Tonight: Some perfect truths

Tonight at 8:00 Eastern time, Jeffrey Swann and my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken will team up for “Perfect Truths,” a concert that is part of the NYU Steinhardt Beethoven the Contemporary festival. Jeffrey will sit down in the university’s Black Box Theater to perform Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 106 (the “Hammerklavier”); then he’ll abandon the bench to make room for Marilyn’s performance of the landmark American sonata by Charles Ives, the Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.” Beethoven’s 1818 sonata is considered one of the most technically demanding of the composer’s solo piano compositions, and Ives’ 1915 composition (published in a revised version in 1947), a veritable though highly idiosyncratic catalogue of American musical forms, is no less complex; so complex, in fact, that Ives himself “introduced” the work with the book-length Essays Before a Sonata in 1920.

The concert will be available beginning at 8:00 p.m. at this page and will be available for re-streaming following its debut. It’s free.

Goin’ down to the river some day

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, if only because there hasn’t been much to report. We are careening into the new year with light at the end of the tunnel but, if the virus experts are right, with the tunnel buckling just as we’re getting to the exit. We’re somewhere near the bottom tier of those expected to get the vaccine over the next six months, so the winter will be … well, whatever the common cliché is. It has rendered me even more taciturn than usual; my three regular readers have been patient, so thank you.

On the other hand, there are ways to get through the night. As a part of my readers’ reward for their patience, I note that the latest issue (#39) of Mineshaft magazine was released earlier this fall, and I suggest you get a copy now. I also know that a few Mineshaft contributors may wish to join me in revisiting the fine Hoagy Carmichael song “Washboard Blues,” originally recorded by RCA Victor in 1927 with Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra,  Carmichael soloing on vocals and piano. Carmichael was then 28 and at the start of a long career (perhaps he is best known as “Cricket” in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not), during which Carmichael contributed several songs to the American popular music pantheon, not least “Stardust” (which Carmichael recorded just before “Washboard Blues”), “Georgia on My Mind,” “Rocking Chair” (a personal favorite), “Two Sleepy People,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

“Washboard Blues” is a characteristic Carmichael composition: eccentric and vernacular. An anonymous Wikipedian wrote, “Though the verse, chorus, and bridge pattern is present, the effect of the song is of one long, cohesive melodic line with a dramatic shifting of tempo. The cohesiveness of the long melody perfectly matches the lyrical description of the crushing fatigue resulting from the repetitious work of washing clothes under primitive conditions.” One must, at this late date, overlook the dialect in which the lyrics were written by Fred B. Callaghan, but catch the midwestern air of Carmichael’s half-mumbled half-wailing high-baritone-almost-tenor lament. The below is not the Whiteman recording, but a solo recording released some years later, and more haunting for all that. If you haven’t heard it before, you’re in for a treat. Enjoy this; and I’ll hope to be back soon.

A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!

Last days of summer

The final days of summer — a long summer — are upon us, and glancing over the past few months, I find they’ve been not been spent poorly. My own corona malaise therapy has consisted of Mark Twain (I just finished The Prince and the Pauper, a fine tale for children of all ages), Scott Joplin (my wife has taken up my encouragement to study a few of his compositions to offer on a possible program or recording), and my children (guiding them through what has been a difficult season for all of us; so far, so good). In New York, we look forward with some trepidation to the fall: a few days of school a week at most, and I continue to work from home. I admit this has not been a productive time, an admission to which the lack of new posts on this blog should be adequate testimony. But onward, ever onward, if not often upward.

In the meantime, a little news from the usual suspects that I’d like to share. Tomorrow night Christoph Mueller, who’s been a frequent subject of these posts, will celebrate the opening of Matters of Mind, a retrospective of his work at the Ludwig Forum in his home town of Aachen, Germany. Alas, I will be unable to attend this feast of original artwork and painstakingly constructed miniatures of Sassafras County’s Green Valley in the early 20th century (a town reminiscent, perhaps, of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio), but anyone on the continent who finds themselves on the westernmost edge of Germany through January 10 of next year, when the exhibition closes, may wish to drop in. More information on the exhibition can be found here; he is also contributing the cover art to the next issue of the fine Mineshaft magazine, due in the next month or two.

Another Mineshaft contributor, R. Crumb, may be looking forward to the publication of Crumb’s World in January 2021, a catalogue that documents the fine exhibition of the artist’s work at the David Zwirner Gallery last year. (I originally wrote about it for this blog, but alas the short essay has gone rambling off.) Curator Robert Storr provides essays about Crumb’s career, setting much of this sometimes difficult work in the context of the culture in which Crumb found himself. Speaking of which, Crumb’s opinion of the current GOP candidate can be found here.

Mr. Crumb plays a mean ukelele, which itself can be heard on Live at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Vol. 1 from Eden and John’s East River String Band. Just out on both CD and vinyl, this brand new release features the best of their live performances at the Jalopy Theater over the past decade; Crumb, Eden, and John are joined by a variety of other excellent musicians, such as Ernesto Gomez, Pat Conte, Dom Flemons, Eli Smith, Walker Shepard, Geoff Wiley, and Jackson Lynch. The vinyl goes for about 24 smackeroos, the CD for about half that. I’ll be ordering this when the next paycheck comes in, but in the meantime I can keep up with John Heneghan through his highly recommendable John’s Old Time Radio Show. I first wrote about the ERSB here.

Tuesday music: Wall Street Rag

About “Wall Street Rag” (1909), from Edward A. Berlin’s King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (Oxford University Press; second edition, 2016):

“Wall Street Rag” [is] a piece that refers to the Wall Street Panic of 1907, and may reflect on employment he reportedly had at the time. … Joplin may have personally observed the distress of Wall Street workers as, according to unconfirmed, but plausible, information, he had been playing piano in a restaurant in New York’s financial district, possibly Fraunces Tavern, at 54 Pearl Street, the historic site where George Washington made his farewell address to his officers. …

“Wall Street Rag” is a highly unusual work. First, it has a programmatic narrative that assigns a different mood to each of the four strains:

A–Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy
B–Good times coming
C–Good times have come
D–Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares

Modest as this narrative is, it reveals several points about Joplin’s perception of ragtime: not all ragtime is “genuine”; only the African American creation is authentic; and genuine ragtime is a happy music, endowed with the power to alter moods.

The program indicates that the piece should begin in a melancholy mood. The obvious musical device to suggest melancholy is the minor mode, but Joplin avoids the obvious. Instead, while in the usually “happy” key of C major, he introduces modal ambiguities and dissonances. Over a C pedal point he presents tonal vagueness with diminished chords, a prominent repetition of the dissonant and tonally ambiguous tritone interval of C–F-sharp, and a suggestion of the minor mode with a flatted sixth degree of A-flat. The final strain is dominated by unprecedented dissonances. These are off-beat discordances — at times, actually tone clusters — placed in a high register. The programmatic intent is probably to suggest the twanging sound of ragtime banjo strumming.

Below, William Appling performs “Wall Street Rag,” from this important collection.