Friday music: Heliotrope Bouquet

Ragtime music deserves a reconsideration from both historical and musicological perspectives. It was last seriously considered in the early 1970s partly as a result of Joshua Rifkin’s pioneering recordings and Marvin Hamlisch’s use of the music for the soundtrack of The Sting, but that was nearly fifty years ago. Surely there’s more to be said about and through this music. Certainly it has a claim to be the first genuinely American concert music, and though there’s a lot of it, it’s not nearly as homogenous as one might think, any more than the dozens of songs by Schubert and Brahms are homogenous. Its greatest composers, among them Scott Joplin, married an American sensibility to European forms, straddling both popular and art music. Historically it forms a bridge between the concertizing and compositions of musicians like Blind Tom and early American jazz and especially Piedmont Blues. I also find that its popularity coinciding with the last decade of Mark Twain’s life, another American original, is particularly evocative.

Rifkin’s interpretations of the 1970s are still influential, but they’re almost a half-century old. More recently Joplin has been better served by a deeply researched recording of Treemonisha from Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, released in 2011 by New World Records. It had been best known before then in Gunther Schuller’s version presented by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976; Benjamin’s research revealed that Schuller had taken considerable liberties with the score and probable original orchestration. Gramophone said about the release:

This set is the culmination of two decades of research, social anthropology and painstaking forensic reconstruction. And I can’t think of a more worthwhile task — musical archaeology that needed doing — than rescuing Joplin’s sole surviving opera from obscurity and misunderstandings, some well-meaning, others inexplicably stupid and sloppy. Understanding Treemonisha is not just about hearing Joplin’s achievements in the round; it’s about gaining a proper understanding of black culture during that historically nebulous period when jazz was in its baroque infancy. … Benjamin’s light-on-its-feet orchestration fits the music: genteel melodic lines swim like fish through pure water. … For a composer expert in “closed form” — harmonic ambiguity overrode ragtime’s rigid 16-bar phrases to flat-pack the structure into itself — the wonder of Treemonisha is Joplin’s flair for dramatic trajectory, the intensity of thematic development making his writing spring eternal. This is the most important document about the history of American composed music to have appeared in a long, long time. …


After listening to Benjamin, the failings of Gunther Schuller’s 1975 DG recording become immediately obvious. Schuller’s glutinous orchestration is pitched somewhere between Falstaff and Oklahoma!, with some harmonies discreetly swung “jazzwards” in a desperate attempt to clinch Treemonisha as a proto-Porgy and Bess. Benjamin’s orchestrations, modelled after a smattering of surviving Joplin orchestrations and period orchestral primers, were made for his own 12-piece Paragon Ragtime Orchestra: one instrument to a part, cornets instead of trumpets, authentic antique percussion instruments.

Philip Clark, Gramophone

A reconsideration of Joplin’s music — and ragtime music generally — might be a worthwhile task today as well: more musical archaeology that needs doing.

Marilyn Nonken will make a first few steps towards that reconsideration next May, when she performs Joplin’s “Bethena” on a program with Charles Ives’ “Concord” sonata at St. Bart’s. For now — and as an indication of the variety and delight of ragtime music — below you’ll find Rifkin’s performance of “Heliotrope Bouquet” (1907) by Joplin and Louis Chauvin.

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle

Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge in Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle.

It was only a matter of time before Steve Coogan’s feckless, tactless TV/radio personality Alan Partridge found himself in a mockumentary, and so he did two years ago. Once again seeking some kind of redemption and fame, Partridge abandoned his DJ duties to produce, executive produce (not sure what the difference is there except for an extra credit, but never mind), co-direct, and appear in Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle, a one-hour portrait of a divided Britain in 2016, in which all of his unnerving, annoying traits were on full display — arrogance, ignorance, preening self-importance, cowardice, racism, sexism, you name it — as he investigated the haves and have-nots (or, as Partridge would have it, the “haven’ts”) who populated a country he found in “schasm.”

Partridge has remained a mainstay of British comedy culture since he first emerged as a sports presenter on the BBC comedy program On the Hour in 1991; since then, Coogan has steered the character through a variety of radio shows, television comedies, and even in 2013 a feature film, Alpha Papa (co-authored by Armando Iannucci, director of last year’s great The Death of Stalin and a long-time Coogan collaborator, especially on the Partridge shows). Although Coogan has succeeded stateside with films like 24 Hour Party People and Philomena, the latter of which he co-authored and in which he starred with Judi Dench (the film received four Academy Award nominations in 2014, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay), Partridge has never caught on with Americans. Although some of this may be due to British-specific cultural references, I also suspect that Partridge cuts too close to the bone; his vices are fairly unrelieved by any virtues. The British are much better at creating comic characters like this than Americans, witness the likes of Basil Fawlty and David Brent. But in Scissored Isle, Coogan pulls off the somewhat magical feat of making a cutting social commentary while parodying social commentaries — and you don’t need to be British to recognize it.

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle won two BAFTA TV Awards in 2017 (for Best Male Performance in a Comedy Programme and Best Writer), as well as an International Emmy Award for Best Comedy that same year. You can see the entire program below; it’s worth your time. (The OED, by the way, defines “chav” as a derogatory term referring to “a young lower-class person who displays brash and loutish behaviour and wears real or imitation designer clothes”; it’s derived from the term “Council House affiliated Vermin.” You’ll want to know that in a minute or two.)

Roundup: Eliot and Feldman

This week I enjoyed listening to Jeremy Irons read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets; the next day I made a few observations about Eliot’s poem and the music of Morton Feldman, a small festival of which is being produced this weekend. Tonight I’ll be at Triadic Memories and will necessarily forgo my usual Friday session at Cafe Katja; see you next week.

This weekend: Morton Feldman and Softly

Morton Feldman.

Beginning tonight, Morton Feldman, perhaps the greatest American composer of the twentieth century, will be stealing in and out of Philadelphia and New York, courtesy of Marilyn Nonken and friends. I most recently published this short item about Feldman, and New Yorker music critic Alex Ross threw a spotlight on the New York festival earlier this week.

At Philly’s University Lutheran Church (3637 Chestnut Street in University City), Marilyn will be joining Stephen Marotto for a performance of Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981) at 8.00pm tonight, Thursday, September 13; they performed Patterns earlier this year at St. Bart’s in New York. The concert is being presented by the Bowerbird outfit; tickets are available for tonight’s performance here.

Marilyn and Stephen will then speed north for Softly: Music of Morton Feldman, a mini-celebration of Feldman’s music and career, at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse this weekend, September 14 and 15. On Friday, September 14, at 8.00pm, Marilyn will be reprising her astonishing interpretation of Feldman’s lengthy piano solo Triadic Memories (1981; available on Mode Records). The next day, Saturday, September 15, a variety of performers will present a program of Some of Feldman’s Smaller Pieces, including “Four songs to e e cummings” and “Viola in My Life 3,” at 3.00pm; filmmaker Zahra Partovi will screen and discuss “Some Short Films About Feldman” at 5.00pm; then, after dinner, Steve and Marilyn clamber onto the small Provincetown stage for an encore performance of Patterns at 8.00pm.

Feldman’s music of the 1980s, especially Triadic Memories and Patterns, leads to a few timely thoughts about this music and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which I wrote about yesterday. Both artists most explicitly explore time, duration, and decay in works that hover between the secular and the sacred. Eliot in Four Quartets attempted to map this middle ground between the commonplace and the metaphysical (a trait he shared with several poets of the 17th century), doubting the ability of words themselves to express the search for salvation and the incarnation of the spirit in the flesh, while Feldman in Triadic Memories and in Patterns emphasized not the attack but the decay of the expression of a musical tone. In these long works, Eliot and Feldman require not intellectual concentration but active contemplation from the reader and the listener; the attempts at meaning are woven from discrete words and sounds into more complex arrangements of word and sound that only emerge gradually. At first these discrete words and sounds seem almost arbitrary, but over time and duration — and only over time and duration — they reveal their transcendental possibilities. This is not unique or innovative in the history of either poetry or music. One can turn to those metaphysical poets like George Herbert and John Donne or to composers like Machaut or Bach for similar endeavors. But both Eliot and Feldman are working in an entirely different culture, which requires new approaches to language and tonality — affected not least by a self-consciousness of poet/composer, audience, and listener that comes in more contemporary, secular forms than in the 16th and 17th centuries. It could simplistically be said that those centuries knew God and that the 20th century does not, at least in the wake of the world wars that undermined the Enlightenment confidence in science and rationality, and that to come to this knowledge requires new avenues of aesthetic experience. In short, Eliot and Feldman both create environments for this contemplation for the listener. How appropriate, then, that Feldman often finds himself in churches (the Philadelphia performance of Patterns will take place at a church, as its New York performance took place at St. Bart’s), and Eliot finds himself acceding to the Anglican Christian tradition.

The New York performances are free and open to the public, but seating is limited — and seats will go fast. More information at the web site for Softly and the Facebook page for the festival. We’ll see you there.

Jeremy Irons reads T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”

Jeremy Irons.

Perhaps as a result of the books currently on my nightstand (see at right), I’m drawn to T.S. Eliot’s late masterpiece Four Quartets lately. Eliot is one of the subjects of Alan Jacobs‘ recent book — which is in many ways quite fine, and I do hope to write about it before too long — and somehow his spirit hovers over Leszek Kolakowski‘s elegant essays as well.

A few years ago, Jeremy Irons recorded Four Quartets for the BBC (along with many of his other poems; Faber & Faber recently released this CD of those readings). That recording can be heard below.