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Writings on music

Samples of seminars, program outlines, course curricula, liner notes, reviews, exhibition labels and other evidence of attempts to help advance civilization. The central topic of most of these particular pieces is ragtime music and history (even the restaurant review!).

Ragtime Orchestration:  Classic Rags In 3-D

Seminar excerpt

This year’s seminar is a broader look at ragtime orchestrations, and we’ll listen to them in a different way.  Last year, I emphasized the importance of the arrangers, those men and women who took a piano rag, or an incomplete set of themes, and transformed them into a wonderfully textured, orchestrated sound.  I tried to convey the appreciation that these unsung, and often unplayed, heroes deserve.  Here we’ll look at their work in depth.  And I quoted from The Art of Ragtime, a book by William Schafer, a phrase which described the arranged piece for ensemble as a three-dimensional working model of a piano rag, a phrase I often recall.  Thus the title of this talk, “Ragtime Orchestration:  Classic Rags in 3-D.”

While I was speaking a year ago there was a concert band patiently sitting back there, waiting to perform later.  I remember thinking that it was the first time I’d given a talk with a 40-piece back-up band.  But this year the group you see, the very fine New Walnut Street Ragtime Orchestra, created last year for the festival, will play the excerpts and help make the talking points crystal clear.

 

Ragtime Under the Radar

Seminar description

Ever wonder about the ragtime records that you passed up in the used bins and garage sales? What became of those offbeat rags played by unknown musicians on suspect labels? Such LPs, cassettes and 78s from commercial, custom and home-made sources ended up in the collection of David Reffkin. He intentionally sought them for 30 years of broadcasts on “The Ragtime Machine” and reviews in The Mississippi Rag. He also interviewed many of their perpetrators. Selecting from thousands of tracks of unique or rare material, David will present some of the gems you missed so you can either reaffirm, or regret, your decision not to grab those goodies at the time.

 

The Sting At 40: A Sure Bet That Paid 29 to One

 Seminar description

“This movie accomplished what no other picture ever did: it thoroughly revitalized and re-popularized an entire genre of music.” The Sting is the 1973 film that either introduced you to ragtime or verified what you already knew: Scott Joplin wrote neat music. But what is the hidden truth about the bestseller status of “The Entertainer?” What was Marvin Hamlisch’s astonishing response to David Reffkin’s request for an interview? Is it really possible to quantify the time it took to alter history? You will be stunned by the revelation presented at the very opening of this seminar. Yet the tension, surprise, horror and enlightenment will only intensify as the story unfolds toward the dramatic, shocking conclusion! Limited engagement only – don’t miss it if you possibly can.

 

History of Ragtime

Adult Extension Course

The once-obscure art form of ragtime has made a big comeback in the last 30 years.  Students, teachers, performers and scholars rediscovered and brought back to life this lively music from the early 1900s.  Collectors rescued the artifacts of sheet music, piano rolls and other documents from the era and pieced together the development of the music and interesting lives of the musicians who created it.  The course covers the musical and social setting from which ragtime music evolved, the development of the style, and the current ragtime scene worldwide, with rare archival recordings and important documents from the era.

Course Outline

1. Roots and Early Ragtime – the social and musical setting into which ragtime evolved

2. Classic Ragtime – the central period of composition which produced the most elegant rags and prolific writers

3. Late Ragtime and Transitions – the eventual decline in popularity and the new forms of music based on ragtime

4. Orchestrated Ragtime – ragtime for groups of instruments, including concert band and ragtime orchestra

5. Modern Ragtime – the continuation of the tradition in modern times with new techniques

6. Obits and Odd Bits – the fate of ragtime’s composers and performers, and the unusual applications of the music

 

Book Review 

THE NPR’S CURIOUS LISTENER’S GUIDE TO POPULAR STANDARDS, by Max Morath, Penguin Putnam, New York, 2002, 235pp.

Among all the books published in recent years on the “standards” of pop music, this handy, concise paperback written by a noted performer of the music will stand out as easy to digest, and perhaps one of the friendliest to novice readers.  The chapters are well defined, the topics are sensibly organized and there is just slightly more than the basics on each entry to make the book accessible as a quick reference, yet full enough to give an adequate history for, and more important, feel for the era.  My bet is that most of us in the lands of ragtime and trad jazz are knowledgeable to some degree in our specialties, but not equally familiar with all the rest of the terrain under the “American Popular Song” heading.

With this book you can organize your mental catalog of all those early famous pioneers, or the titles of the biggest hits – what was written by whom? – and learn a few things you may not have known about the origins and constructions of these musical marvels.  The text also covers some of the workings of the music distribution business (a topic still of great mystery even to musicians today).  As the title directly addresses a general audience of National Public Radio listeners, one can presume that the information is at level 101, perhaps 201, and aficionados should not expect massive detail.  Hopefully though, the audience base will be significantly larger than just NPR’s segment of the population

The one section that I suppose would be of any controversy is the selection of 75 representative CDs, mostly reissues of early recordings, that are suggested for listening.  The list is introduced by all the appropriate disclaimers for incompleteness and personal preferences.  Again, the list is more than enough for the new ‘curious’ listener, and I would caution the more sophisticated fans against getting hot under the collar just because their pick isn’t in there.  Anyway, how many people would you trust more than Morath to create such a list?  There is also a resource list of books and websites, for the extra curious.

Another nice feature is the glossary, again just handy enough to clear up the common misconceptions about this subject.  In fact, that is perhaps the largest overriding value of the book:  The era is now so far in the past, and the music so unfamiliar to the youngest crowds, there is great value in refocusing the light on this so-called “golden age.”  This is especially true since there has been a significant resurgence of interest in some corners to record and perform the classics, and there is more research activity these days.  I am reminded of a recent conversation with a very young producer of a program of current pop music on KUSF.  We had just begun speaking of the roots of pop, especially the music of blacks, and while I was thinking of the late 1800s, she advised me that, yes, black influence goes all the way back to the 1970s!

What shows through more than in most books of this type is the genuine care, knowledge, sensitivity and thoroughness of the writer.  One never gets the feeling that the material is a derivative rehash of older texts.  The originality of the writing, and one presumes the high degree of accuracy, should gain the respect of the reader, even one unfamiliar with the half century of Max Morath’s career.

 

CD Review

ZEZ CONFREY PIANO ROLLS AND SCORES (Realized by Artis Wodehouse; Warner Classics 49309-2; Total time: 61:49)

Dizzy Fingers; The Red Lantern; By the Waters of Minnetonka; Novelette; Waltz Mirage; Greenwich Witch; Afghanistan; Kinda Careless; Kitten on the Keys; The Sheik of Araby; Heaven’s Garden; Stumbling; Jaywalk; Tap Dance of the Chimes; Humorestless; That Thing Called Love; Midsummer’s Nightmare; Tricks; Coaxing the Piano; Concert Etude; My Pet; Relaxation; Fantasy of Today

The technological reproduction of music from the ragtime era (and thereabouts) proceeds beyond the mere compilation of performances from hand-played and arranged piano rolls and live studio recordings.  In this CD of beloved and unknown Zez Confrey compositions, the original 88-note rolls were processed with software-induced expression, the Ampicos were likewise given back their original expression via the computer, and the rest were played from the sheets onto the Disklavier which rendered all these performances.  The result is a nearly seamless concert of music from mixed sources.

This is not to say that we can now take every composer and produce a similar cohesive recording of their various types of piano rolls and sheet music.  The secret ingredient here is Confrey.  He was one of the most successful musicians of his time, partly because he understood the piano, the roll and his audience.  There is a way of composing music that will or will not work in the world of mechanical pianos.  Ragtime and novelty piano, of course, with its predominant use of short notes and crisp phrases made it very popular in that format.  But it still takes a composer of Confrey’s status to create a good melody and interesting harmony to produce an attractive roll performance (or sheet performance).  Thus this disc hangs together, because these wonderful pieces work well musically and mechanically.

The creative assembly work was done principally by Artis Wodehouse, who also played several pieces that had not originally appeared on Confrey rolls.  She had a lot of help.  There was a team of recording engineers, computer specialists, the Yamaha company, not to forget the original collectors of the rolls.  Wodehouse, you may recall did similar CDs of the music of Gershwin and Morton (on Nonesuch).  The sound is full and rich, though still lacking that certain je-ne-sais-something that distinguishes a Disklavier output from a normal acoustic piano.  Any connoisseur of piano recordings won’t mistake this for a live session, but it certainly supercedes the sound of even the healthiest old-style player piano.  However, a lover of the players will definitely miss all those wonderful clunky acoustic artifacts.

Another very important element not to be missed, and that makes for a lively CD, is the variety of styles that Zez Confrey was interested in and in which he succeeded.  Just the last three pieces – the classic novelty “My Pet,” the pause in the action of the well-named “Relaxation,” and the almost ‘classical’ grand finale, “Fantasy of Today” – give you hints of the whole range.  But of course, he explored so much territory in those styles.  The last piece is presented in the way that Confrey intended, with the same material of the piece in “classical” and in “jazz” idioms.  The liner note provides the comment:  “…precisely what makes the second version ‘jazz’ is not clear.”  Well, aside from a walking bass and the dotted-rhythm performance, maybe not very much.  But I know scholars who could write a 20-page brief taking either side.  A similar debate can be centered around what makes a novelty as such, and what genre do you call some of Confrey’s pieces, anyway?

Anyone only familiar with the few popular Confrey novelties and doesn’t really want to go beyond that style won’t find a whole disc of sympathy here.  There are a number of very good pieces like “Novelette” and “Humorestless” that have been recorded a few times recently.  But they and the more obscure ones, like “Midsummer’s Nightmare” and “Kinda Careless” are really worth checking out if you like some variety and diversion in your CD library.

The liner notes give an overall description of the various stages of production for each type of roll, a quick rundown of Confrey’s career, and commentary on each piece.  Unfortunately, the decision was made to put fine black print on a rather bluish background with additional artsy effects.  I have yet to see how such distracting graphic designs are expected to contribute to the consumer’s enjoyment of the experience.

Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see what other composers will be able to survive the ‘compilation test.’  Available from amazon.com and in selected stores.

 

Joplin’s is Open for (Ragtime) Business

Restaurant review (!)

It’s rather rare that I have the opportunity to broadcast or write a restaurant review, and equally unlikely for one to appear in The Mississippi Rag.  Yet here we are with a most unusual venture into the ragtime-culinary arts.

A new restaurant in San Leandro, California opened in December,2006,  and it’s the only eating establishment I know were you can walk into an environment filled with photos, sheet music, memorabilia and articles, not to mention ragtime in the air, all pertaining to the music and life of Scott Joplin.  I visited in January, ordered the yummy “Joplin Burger,” spoke with the owners and various family members who had arrived for the occasion, and interviewed some of them for my radio program.  (In the early 1980s, I made the acquaintance of Scott Joplin’s niece, Donita Fowler, and our friendship continued until her death.  At her funeral I met some of the other family members and kept in touch with them from time to time.)

Joyce Grant, a descendent of Donita’s sister Mattie Harris, along with her husband Lewis and a third partner, Eddie Sayage, built the restaurant in a picturesque arc of streets called Victoria Court.  (San Leandro is very near Oakland, and the restaurant is conveniently located near the I-580 freeway off 98th Street.)  Sayage is an experienced restaurant builder, creating two others in the San Francisco area.  The concept for the theme is still evolving, but the breakfast and lunch menu was to be augmented with supper, and a popular Sunday Gospel brunch features live music, including Joyce herself, who is a professional singer.  Various musicians have dropped in to participate, and Joyce always makes sure that the visiting diners get a bit of history about Joplin and ragtime in the first course of music.

There is an old upright piano (which, when refurbished, will once again be able to play piano rolls), and a very large mural with the name Joplin’s finely painted by artist Jerry Kunin.  Plenty of seating is available, even while leaving adequate room for musicians to work.  The menu reflects American and soul food, and it’s also expanding in the first few months, but already includes a dish named for Mattie Harris and other Joplin-titled items.

Everyone I met is very enthusiastic about the business, and equally as excited in bringing the Joplin name to prominence.  It’s one thing to meet people who love ragtime and wish to promote it, but quite another to have real family descendents taking up the vision and challenge.  Joyce’s mother, Evalina Harris and sister Pamela Harris-Adams also contributed to the audio documentation that day.  Joyce’s daughter, Danielle, was serving lunch at our table.  Joyce told me she has been inspired to write new lyrics for “Maple Leaf Rag,” The Entertainer,” and other Joplin rags, and she wants to learn some of the vocal music that Joplin created, including excerpts from Treemonisha and individually published pieces.

They showed me a photomontage book that had been created for one of the Joplin-Harris family reunions that occurs every two years.  In there are contained reproductions of some fabulous old pictures of the family.  I showed them the family tree I drew up some years ago and contributed some recordings, sheet music and other items for their collection.

 

 

Davies at 25: An Exhibition

Opening statement

As you approach the building, its graceful curves and sweeping façade invite your gaze. Inside the lobby, the view toward San Francisco City Hall gradually encompasses the engaging geometry around you. From your seat you notice the forms and structures that were carefully designed with the scientific precision and intuitive art of acoustics. But then, when the program begins, you relocate to yet another place not found in the architect’s blueprints, the inner space of your consciousness, where the musical performance is ultimately realized. The finely tuned hall and the extraordinary musical organization on its stage guide you to that special awareness you recognize as a musical experience. This portrayal may seem a bit mystical, but there is magic at work in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.

This exhibition is a retrospective look at the first 25 years in the life of San Francisco’s premier concert hall, a relatively recent addition in the hundreds of years since buildings were first created for this purpose. A composer’s voice box, a musician’s soundboard, a listener’s extended living room, a community’s focus of celebration – Davies Symphony Hall symbolizes them all.

These displays can only review a fraction of the artists, major events, and singular moments that are in the collective historical record. A brief mention must suffice for certain important features of the building, such as the full-width rehearsal stage built for the San Francisco Opera. Some of the rare photographs only exist in black-and-white prints. Thematic continuity is favored over strict chronological order, although the general sense of progression flows clockwise around the room.

Those who remember when the Hall opened should set the focus of their historical lens for September 1980. A few phrases will help establish the context of events: the Iranian hostage crisis, the Abscam trial, the end of the recession; Shogun on television, Airplane! at the movies; Hollywood actors and northern California vintners on strike; Willie McCovey retires from the San Francisco Giants; President Carter, Governor Brown, Mayor Feinstein.

More than a timeline or the mere assemblage of artifacts and documents, this project is the telling of a history with multiple dimensions – structural, sonic, artistic, civic, sociological, and above all, musical.  In assembling Davies at 25, the curator literally climbed the walls (to explore above the ceiling, in the organ loft and other interesting places), sought professional help (interviewing architects, builders, acousticians, musicians and others) and reviewing decades of files in the hope of creating an exhibition that will provide a rare opportunity to learn about the evolution of a cultural landmark from the people who conceived and built it, and from the talented people who work in it.

And now, if you will, take this journey for yourself…

End note

The Curator wishes to disclose the following information about previous associations with individuals represented in this Exhibition:

  1. His freshman literature course, 1969-1970, was taught by (now) San Francisco Symphony Contributing Writer Michael Steinberg, at New England Conservatory, Boston.
  1. In 1971, a photo was taken of the Tanglewood Fellowship Orchestra at the Berkshire Music Festival, Massachusetts, and subsequently published in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 1976 Engagement Calendar. The conductor is Michael Tilson Thomas, and the violinist (indicated by the arrow) is the Curator. Photographer unknown, Courtesy of David Reffkin.


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