Butterflies in captivity

Morton Feldman once described his monumental Triadic Memories as “the biggest butterfly in captivity.” My lovely wife Marilyn Nonken recorded it several years ago for Mode Records, so it seemed appropriate for the Washington Post‘s Michael Andor Brodeur to ask her for her opinion on what Feldman’s music might mean to us during the current scare, when we’re all in some kind of captivity:

For Nonken, the power of Feldman’s music comes from the tension he generates between regularity and instability (sound familiar?), and his reluctance to suggest narrative through “artificial resolution.”

“The drama,” she says over Zoom, “is how is that instability going to manifest itself? When is it going to rupture? How is it going to rupture?” Indeed, you can be 80 minutes into a Feldman piece before something happens, in the traditional sense of things happening. Nonken compares the journey to a long hike that ends at a grand vista. …

“The monotony of these days,” Nonken says, “day in and day out, there’s a repetitiveness. We’re waiting for something to happen and we’re not quite sure what it is. Small details take on incredible significance.”

Mode will release her and Stephen Marotto’s performance of Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field later this year. In the meantime, you can read all of the Washington Post story — which also includes interviews with Marotto and other seasoned Feldman aficianadoes — here.

Air of melancholy

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted here — I suppose that the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak, especially working all day from home with the kids in what is laughingly called “school” and the better half also at work all day in a 1,200-square-foot space on the Lower East Side. Instead, in what little spare time remains, I’ve been amusing myself as I’ve had to. In a sense, I suppose, we all need some kind of escape from the stresses and tensions of the period.

In New York, this isn’t easy at the best of times, but I’ve tried. I’ve gotten a lot of reading done on the weekends. Catch-22 remains perhaps more relevant than ever (there’s more than one way to “raise the number of combat missions”; a pandemic and enforced isolation are two); Mark Twain remains a comfort as well, with Pudd’nhead Wilson in the outbox and A Tramp Abroad on the bedside table (nothing like late Twain to confirm one’s cynicism about the culture and the race); Ed Berlin’s Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History and Rudi Blesh & Harriet Janis’s They All Played Ragtime fill out a little knowledge about a music that I’ve come to love even more, even though it’s over a century old, in 2020.

The friendly postman brought around two CDs from the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra the other day — both fine recordings. The PRO Finally Plays the Entertainer is a collection of band arrangements of tunes by the big three (Joplin, Lamb, and Scott — and the package design by Chris Ware is splendid), but the most surprising pleasure was From Barrelhouse to Broadway, a collection of songs by the great Joe Jordan, who is very new to me. (At the end of this post you’ll find “The Whippoorwill Dance” for your listening pleasure.) I find in the best ragtime a quiet, elegant air of melancholy that suits my constitution well.

For some reason this early American music has captured the affection of several comics artists. Apart from Ware mentioned above, Robert Armstrong and R. Crumb are also smitten by these tunes (I’ve also been listening to a bit of the East River String Band, with whom Crumb has often sit in). Germany’s Christoph Mueller is fond of the period, though I’m not sure if he’s an enthusiast for the music; Mr. Mueller recently contributed a cover called “Shelter in Place” to The New Yorker, his first. Mueller is a post-Crumb artist and this, in an odd way, is an appropriate accompaniment to Crumb’s own “Short History of America.” Although the immediate context is the coronavirus, of course, I think Mueller’s evocation of the isolation of the individual and the isolation of nature in large cities speaks to a much broader solitude and loneliness that transcends the immediate moment. At the moment, Mueller is completing the artwork for the 39th issue of Mineshaft, due later this year. (I hope I don’t have to remind you to subscribe to this, America’s most indispensable magazine.) Mueller spoke with the New Yorker‘s art editor Françoise Mouly about “Shelter in Place” here.

I should also mention that among my pandemic reading was Hillary Chute’s recent history of contemporary comics, Why Comics?, highly recommended.

Finally, my Google searches have been taking me recently to the environs of Dublin, New Hampshire, the home of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. When I glance out of my window now, I often see a facsimile of Mueller’s perspective; how much I’d rather see Dublin. There’s a photo below, and here’s “The Whippoorwill Dance,” as promised, performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s maestro Rick Benjamin. I hope to kick up the pace here soon and write a little more about all of this. Until then, save me a place in Dublin.

Town center of Dublin, New Hampshire.

Heliotrope Bouquet

Today’s music is “Heliotrope Bouquet,” a 1907 rag composed by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. Chauvin was a ragtime composer of great promise who alas fell victim to a turbulent and dissipated lifestyle in 1908 at the age of 27. Bill Edwards describes the composition and structure of the music here:

This rag contains the only known surviving compositional fragment of Louis Chauvin, who by most contemporary accounts was a very creative, skilled and prolific pianist who knew a multitude of pieces, though he was unschooled and could neither read nor write music. Chauvin lived a hard life as an itinerant pianist and died of complications from syphilis and multiple sclerosis shortly after his 24th [sic] birthday. The first two sections of “Heliotrope” are Chauvin’s, which Joplin first heard while visiting Arthur Marshall in Chicago in 1906, and thought enough of them to put them down to paper. The harmonization and last two themes were later completed by Joplin, with some tie-ins to the first two. The A section, utilizing a tango rhythm, is fairly unique in all of ragtime for its structure, rhythm and melody. The B section also contains some unexpected syncopation. The C and D sections are obviously born of Joplin’s writing in their nature, but the C section does contain a snippet of Chauvin’s melody in the middle.

The performer is Joshua Rifkin. Mr. Edwards provides a fuller biography of Louis Chauvin here.

This Sunday night: A musical soirée at NYU

Let’s not forget, folks, to bundle up this Sunday night and make your way to NYU for Marilyn Nonken‘s American Spectral: Works for Piano and Electronics concert, described below.


Lately my lovely wife has been coming home merrily singing the praises of two new piano solos she’ll be performing at NYU’s Black Box Theater, 82 Washington Square East in New York on Sunday, February 23 — they’re difficult but divine, she insists, and promises a good time. She’s never wrong.

The big piece on the program (which is called American Spectral: Works for Piano and Electronics, by the way) is the hour-long “Music for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators,” a new “extended mix” of a shorter 2010 work by highly-regarded avant-garde tunesmith Alvin Lucier. Marilyn will raise the curtain with Philadelphian Ellen Fishman‘s “Ruptures” (2018-19). These works, Marilyn says, “explore how technology changes our sense of time, consciousness, and sonic reality.”

Admission? Gratis. The trouble begins at eight o’clock. I’m told that there’s a new-fangled thing called social media that’s taking the place of the hardworking press agent, so if you visit the Facebook page for the event, please “like” it (whatever that is) and “share” it with your “friends.” Me, I’ve got to get my tuxedo to the dry cleaners; the composers will be present, after all.

I confess to you that I use the word “solo” advisedly here; she will be accompanied by some electric gewgaws. But they aren’t human, and I’m going to maintain my distinction between man (or, in this case, woman) and machine, so matter how complicated the box of wires is. After the show, we’ll all head out to the local tavern (except the computers, of course), where we’ll explore how wine and vodka change our sense of time, consciousness, and sonic reality, though I doubt the sensations will be quite as profound.

Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag”

An ad featuring Tom Turpin’s business in the St. Louis Palladium, an African American newspaper, March 4, 1905. The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection.

Ah, ragtime. This, arguably America’s first homegrown musical genre, “originated on the folk level,” said Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, two of the earliest enthusiasts of the form, but “several outstandingly gifted composers of both races carried the music to a creative level that can only be termed classical.” Just so, and its alternating joy and poignance eventually emerged also in the finger-picking guitar style of the Piedmont Blues. “Piano ragtime was developed by the Negro from folk melodies and from the syncopations of the plantation banjos,” Blesh and Janis explain. “As it grew, it carried its basic principle of displaced accents played against a regular meter to a very high degree of elaboration.”

Of course, Scott Joplin is considered the king of ragtime, but his reputation has obscured that of many other royal ragtime composers. The first of these must be Tom Turpin (1871-1922), whose “Harlem Rag” was published in 1897, predating Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” by two years. (It may have been composed as many as five years earlier.) Turpin’s bar in St. Louis, the Rosebud, was a popular meeting place for Joplin and other ragtime composers as well; in 1905 Joplin would dedicate his “Rosebud March” to Turpin. Turpin would go on to write other rags as the “Father of St. Louis Ragtime.”

Below, Ann Charters performs “Harlem Rag,” from the 1961 Smithsonian Folkways album Essay in Ragtime: Ragtime Piano Classics.