Paul Nauert: Memory and Music

Paul Nauert (1966-2019)

My lovely wife Marilyn Nonken will present Paul Nauert: Memory and Music (1966-2019), a tribute to the composer who passed away earlier this year, at Spectrum in Brooklyn on Sunday, October 27. (She’ll be presenting the same program at Brandeis University on October 19.) Her program features music written specifically for Marilyn by Nauert and his friends and acquaintances, along with “farewell pieces” by other composers. It will include:

  • Olivier Messiaen: Cloches d’angoisses et larmes d’adieu (1929)
  • Richard Carrick: La touche sonore sous l’eau (2015)
  • Yu-Hui Chang: Lonebird (2006)
  • Eric Chasalow: A Solution in Search of a Problem (2015)
  • David Rakowski: Billie Sizzle (2013), Solid Goldie (2009) (these two etudes were written specifically for our daughters)
  • Paul Nauert: Episodes & Elegies (2010)
  • Michael Levinas: Les larmes des sons (2012)

You can read a brief obituary about Paul Nauert at the Columbia University web site.

I was honored to attend the premiere of Episodes & Elegies when Marilyn (for whom it was written) performed it at NYU in 2011. The composer was in attendance. By then, Nauert had been living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) for two years and was confined to a wheelchair. The diagnosis had a profound effect on Nauert’s compositional style. He wrote:

My music changed in response to the disease. I explored new ideas, new techniques, and points of contact with other music I love (Mel Powell, Harrison Birtwistle—J.S. Bach, in far more abstract terms) out of a sense that these things couldn’t be postponed until later. My customary algorithmic techniques gave way to more intuitive processes, and elaborate compositional designs were replaced by patterns I could retain fully in my memory, as the physical act of composition grew slower, and as my external workspace became limited to my view of the computer screen positioned in front of my eyes by an assistant. No more sketching on paper!

In the album notes for A Distant Music, Amy Sohn continued:

Nauert was impressed with what he has called Nonken’s fearlessness “in the face of complex rhythms and finger-tangling passage work,” and as a result, he wrote “an uncharacteristically dense and extroverted score.” For the new piece, Nauert placed a greater emphasis on lyrical writing, in order to highlight Nonken’s “equally brilliant abilities as a colorist”—while sacrificing none of the virtuosic demands of the earlier work. Episodes and Elegies, Nauert writes, “is structured around two relatively somber elegies. The first of these is spun out of long, expressive lines, and it suggests a mood of quiet resignation. The second is pieced together from much more fragmentary material, and it offers glimpses of anger and defiance. Four shorter and generally livelier episodes are distributed before and between the two elegies, and a prologue and epilogue frame the entire cycle. These shorter movements often play with different rates of pulsation and with contrasting textures and types of keyboard figuration.”

Spectrum has no advance ticket sales; tickets will be available at the door on the evening of the performance, which begins at 7:00 p.m. It’s located at 70 Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn.

Below, Marilyn plays Elegy I from Nauert’s Episodes & Elegies, which she recorded for his album A Distant Music. Amy Beal’s full album notes can be found here.

Forward into the past

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America,” a glicee print of which hangs on the wall of my apartment.

Later this week I’ll be resuming my guitar lessons, about which I first wrote here. I seem to be heading forward into the past as I get older, and not my own past either, but much further back. My enthusiasm for ragtime and Piedmont blues as well as other early American music appears to tie together with my newfound enthusiasm for Mark Twain and even that archaic writing instrument the pencil. I suppose I can be faulted for being out of touch with my times. “They say Wilder is out of touch with his times,” director Billy Wilder once said of himself. “Frankly, I regard it as a compliment. Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?”

You can read more about Piedmont blues in Samuel Charters’ classic study of this music, The Country Blues. A few years back, PBS aired the below documentary about the style.

A toast to … Leon Redbone

This week I delighted in my daughters’ first launch into the field of nihilistic satire, then explained how it probably had a genetic origin.

Anybody who is aware of Leon Redbone is by this time similarly aware that the musician “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore” yesterday morning. I don’t have much to add to the obituaries and appreciations that have been appearing here and there (especially Megan Pugh’s exemplary profile of Redbone that appeared in March in the Oxford American). Two things worth noting, though: First, that Redbone was himself an anti-celebrity, whose self-conscious eccentricities served solely to foreground the early American music that seemed to be the love of his life; it’s a rare thing. Second, there is a vibrant if small subculture of other American musicians who are doing their best to keep this kind of music alive; Redbone was far from alone, if he was the most visible representative of this subculture. I recommend checking out these fine people.

Social media and the internet are littered with Redbone clips and tributes, so instead I offer something in his memory that I hope would meet with his approval, Laurel and Hardy’s performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” one of Redbone’s signature songs, from their 1939 film The Flying Deuces; it’s a charming two-and-a-half minutes from the past, featuring Stan’s light and loose-limbed dance and Ollie’s very pleasant Georgia baritone. I’ll be lifting my glass to Mr. Redbone and Messrs. Laurel and Hardy at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there.

Remembering Scott Joplin

Joplin, who died penniless in an asylum on Wards Island, shares his grave with two others; the grave was unmarked for nearly 60 years. Credit: Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times.

Ragtime composer Scott Joplin is buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, and this Saturday, May 18, he’ll be remembered at his gravesite with a memorial concert and barbeque. The event, a 15-year tradition, begins at 2:00 p.m. and is free and open to the public. More information can be found in this flyer.

Joplin biographer Ed Berlin, who helps to organize the event, will give a pre-concert talk about the transition from ragtime to jazz in the St. Michael’s chapel on the cemetery grounds. Berlin was also present at last year’s memorial, which was covered by the New York Times.

 

Less than zero

Waiting for me at home: The Yamaha FG800.

Older forms of popular music never die; they just get festivals built around them. The 33rd annual Carolina Blues Festival, presented by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, kicks off in Greensboro, NC, on May 18, and the annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will be held in just a few weeks in the birthplace of classical ragtime, Sedalia, MO, beginning on May 29. They also become enthusiasms for cranky individuals like myself. (See here and here, for example.) A few years ago Marilyn gave me an acoustic guitar, hoping to encourage me to take a more personal and practical interest in this music, and since then I’ve tried to get myself up to speed so that I could play at least some of it myself. It’s been hard to find the time to practice, alas, which I confess I regret.

Taking up the guitar in my mid-50s has been accompanied by a series of challenges, many of them time-oriented but some of them somewhat psychological as well. Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus published Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, a memoir of sorts about learning the guitar as an adult, in 2012. Marcus set out to discover whether the brain (specifically his own 38-year-old brain) remained plastic enough to acquire the knowledge necessary for developing musical or linguistic skills past childhood, the optimal age for beginning musical and foreign language education. I haven’t read the book, but it seems that, by the end of his project, he was unembarrassed enough to be able to play the guitar in public.

And good for him. But I’m 20 years older than Marcus was when he picked up a guitar again for the first time, as the saying goes. And I have my doubts that I’ll ever be able to play the Piedmont-style kind of ragtime guitar that I most enjoy. Piedmont blues grew out of ragtime; as the Wikipedia page for the music helpfully summarizes:

Piedmont blues (also known as East Coast, or Southeastern blues) refers primarily to a guitar style, the Piedmont fingerstyle, which is characterized by a fingerpicking approach in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others. The result is comparable in sound to ragtime or stride piano styles. … What was particular to the Piedmont was that a generation of players adapted these older, ragtime-based techniques to blues in a singular and popular fashion, influenced by guitarists such as Blind Blake and Gary Davis.

As much as I enjoy listening to this music, it’s also primarily a music to be enjoyed in live performance. Ragtime primarily circulated and was disseminated through sheet music and, less commonly, piano rolls; although the Piedmont blues became popular some years later via recordings and radio, it remained primarily acoustic in an age when musicians were increasingly going electric. This — and the fact that the music was often taught, performed, and shared in more intimate community venues, such as living rooms and front porches — meant that live performance is perhaps the best, and in some cases the only, way to enjoy this music, both in its performance and as an audience. All music creates particular soundworlds. Ragtime and Piedmont blues styles create a soundworld of plain elegance and often melancholy; of simple joys and more complex hesitations. Not a bad soundworld, these days, for someone like me to live in.

I don’t get to either Sedalia or Greensboro very often. Fortunately here in New York there’s the year-round offerings of Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music. And I have lessons every once in a long while with an excellent teacher. But listening to more and more of this music these days inspires me to step up my game a little bit, and writing this post, too, is a way of encouraging me to learn the guitar with a little more attention and constancy. Malcolm Gladwell thinks I have to spend 10,000 hours before I become genuinely adept at playing this kind of music. But if I practice often enough, maybe I’ll be able to become a little better than zero. At least I’ll be trying.