A little something for Father’s Day

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.

 

Memorial Day special: Remembering Leon

Leon Redbone.

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the death of Leon Redbone, the singer and guitarist who brought American popular song back to the attention of a jaded public through his eccentric appearances on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere beginning in about 1975. Although Redbone cultivated a self-consciously odd personality that some might find just a bit twee, it was this personality that drew audiences to his music, a collection of American popular song classics that included both standards and rarities from the early years of the 20th century. Complain about that self-conscious weirdness as you will, for me — a 13-year-old boy growing up in a declining coal town of northeast Pennsylvania far from any city — Leon Redbone’s appearances on Saturday Night Live in 1975 were my first exposures to this music, which I doubt I would have found anywhere else on my own; soon I was purchasing and listening to albums by Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and others. My enthusiasm for this music continues to this day, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who must credit Redbone for this discovery. (Not to mention I’ve come to appreciate his dedication to his art and his subversive persona more than ever in the past few years.)

Redbone during his lifetime remained a stubbornly private individual, but in the years since his death some of the mystery about his past has dissipated, not least because of Megan Pugh’s in-depth profile of the performer, “Vessel of Antiquity,” in The Oxford American, published a few short months before Redbone’s death (complications of dementia). The short 2018 documentary “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” which features footage of Redbone’s final performances as well as tributes from John Prine and others, can be found below.

Joplin et al.

The recordings are in the can and there’s not much left to do but pull the whole package together. A collection of Scott Joplin rarities and collaborations, Marilyn Nonken‘s Syncopated Musings will drop (as the kids say) this fall, probably in October, from Divine Art Records. The album pulls together 17 of the composer’s most intriguing compositions, a fresh look at Joplin’s career and the place of ragtime in musical history. Sez the press release:

Acclaimed for her interpretations of works by early twentieth-century composers such as Arnold Schönberg and Charles Ives, Nonken turns her attention to their contemporary, Joplin, whose music — often mischaracterized as a simply American vernacular — reveals his close ties to opera and vocal genres. In Joplin’s works and those of his students and colleagues, one recognizes a heretofore underappreciated worldliness, elegance, and virtuosity. Taken together, these compositions celebrate the lively artistic community of which Joplin was the central figure, highlighting the underappreciated lyrical and dramatic range of ragtime itself.

The first draft of my liner notes is also in the can, so keep an eye out here; I’ll let you know when it’s ready for pre-order. In the meantime, you can read my own short meditation on ragtime, and I point you towards Ethan Iverson’s essay on American piano music, which situates Joplin & Company in musicological context. “References to ragtime [are] part of what makes fully notated American music American,” he says, then goes on to explore ragtime’s influence on Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow. It’s worth a peek.

 

Ragtime composers: Arthur Marshall

Arthur Marshall.

Arthur Marshall (1881-1968) was about thirteen years old when Scott Joplin joined the Marshall family in Sedalia, MO, as a boarder in 1894, and had already had some training in classical piano. Recognizing the young man’s talent, Joplin encouraged Marshall’s musical studies and took Marshall on as a protégé along with Scott Hayden, Marshall’s classmate at the segregated Lincoln High School. Marshall and Joplin enrolled together at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College, where Marshall studied music theory and education and eventually earned a teaching license from Teacher’s College. For some years, Marshall made a living as a performer and ragtime composer, retiring from music in about 1917 after his second wife’s death and several health problems. He held a variety of odd jobs in St. Louis and elsewhere until 1950, when he came out of retirement to perform in ragtime festivals during ragtime’s first revival after the Second World War. He died in Kansas City, MO, at the age of 87; he had been married a total of four times.

Marshall is of course best known for his two collaborations with Joplin, “Swipesy Cakewalk” and “The Lily Queen.” Below, Scott Kirby performs one of Marshall’s solo compositions, “The Pippin,” from 1908. Bill Edwards has a fuller biography of Marshall here.

Ragtime’s soundworld

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

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 musical 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”:

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.

Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans

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.

More to come.