Cemetery cakewalk

We can only hope that the weather holds out this Saturday, May 20, when a special event honoring the memory of Scott Joplin will be held at his gravesite at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens.

Cover of the second issue of The Ragtime Ephemeralist by Chris Ware, 1999.

We can only hope that the weather holds out this Saturday, May 20, when a special event honoring the memory of Scott Joplin will be held at his St. Michael’s Cemetery graveside in Queens. Ed Berlin, Joplin’s biographer, will host the event, which will include not only a live outdoor concert from the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra but also a tribute to Black inventor Granville T. Woods. The Queens Gazette has more about the event, as well as more about Joplin and Woods. The proceedings get under way at 2:00 pm.

In 2021 I offered a few notes on “Ragtime’s Soundworld,” which you’ll find below Marilyn Nonken’s performance of Joplin’s “Reflection Rag,” from her Syncopated Musings album for Divine Art (which Mr. Berlin was kind enough to review for the Syncopated Times last year). And for another take on Joplin, there’s also Tuba Skinny‘s fine, boisterous rendering of his “Maple Leaf Rag.” (I must write more about them some day.) Listen, read.

A definition of the term “ragtime” seems to be as hard to pin down and as sinuous as the music itself; we might think that, like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity, we know it when we hear it, but history and truth aren’t on our side here. “Ragtime” itself meant many different things to those who composed, performed, and heard it in the early years of the 20th century. To novelist E.L. Doctorow and fans of the 1973 film The Sting, “ragtime” meant solo piano compositions, occasionally orchestrated for the small instrumental ensemble. But these compositions emerged — like the vocal ragtime song, like the semi-improvised “ragging” of European piano music, like the music of banjo and guitar players and string and jug bands of the period — from a particular social and musical culture which all of these ragtime forms shared. In discussing ragtime, one is often forced to winnow the definition down to only one or two of these various forms, a process ultimately unfair to the others which have just as much call on the definition as solo piano music.

What seems certain is that ragtime originated in the secular dance and forms that arose in the American Black community of the Reconstruction and Redemption Eras in the south. African Juba dances, domesticated and Americanized by Blacks (free and enslaved) and their children, were marked by the rhythmic syncopations that are a defining feature of ragtime music; similarly, the vocal music created by Blacks on slave plantations and elsewhere bore some resemblance to African forms, but these too were affected by both the secular and religious music they heard that originated from white communities. As Blacks emigrated from the rural south to more cosmopolitan midwestern and eastern small towns and cities, these dances evolved through minstrelsy and other performances into the cakewalk, the immediate predecessor to ragtime dance music; the songs and music, too, followed this emigration, absorbing both popular songs as well as the classical music influences to which early ragtime composers were exposed in these cities and towns, ultimately leading to the establishment of Tin Pan Alley in New York in the early 20th century.

This thumbnail history is necessarily as crude and simple as two paragraphs can make it, but nonetheless it points to a few characteristics of ragtime that are shared across all of its forms. The first characteristic, as I mentioned, was an emphasis on syncopation, but there’s more than that. Another important feature is the new chromatic colorations and sonorities that resulted from the secular Black community’s use of African and other indigenous musical vocabularies: frequent alternations between melancholy and joyful strains in the same brief work, too, rendered it distinct from European and white American music of the period.

A more problematic question, of course, is the extent to which any kind of music could be called “American,” any more than music composed by French or German or other composers somehow possesses an essentialist quality of a particular nation’s culture. We might say that Wagner’s music is particularly German, or Debussy’s is particularly French. But what does this mean? Can one musicologically define what is particularly French or Polish in a Chopin waltz, or, for that matter, American in Joplin or a song by Irving Berlin? This may not have been particularly problematic a few decades ago, but today the question is particularly thorny.

Prior to the Civil War, America’s most accomplished composer may have been Louis Moreau Gottschalk, himself of a multicultural background (born in New Orleans of a Jewish father and French Creole mother), whose music reflected what he heard in his Louisiana youth. What is without question is that, from its Black origins, ragtime in the early 20th century became popular in white America as well, perhaps the first genuinely popular multicultural musical form in modern times (Gottschalk’s music was largely performed in what we might call “classical” venues like concert halls, rather than the theatres, barrooms, and domestic salons in which ragtime could most commonly be heard). But both musics were the product of what Albert Murray would much later call a “mongrel culture” in The Omni-Americans:

American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto . . . Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people in the United States resemble nobody else in the world as they resemble each other.

This cultural background is relevant to ragtime’s history, but of course it doesn’t come close to describing or defining ragtime’s soundworld itself, a soundworld which all of ragtime’s forms create: perhaps not nostalgic, but certainly melancholic, alternating as I said earlier with great joy: a soundworld that somehow touches on individual memory; a harmonics that seem to encourage an elevation from the domestic to the otherworldly and back again, simultaneously bucolic and urban in its pastoral and more — well, more emotionally ragged expressions. It’s this soundworld which has appealed to ragtime enthusiasts from the early 20th century to the present, a soundworld kept alive by ragtime pianists like Max Morath and William Appling as well as ensembles like the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and the East River String Band, to name only four of a great number of practitioners dedicated to the preservation and reinterpretation of this surprisingly rich music. A secular form, ragtime is music for all of us, and welcomes multiple perspectives.

Opera as high (and low) drama

Piotr Beczala, left, as Loris and Sonya Yoncheva in the title role of Giordano’s Fedora at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Sara Krulwich for The New York Times.

A few Saturdays ago, I found myself in the unusual position of having three full hours at home alone, family temporarily scattered around Manhattan, and I took the opportunity to do something I hadn’t done in years: listen to the live Metropolitan Opera broadcast on WQXR. Turning up the volume on the stereo, I sat back to enjoy Umberto Giordano’s 1898 Fedora, which hadn’t been produced at the Met since 1996 but was recently revived at its New Year’s Eve gala.

Some things never change. Though this performance lacked the usual intermission “Opera Quiz,” there was the usual chirpy back and forth between the hosts and interviews with the lead singers during the act break. A part of this chirping was the reading of a synopsis of the opera, and as my Italian is non-existent, I closed my eyes as the opera ran and found that it took no real effort to follow the plot through the singing and the music once I had the broad outlines in mind; both singers and orchestra were lush and lovely, even though in the broad scheme of things Fedora is little more than a torrid potboiler typical of its verismo period. Its geographical range is broad too, reaching from a St. Petersburg salon in Act I through Paris in Act II to the Swiss Alps in Act III. Susan Youens’ program notes argue for a much more profound interpretation of the opera, to wit:

The Savoy region of France was a bone of contention in 1860 between Napoleon III’s France and the recent republic of Switzerland, whose peace and prosperity stood in contrast to many other countries. Russia and France had a history of fraught relations, with the War of 1812 not long past, but formed an alliance in the 1890s driven by shared fear of Germany’s growing ambitions. Poland had no independent existence from 1795 to 1918, being split between Prussia, the Habsburg Empire, and Russia, and Russia was increasingly riven by Tsarist and anti-Tsarist forces throughout the fin de siècle. Ultimately, love and laughter are put to an end at the close of Fedora by exile and repression, execution and tyranny — just as they too often have been in the real world.

To which I could only respond: “Nice try” — it was a potboiler and a pretty substandard murder mystery to boot. But it was fun.

In the first, 1956 edition of his Opera as Drama, still a noted critical work in operatic circles, Joseph Kerman called Tosca, another opera of the verismo period, a “shabby little shocker,” a characterization that still raises hackles among Puccini enthusiasts, and it’s not a far stretch to characterize Fedora with the same words. But Fedora once and Tosca now-and-forever-more held substantial attraction for opera houses, and I do wonder if had I watched Giordano’s opera at the Met (or on the screen as part of the Met’s live-in-movie-theatres simulcasts) my response may have been more sympathetic. For opera, like theatre, is a performance, an expensive, often luxurious display of not only vocal and musical but also visual splendor. (It is also, unlike a radio broadcast, expensive, and I would have needed many more free hours to get up to Lincoln Center to see it.)

But listening to an opera and watching it in live performance is a difference in kind, not in degree. A sensitive listener can picture to themselves a stage action, as well as characters, scenery, and lighting effects, as they experience the vocal and instrumental music aurally; the same holds true for the reader of a play, who puts in their mind’s eye, through imagination, the activity that it describes, and may even “hear” the words they read as if the words were spoken. (Indeed, those with the training to “read” music may also “hear” the music as they peruse the score.) The experience of an opera recording is not inferior to the experience of watching an opera performance — it is different, and it has its own virtues, virtues unique to the experience.

I came to Fedora after revisiting a few of Wagner’s operas in the landmark Solti recording, and I recently re-read King Lear. Though I did both in the privacy of my own home, I discovered new qualities in these works I hadn’t recognized before, perhaps as the result of my own increasing age and more mature (for want of a better word) experiences. I’m encouraged to further explorations — maybe re-explorations is also a better word — but thankful to Giordano’s shabby little shocker for this new encouragement, whether or not it gets me out of the house on a regular basis. As it happens, Kerman goes on to cite passages from two of his contemporaries, Eric Bentley and Francis Fergusson, who focused on poetic rather than operatic drama, which then sent me back to their books. So, perhaps more here, as the days go on.

The Golden Ring

The Sofiensaal in Vienna in 2007, prior to renovations.
The Solti Ring Cycle was recorded here in the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1964 BBC documentary The Golden Ring gathers together many of my enthusiasms into one 87-minute film: Wagner, Vienna, analog recording, and whatever pleasures all of these entail. Nearly sixty years later, it’s now a historical document of a particular moment in time, art, and technology, a portrait of one of the greatest recordings ever made of one of the great artistic achievements of the nineteenth century and, indeed, all of Western music: The Solti Ring cycle.

The Golden Ring covers the recording of the final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung; Das Rheingold had been released in in 1958 and Siegfried in 1962, with the second opera, Die Walküre, to come in 1965. All of them were recorded in Vienna’s Sofiensaal, originally built in 1826 but which was almost totally destroyed by fire in 2001 (it was finally rebuilt and renovated in 2013 and re-opened as an event space). The documentary is a rare behind-the-scenes look at a classical music recording, most notable perhaps for the ability to eavesdrop on conductor Solti and producer John Culshaw as they negotiate the daily difficulties of the project.

It’s a pleasure to watch, especially if, like me, you have the records on hand, and I must admit I’ve got them all now except, ironically, Götterdämmerung. I’ve purchased used versions of all of them from Discogs, and must say been delighted with their condition. They sound great, even now, sixty years after their release, and I’ve gotten near-mint-condition vinyl at bargain-basement prices, far less than I would have paid when I first listened to the Solti Ring in the early 1980s. I can only assume that this is because (1) they were very well taken care of, and (2) there’s little market for them. Capitalism works for me.

I mentioned the other day that Decca Classics is releasing restored versions of these recordings on vinyl once again. For now, a little whetting of the appetite:

Schopenhauer on Beethoven

The Danish String Quartet. Photo: James Estrin for the New York Times.

In seeking some solace over the past few days, I’ve been dipping into a little music now and again, specifically Wagner and more specifically Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Opus 132. The quartet is rather famously that to which T.S. Eliot felt a strong affinity as he was composing his own Four Quartets, and I find its third movement especially a source of wonder in its surprising dissonances and resolutions.

I’ve also been dipping into a little philosophy, specifically Schopenhauer, where I often turn when I need that solace. In the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer discusses the metaphysical qualities of Beethoven’s symphonic work, although these apply as well to the late quartets, I believe:

Now if we cast a glance at purely instrumental music, a symphony of Beethoven presents us with the greatest confusion which yet has the most perfect order as its foundation; with the most vehement conflict which is transformed the next moment into the most beautiful harmony. It is rerum concordia discors [the discordant concord of the world], a true and complete picture of the nature of the world, which rolls on in the boundless confusion of innumerable forms, and maintains itself by constant destruction. But at the same time, all the human passions and emotions speak from this symphony: joy, grief, love, hatred, terror, hope, and so on in innumerable shades, yet all, as it were, only in the abstract and without any particularization; it is their mere form without the material, like a mere spirit world without matter. We certainly have an inclination to realize it while we listen, to clothe it in the imagination with flesh and bone, and to see in it all the different scenes of life and nature. On the whole, however, this does not promote an understanding or enjoyment of it, but rather gives it a strange and arbitrary addition. It is therefore better to interpret it purely and in its immediacy.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Volume 2, p. 450 (Payne translation)

I admit that, at my age and with my temperament, I’m less drawn to art that explores anything other than these transcendent qualities; that based in or speaking to race or gender or identity, politics, society, culture, or the “world” as we have it, is leaving me colder and colder. No doubt, my loss. But there’s no solace in it, at least for me.

Below, the Danish String Quartet performs the third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15. This is chamber music, not orchestral music, and I’m taken by the Danish String Quartet’s setting in a domestic chamber — a room in a home, rather than a concert hall or an auditorium, with lamps, pictures on the wall, a rug. Perhaps a nod, I think, to the strong likelihood that Beethoven’s late quartets received their first premieres not in public but in private, domestic settings. It is, too, where I hear it today.

The analog way

The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO turntable.

I mentioned the other day that I’ve been enjoying the Solti Ring, and enjoying it the way it was originally meant to be enjoyed, on vinyl LPs. This, and a few other preferences for an analog versus a digital way of life, may be a form of nostalgia, sure, and I’m as guilty as the next guy. Things change, of course, and there’s a feeling going around that this is in itself neither good or bad. This is narrow thinking; both can be true — things change, and they can change for the worse. I mused about these things on this blog in June 2021; that post is below.

Currently sitting in a room nearby are boxes containing a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO turntable with a Sumiko Rainier cartridge; this’ll be powered by a Pro-Ject PhonoBox S2 phono preamp, running into a Sony STR-DH190 stereo receiver with Bluetooth capabilities. These, as well as a Bluesound Node 2i wireless music streamer and a Cambridge Audio AXC35 CD player, will be run through a pair of Polk Audio TSi400 speakers — that is, once I move into my new apartment this weekend; and because no post of mine is without cliché, I’ll be setting these up on Father’s Day as a little testosteronic gift to myself. (A tip of my hat to Crutchfield Audio, which guided me expertly through the minefield of entry-level audiophila.)

I was started on this when I paid a recent visit to a local stereo equipment store, curious about what kind of turntables and speakers they’re making these days. After a salesman set up a Rega Planar 3 and a pair of speakers, he sat me down on a chair and told me to listen, and listen I did, as I hadn’t in years. I won’t go so far as it say it seemed as if the musicians were there in the room with me. But I’ll go almost that far.

As keen readers of this site are aware, this is only another anachronistic interest of mine, to go along with American popular music of the turn of the century, as well as Mark Twain’s writings and that steadfast pillar of American culture, comics. Next year I’ll be turning the corner of six decades and am getting crankier by the minute. Over the pandemic I’ve been listening to a lot more music than I used to, and I’ve also become much more of a grumbler about the poor quality of sound reproduction on iPhones, iMacs, iEarpods, whatever, and am somewhat astonished that as the music industry seems to be doing just fine in this era of streaming and enthusiasm continues to run high for whatever music the culture produces, the quality of this sound reproduction is awful — tinny, without a wide listening spectrum, and cold to the aural touch.

I haven’t set the system up yet, but thinking ahead I bought a few vinyl LPs and a few days ago showed them to my children, 11- and 12-years-old, slipping the LPs from their sleeves and explaining that the music resided in the microscopic grooves of the record — that it’s not encoded on microchips. This was a bit of a revelation to them, and I explained that back in the Neanderthal Age in which I grew up that’s how you listened to music: either that way, or you’d turn on this thing called a “radio” (sort of like Bluetooth, except hundreds of thousands of people could listen to it at the same time, creating an invisible audience of listeners instead of private, exclusive enjoyment). Or, of course, you could make your own music, sing or play an instrument. I suppose what I missed about vinyl LPs was the warmth of the listening experience; the tactile quality of handling (carefully, carefully) the records, dropping a needle on them and hearing the result of that tactile experience come through the speakers. Not unlike the tactile quality of handling the pages of a book contributes to the reading experience. It’s somehow warmer; more human; and, what’s more, it’s concrete: It’s something you can see and touch, essential in this world of continuing digital dissipation and ephemerality.

Of course all these things age: vinyl LPs collect dust and imperfections, books can tear and yellow. But the digital world seems little better; when file formats change, files become unreadable, nonsense; and there’s bit rot to contend with.

Too, the content of vinyl LPs and books is less manipulable than their digital counterparts: you can’t just call up Word or Audacity and cheerfully begin to mess around with words and music. I have to admit I rather like keeping my grubby little hands off the books I read and the music I listen to, granting a little more respect to their creators rather than believing I can either (a) improve these things myself or (b) override the original creators’ intention just to suit my own pleasure.

I’m not enough of a Luddite to dismiss the digital sound world entirely, hence that Bluesound streamer and the CD player, and I’m sure they’ll sound great through those Polk speakers too. But they won’t match the experience and the ritual of placing an LP on a turntable and easing the tonearm over the opening grooves. It is said that a part of the enjoyment of marijuana is picking the seeds from the leaves and crafting the thin joint from thin cigarette paper: the high itself is the reward. I don’t think that vinyl is much different, really. That musical experience is the reward. And I’ll know more about it myself on Sunday.