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.

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.

Softly

Morton Feldman.

In September 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.

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 on 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; unfortunately, the Bowerbird website appears to be under construction or re-construction, and there’s little additional information available. If you’re interested, I suggest you email Bowerbird directly at music@bowerbird.org.

Marilyn and Stephen then will hop the northbound Acela for Softly: Music of Morton Feldman, a mini-celebration of Feldman’s music and career, at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse on 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.

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.

Books on the bedside table

Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast by Bruce Bastin (University of Illinois Press, 1986 [hc]; 1995 [pb]) claims to be, according to the book jacket, the “definitive story of the origin and evolution of the American blues tradition.” Well, it’s not quite that, but certainly it’s among the best historical introductions to the Piedmont Blues tradition. Working with folklorist Peter B. Lowry, Bastin undertook a years-long investigation into the history and the then-current status of the Piedmont Blues; in the book, chapters are devoted to Georgia blues pianists, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Gary Davis, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, among many others. Bastin’s attempt to be comprehensive can lead to longueurs, and his prose lacks the sparkle of Sam Charters and Robert Palmer at times, but on the whole it’s indispensable.

Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer by Henry Nash Smith (Harvard University Press, 1962 [hc]; Atheneum, 1972 [pb]) was one of the first books to focus exclusively on Twain’s development as a writer rather than his colorful biography, with chapters on most of Twain’s major novels, speeches, and short fictions. What’s especially interesting is Smith’s description of Twain’s use of the American vernacular as it emerged from The Innocents Abroad all the way through A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court and his ongoing experiments with the novel form (something lacking in the continuing critical dialogue about Twain’s work even today).

The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (Little, Brown and Company, 1997 [hc]; Back Bay Books, 1998 [pb]) is the go-to compilation of Crumb’s early- to mid-career achievements. Those who are only familiar with the Terry Zwigoff documentary about the cartoonist may be disappointed; as Ty Burr wrote in an essay about the book for the New York Times:

Where’s the wacky, dysfunctional family circus, the suicidal older brother upstairs, the younger brother on a bed of nails in an S.R.O. hotel, the carnal comedy of Crumb’s ex-girlfriends discoursing on his sexual dimensions?

They’re all merely alluded to in passing, and that is precisely the point. … [The] slick, often astoundingly funny 250-page compendium does make a case — up to a point — for Mr. Crumb as an unparalleled craftsman, social critic, sexual obsessive, blues freak, fly-on-the-wall of the 60’s and perhaps the most potent cultural curmudgeon since H. L. Mencken.

Going through this book (and The Weirdo Years, which picks up chronologically where the Coffee Table Art Book leaves off), I think an even stronger case can be made that Crumb is, in many ways, today’s Mark Twain. Like Twain, Crumb’s vocabulary is distinctly American; both artists evince an ambiguous nostalgia for a past that may be just corrupt as the present but which appeals more to their temperaments than our current culture; and both twist the cultural forms in which their work appears (the boy’s book and pastoral romance in Twain’s case; the comic book in Crumb’s) to expand the possibilities of those chosen forms, turning those vehicles for popular culture into bizarre, idiosyncratic satiric visions of the society in which they live. Crumb is not unlike Twain — with the sex added.

Blind Boy Fuller: “Truckin’ My Blues Away”

Blind Boy Fuller by R. Crumb.

Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen, 1904?-1941) was one of the most exemplary musicians of the Piedmont Blues style, influenced by the granddaddy of the style, Blind Blake, among others. Among Piedmont Blues artists he may have had the most unusual influence on popular culture, contributing the phrase “Keep On Truckin'” to American lingo in the late 1960s (via R. Crumb, who also drew the portrait at right and the record cover below), as well as the title of the Rolling Stones album “Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out” through his 1938 recording “Get Your Ya Yas Out” (which, it seems to me, is more grammatically correct anyway). Jas Obrecht put together this comprehensive biography and appreciation in 2011.

The Piedmont style is most evident in Fuller’s light, syncopated finger-style picking. He was “one of the most popular [Piedmont Blues singers of his time] with rural African Americans,” says the Wikipedia page devoted to his life and work. It goes on:

Fuller recorded over 120 sides, which were released by several labels. His style of singing was rough and direct, and his lyrics were explicit and uninhibited, drawing on every aspect of his experience as an underprivileged, blind black man on the streets — pawnshops, jailhouses, sickness, death — with an honesty that lacked sentimentality. Although he was not sophisticated, his artistry as a folk singer lay in the honesty and integrity of his self-expression. His songs expressed desire, love, jealousy, disappointment, menace and humor. … Because of his popularity, he may have been overexposed on records, but most of his songs stayed close to tradition, and much of his repertoire and style is kept alive by other Piedmont artists to this day.

In New York in 1936, Fuller recorded “Truckin’ My Blues Away,” one of his most memorable tracks, which gave rise to “Keep On Truckin’.” It also lends its name to this 1991 Yazoo compilation album.