while the real star was a sinking ship. No rock star has sold more tickets than Mick Jagger, but most fan think the Rolling Stones have not written a great song since the early 70s. So yes, being a star is not mutually exclusive from doing valuable artistic work, but those two states of being have stunningly little to do with each other. Beethoven and Brahms, however celebrated, labored day after day with only their music for company, at least modern rock stars never have to be alone if they desire company. Even the life of the average rock musician is kind of a dream in comparison. Of course, you need an enormous amount of skill to do it well, but if a guitarist only plays ten chords in a cover band, they have a better chance of making a living in most cities than they would if they wanted to expose people to what a great guitarist sounds like. And sure, some of us string players can make some money doing wedding ceremonies, but we'll be making roughly half of what the wedding band makes.

So when people in classical music, particularly older people, get very protective or touchy about creative musicians in other fields being admitted into our pantheon, believe me, I completely understand why, and think to myself that the classical musicians who see it differently have not yet sufficiently been worn down by life to stay protective of their turf, and life in the 21st century will wear our generation down much more than it already has.

But the pantheon of classical music is so old-fashioned a conception of greatness that it had already outlived its usefulness by the time Scott Joplin began publishing his music in 1897, and it is now more than 120 years later. Western classical music, the most aristocratic and authoritarian conception of art that has still not undergone any meaningful reconstruction, is on the verge of a collapse and revolution so total that all the proud institutions which have stood for hundreds of years are threatened not only by obsolescence to contemporary life, but with the notion that the high arts actively collaborated with evil. To new generations, classical music may well be thought the soundtrack of Western imperialism, and it might be the most attention people have paid to it in a hundred years.

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.....


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. It's technically cleaner than any pianist of Joplin's own day ever would have been, no matter what the genre. Almost brusque in its efficiency. But 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. Even if the instruments are exactly the same, the performers will be different and have different strengths and weaknesses. And even if the performers are the same, there's a different audience each time. The more tightly you try to control the circumstances of a performance, the more chaos you risk. And even if the performance were absolutely faithful to the markings with not a single interpolation from the interpreter, that is nevertheless an interpretation in itself, and the self-effacement draws an enormous amount of attention to itself.

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 99% or so within the the score's bounds. But the performer has to sharpen their perceptions, and without drawing any particular attention to their interpretation, emphasize the rise and fall of the phrase, the rhythmic syncopations, the harmonic tensions - the thing has to give the appearance of going by itself with no effort, when, paradoxically, that takes the most effort of all. 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.

(turn on 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. The combined ability to procure sheet music more easily with the less time people were willing to practice meant that the stage was set for a new, more simplified kind of music.

And this is not to say that Joplin's music is that easy to play, it's no easier than the slow pieces of Bach and Chopin and Schumann, but they are definitely written with talented amateurs in mind, so that unlike most Liszt or Beethoven, you don't have to practice for four hours every day for a month to master it. They sight read fairly easily, and while you might play a couple wrong notes along the way, they still sound perfectly gorgeous.

(turn off Caruso recording)

Practicing music, particularly on the piano where you ears don't have to imagine any other instrument, is such a completely different experience from listening to it. You hear the music differently, you don't just hear the surface impression of a quick and dirty listen, you're forced to look deeply into every aspect of the composers' craft as you're playing. You don't just experience every change in harmony and the rise and fall of the phrase with your ears as perhaps an unconscious surface impression, you experience it with your whole body, and it becomes an experience impossible to forget. You almost literally become the music. 

It's almost inevitable when speaking about these issues that the commentator will bring up the German musicologist and philosopher, Theodor Adorno, a thinker I am, to say the least, not fond of. But he had an enormous amount to say about this change in listening, and not all of it was stupid. Listen to this passage from 'on popular music.'
(the) listener becomes prone to evince stronger reactions to the part than to the whole. His grasp of the whole does not lie in the living experience of this one concrete piece of music he has followed. The whole is pre-given and pre-accepted, even before the actual experience of the music starts: therefore, it is not likely to influence, to any great extent, the reaction to the details, except to give them varying degrees of emphasis. Details which occupy musically strategic positions in the framework — the beginning of the chorus or its reentrance after the bridge — have a better chance for recognition and favorable reception than details not so situated, for instance, middle bars of the bridge. But this situational nexus never interferes with the scheme itself. To this limited situational extent the detail depends upon the whole. But no stress is ever placed upon the whole as a musical event, nor does the structure of the whole ever depend upon the details.
In plain English what this means is that because we listen more to recordings than we play music itself, we are passive listeners, and therefore far more pre-conditioned to follow a formula of cliches and tropes than we would be if we were immersed in the music, and noticed those little ancillary details that make a piece of music unique. This is absolutely true, but at the same time, it is unfair, and extremely uncharitable to popular music.

What Adorno is describing is not just the condition of popular music in the age of mass reproduction, it is a description of chamber music in the age of the bourgeois parlor. There is little in the world more formulaic than a Chopin miniature, or a Schubert lieder, but just like the best popular songs which have a musical hook by which a great composer can give his unique, ingenious signature that breaks the model of the formula, so can a great songwriter do so in the Age of Popular Music.

(Chopin Winter Wind - Kissin)

That's the Chopin Winter Wind etude played by Yevgeny Kissin, it's such a great piece of music, and even if every detail of it shows a compositional mastery that could only be equalled in his generation by Mendelssohn, what takes this piece from merely fantastic to cosmically great is that first twenty seconds, even if that motif is present throughout the whole piece, what happens at the beginning sets up music we expect to be so different from what happens next that when those cascades begin, it sets up an earthshaking visceral shock, and the shock gives the music enough energy that the piece can last more than three more minutes at that manic tempo and never run out of steam. remember once I took two friends to a concert of the complete Chopin etudes. They were both riveted through the whole thing, or so they told me, for them, that moment must have been a shock. But even for somebody who knew the piece relatively well, I literally had to stop myself from laughing out loud from delight. What makes this work is a concept familiar to every pop musician in the world:

(The Hook by Blues Traveller - 'Cuz The Hook Brings You Back' - no more...)

The 'hook' can be an unexpected chord change when the song hits the chorus, or it can be just a distinctive feature, but either way, the 'hook' is the artist's signature. The artist takes a formula that otherwise might be considered a little bit worn out, and they put their signature upon it, and by doing so, the old bottle is replenished with new wine. What matters in the arts is not originality, what matters is individuality, and even if not always, it's often easier to express your individuality by being a part of a large group through which what's distinctive about you can stand in relief from them. And this is why there has never been a greater piano composer than Chopin. But even if it might be a slight exaggeration to put Joplin in the pantheon right next to Chopin, listen to this piece, the Cascades, and ask yourself where Joplin may have gotten the idea for this piece:


When Cascades was first published in 1904, the cover said 'This is the masterpiece from the King of Ragtime.' Is it Joplin's masterpiece? Maybe, but I think it's both relative clear that Joplin had been playing through Chopin when he wrote it, but also that Joplin was such a strongly individual talent that he found something completely unique to express with almost exactly the same musical effect. In both the cases of Chopin and Joplin, we see that very particular kind of mastery. Composers have been writing three minute pieces for the keyboard for half a millennium, but it takes a very special kind of master to make something so cliched so interesting - just as it takes a Bob Dylan or Tom Waits to remind us what infinities you can conjure from yet another three minute song.

The problem for artists who want to create something completely original as well as individual is that there is almost a guarantee that originality will never appeal to music lovers who are not music obsessives - aka 95% of their audience. In many ways, it's almost harder to create something interesting in the limitations of such a boring formula. The generation of Joplin is also the era of a couple dozen great composers, it's arguable that there has never been a more prolific period for great composers, before or since, whereas music's formal harnesses in the 18th century's second half were so tight that hardly any composers wrote any music we remember at all - there are only three we play regularly, one is Gluck, one is Haydn, and one... is... Mozart! Though not always, the greatest artists are often the ones who can figure out how to individuate themselves within formal structures that so formulaic that they seem designed to kill individuality. If you can figure out a way to make your art sound completely unique while only being able to use a language of cliches, you're a better artist than just about anybody...

Most audiences, who love music perfectly well but don't have a hole in their lives that they need to constantly fill with organized sound; they need the trappings of a musical formula in order to follow the argument of the music. If there aren't long-established tropes along the way that listeners aren't preconditioned to accept, the average listener, who might consider themself to love music dearly, would never be able to understand the music's content - for them it's like trying to understand a conversation in a foreign language. 

For all the great musical debates of the 19th century, there was a series of shared assumptions which propelled them forward and inspired people to debate them so passionately. From the vantage of 2019, the debates about whether opera should be more like Verdi's or Wagner's seem very quaint, the same goes for whether German music should be more like Wagner or Brahms, or whether Russian music should be more like Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. But in the mid-to-late 19th century, classical music was a dominant force in the life of the world that these debates seemed nearly existential to many people. It was all happening within the formulas of opera, and symphonies, and sonatas, that everybody understood. But how will the average lover of Chopin understand this?

Scriabin Etrangete

Chopin is a lot more strange than he seems, but nothing in Chopin compares to the weirdness of Scriabin. This is a piece by Scriabin literally called 'étrangéte', or 'strangeness,' and that's literally the entire piece. So please understand, the differences between these great 19th century composers were almost nothing compared to the differences between composers from the generation of 1900. In 1900, there was not only no musical records, there was also no television and barely any movies at all. As important as we believe music is to us, it meant more to them because there were such fewer options. Even then, it's not like classical music was not an obsession to the majority of the public, it certainly was an obsession to a vast minority. So if a composer like Debussy or Strauss or Scriabin wanted to completely break the formulas of classical music, each of them could count on a decently large public to follow them into their musical innovations, go to their performances, and buy their scores. And if innovative composers like them alienated a huge segment of a potential audience along the way, they didn't care. Like so many bands with cult followings, fans of these composers were that much more passionately devoted because the music was so different.

And from that divorce between composers and the average audience member was gradually created an unmistakable bifurcation that became more and more pronounced over every decade of the 20th century. Classical music went in one direction, popular music went in another. And if the bifurcation now seems weaker than it once did, with lots of rock musicians having classical training and lots of classical composers being more influenced by popular music than they are by the classical canon, it's because popular music has so thoroughly trounced European classical music in the world's love that beloved popular songs are treated now as though they are classical music, while people devoted to classical music pursue it almost as though it's an underground counter-cultural force, seen by the larger public as something that upsets the social fabric. 

And in our society, energized by so much more popular dynamism than Old Europe's, we have now lived through a number of eras in which the tropes of so many different genres have so thoroughly broken down, the later more decadent periods of genre appreciable only to its connoisseurs, while the larger public becomes in thrall to a whole new genre with a wholly different formula. Jazz became blasé by the early fifties, and only connoisseurs followed jazz into acid jazz and hard bop and free jazz. Rock became blasé by the 70s, and only connoisseurs followed rock into prog and metal and punk, and so atomic was the splitting of the rock scene that each sub-genre of rock had a completely different fan base of connoisseurs, and each fan base had enough connoisseurs to sustain their vitality for decades! One could make a similar statement about R&B and soul, and rap too, and the same entropic process is coming for pop, and for hip-hop. It's clearly already begun.

And where is European classical music in all this? It's barely a vestigial tail. It's a relic of affluence so thoroughly mired in the past that entropy will soon demand the sacrifice of major American symphony orchestras, so that all the funding can be released which orchestras suck away from causes with more demonstrable social good. It is now the turn of East Asia's rising powers to preserve this music whose caretaking we can no longer be relied upon to preserve. More Chinese are currently taking piano lessons than the entire population of Germany!

A culture that is trying to work out its own cultural identity will take upon themselves the cultures of older civilizations. At its time of inception, classical music did not seem the stolid thing it is now, it became classical music by a process as dynamic as any other musical genre. At the time of its composition German music, Russian music, French music, and Italian music, were considered extraordinarily different from each other, and some music lovers did not comprehend the classical music traditions of other countries than their own. When operas came to a new country, they had to be translated into the country's language, often cut, and sometimes arias, or songs, were substituted from much more popular operas. It's the same with symphonies - by the mid-19th century everybody agreed on the greatness of Beethoven, but Russians didn't seem to care for Brahms and Germans didn't care for Tchaikovsky. It was only in countries without much classical tradition of their own like England where they both could be appreciated. And that was just a prelude to what came next....

When classical music came to America, it didn't come retail. The distinctions of musical grammar between Italian and German opera did not matter nearly so much in the New World, neither did the distinctions between German art songs and French art songs, or German piano music and Russian piano music. it was all just classical music. And it was played with a kind of respect for the text that it never got in its country of origin. In Berlin, Verdi was sung in German, in Rome, Wagner was sung in Italian. But in America, both were sung in the language the composer intended. 

So now classical music has come to East Asia, and over there, even American popular music is considered classical music. Look at the novels of the most famous East Asian writer of our time, Haruki Murakami - dozens and dozens of pages with digressions on music, a third jazz, a third rock, and a third classical, and to Murakami, there seems to be little meaningful distinction between them. And meanwhile, slowly but surely, East Asia is developing a modern musical identity of its own, and one day will have their own canon of music that seems popular today but will be 'classified' in due time.

And what are these students and amateurs learning to play? Well, of course they're learning to play Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, but they're also learning to play Duke Ellington, and Bill Evans, and Oscar Peterson, and Art Tatum, and Thelonius Monk, and David Brubeck, and Bud Powell, and of course, Scott Joplin.... Not to mention Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder, and The Beatles, and David Bowie, and Bruce Springsteen, and (oh my god...) Billy Joel...

But just as Bach is the bread and butter of the European canon, the secure foundation from which all those later glories spring, Scott Joplin has that pride of place in American music. And just as, if a piano student wants to be serious about classical music, the first advanced pieces he learns are by Bach, I would venture any amount of money that if an East Asian piano student wants to learn American music, he starts by playing Scott Joplin.

Scott Joplin is the origin point, the river mouth, of music that sounds unmistakably American. Bach was the moment when the foundation of music ceased to be counterpoint and became harmony, but Joplin was the moment when music's foundation ceased to be harmony and became rhythm.

(Play Elite Syncopations Piano Roll)

That is the Elite Syncopations Rag. It may not sound it, but that has to be a tremendously difficult piece to play. I do not want to be the pianist trying to coordinate those rhythms, which in their own way are as tricky as anything in Charlie Parker. That was piano roll of Scott Joplin playing himself - an early 20th century technology in which made it seem as though the pianist himself was playing your parlor room piano, unbeaten as a technology for piano music until the LP record.

There's not a single Joplin rag more than 68 bars long, but they are not easy pieces to play. The whole point of ragtime is that the left hand stays absolutely consistent eighth-note lengths while the right hand plays every conceivable rhythmic variation around it. I'm a violinist who can fool around on the piano ever so slightly, but I don't dare try playing Joplin. The required skill set is completely antithetical to a violinist's who, almost by definition, can only play one rhythm at a time. The people who were truly simple in their musical tastes never went for Joplin, they either wanted to hear composers of much simpler rags, and there were plenty at the time, or they simply played other genres, much less challenging genres of popular song. Joplin's music was not pitched to the truly highbrow the way Strauss and Debussy were, but he was certainly not lowbrow or even middlebrow - he wrote music for a kind of upper-middlebrow, plenty of popular appeal, but designed for the layman who was up for a real challenge.

And like so much upper-middle-brow culture of our time, there is a kind of code-speak in Joplin. Think of so many movies we love - think of how Pixar movies seem so cheery on the surface but are so dark beneath them. Think of how shows like Parks and Recreation or The Office can be seen to be just straightforward enjoyable stories, but can also be watched as allegories for life in Modern America. That's what's happening in a composer like Joplin. On the surface, it's ebullient and the perfect dance music for a turn-of-the-century brothel, but beneath the surface there are these aching harmonies that sing with a dark yearning. The Germans probably call it sehnsucht - Germans have a word for everything of course... It's simultaneously incredibly extraverted, rhythmic music, and at the same time incredibly introverted music, grounded in harmony, and like Mozart, Joplin reconciles these two sides of his musical personality in perfect balance so that the music is simultaneously happy and sad.

Just listen to the B-section of his Mexican serenade: Solace, in Joplin's own performance. I've heard a lot of people criticize this piano roll, saying that it's much too fast. But Joplin's score says that it should be in a very slow march tempo, play it any slower than this, and it's no longer a dance at all. Joplin calls it a Mexican Serenade because it's based on the Mexican Habanera rhythm - slightly different from the Spanish Habanera in Carmen but similar, and at this tempo, you can certainly dance to it.

(Joplin playing Solace)

But the thing about Joplin's playing is that he wrote all sorts of tempo markings into the score of this piece that he didn't play. Regardless of the tempo itself, if we're to go by the score, this is not how he meant for this piece to sound at all. I think you see what I mean, but now listen to the same passage played by Joshua Rifkin. Regardless of Rifkin's tempo, which is probably too slow, Rifkin plays Joplin's scores utterly straight, no chaser. But if you were to listen to Rifkin in this piece alone, you'd believe that it was Rifkin taking musical license while Joplin was the one playing exactly what he wrote, when it's completely the other way around!

(Rifkin playing Solace)

That sounds so much like Schumann's Träumerei that I have a hard time believing Joplin didn't mean it as a kind of tribute to Schumann. 

Schumann Träumerei - Kempff

So I propose that Joplin's piano rags were intentionally written with those two completely different uses in mind. On the one hand, you can play them in an extraverted, rambunctious style, for use within the smoke-filled tavern and burlesque house and dance hall, where the music is meant as a lubricant both social and otherwise to keep the good times rolling; perhaps the way a piano bar still is today, where the music was played at extremely peppy tempos (to use slang of Joplin's own time), and 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. 

The other way of playing Joplin is the introverted, private use, where amateur musicians could learn the music at a slow speed in their parlor, and savor the aching harmonic poignancy. The kind of piece daughters play that bring their fathers to tears. In other words, something much much more respectable than Ragtime or popular music was ever thought to be.

Beneath the noise and rhythm is an explosive spiritual darkness in Joplin, just as there is in Bach and Mozart. Do not let the ebullience fool you. Some enjoyable music is exactly as happy as it seems on the surface. Not Joplin, and just in case you still can't hear it, listen to this absolutely extraordinary passage from The Sting soundtrack, where Marvin Hamlisch slows down a segment of Solace to what I have to guess is one third the speed, and he orchestrates it for brass. This doesn't sound like Schumann, this sounds like Mahler!

The Sting - Luther (start fading out at 2:45)

It's technically in F-major, but at this speed you hear the relative minor, the D-minor threatening at every instant to take it over. There is no mistaking the despair in those harmonies. It may be a very American despair that strives to stay optimistic in the worst circumstances, but you can't not hear that desperation. This is not emotional immaturity, this is the despair captured by the old masters of every art form.

This was Scott Joplin's great ambition for his music; to be recognized as classical music on par with the great masters. When Joplin first moved from his parents' home in Texarkana to the prosperous black community of Sedalia, Missouri around 1897 when he was twenty-nine, he began taking lessons with a German choral conductor in the area named Alfred Ernst who saw the gigantic potential of Joplin and encouraged it.

But Joplin was not a European musician, it would have run completely contrary to his natural talents to make him write symphonies and operas, and frankly, his one work for the theater, the opera Tremonisha, is not, at least in my opinion, nearly as interesting as his piano music. It's like asking Chopin to write an opera. Why would he have when he wrote such cosmic piano music?



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.

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