Sunday, August 12, 2007

Jim's Ragtime

I don't care what the fables say, the country mouse can live contentedly in the city. She will never forget the country, of course, and she will, on occasion, have to see the stars; she will have to skip around barefoot; she will have to hear her western meadowlark in the mornings. (In these times you will--lest you risk a melancholic mouse--return her to the country. Pronto. Do not worry: after five days, she will long for her high heels, a glass of wine, and her urban nest, and back you both will go--to the city.) Such is the dichotomous life of one citified country mouse that I know.

And it is precisely the sort of duality that I want to convey in two piano rags that I am practicing. Written by James Tenney in 1969, Raggedy Ann and Milk & Honey are surprisingly traditional in terms of form and harmony. Surprising? Tenney, recognized as a pioneer in the field of computer music, also contributed to 20th century music theory with his writings on form and tuning and acoustics, and he worked for a number of years as a research electroacoustician at Bell Telephone Labs. (I have always liked to imagine Jim surreptitiously creating electronic music compositions when he was supposed to be solving telecommunications conundrums.) With his musical interests equally balanced between synthesized sounds and live performance, one might expect Tenney to deliver some new-fangled interpretation of ragtime, but the Three Rags for Pianoforte sound quite Joplin (or quite Confrey!) and that got me--Little Miss Classical Piano--to thinking...

What sensibility do I bring to these rags? Who am I when I perform them? Ragtime is casual music; in one sense, I am just the pianist in the corner keeping a roomful of tarts and gamblers happy. I am the background music, the wallpaper, the playlist of the day. But tarts and gamblers are so 1897, and this is 2007. And I am a classical pianist. I do not want to over-concertize these works, but I would like to bring a clean, polished approach to my playing of them, and this desire (for the best of both musical worlds) has led to me having fun with the pieces in country mouse/city mouse fashion.

Can I play ragtime as concert music but not sound too "concert"? Can I shape phrases casually, drunkenly, but with an articulated clarity and a direct (forward motion! forward motion!) intention? Could the bass lines bounce along barefoot but--on the repeat--sound oh-so-well-heeled? Could the melodies gaze up at the stars and the Milky Way but enjoy cocktails at the hippest metropolitan bar until midnight? These things are all contradictions, things that are not wholly possible (the Milky Way is definitely not visible from the little patio of my favorite watering hole, not even on a clear night). And yet I want it both ways, and I think ragtime wants it both ways...there is elegance even in a silly piano rag. Tenney seems to call for a refined mode, too: at the head of each piece he indicates "not fast," "not too fast." Pianists do tend to play ragtime too fast and, because of that tempo choice, the music or performance can sound sloppy. A more draggy tempo suggests ... well, it suggests a city mouse who maybe grew up in the country. Refined and totally on top of things, but down to earth, never rushed.

It is an approach that might apply to all music, not just ragtime. Let's cross pollinate! Maybe Beethoven needs to bump clumsily along. Can't you hear parts of the Hammerklavier driving--oomph, ugh, boomp--down a single-lane, ragged gravel road? Then again, there are country mice who just cannot adapt to the city, and city mice who find nothing of any great appeal in wide open skies. They will want their classical, cosmopolitan classical--and they will want their dirty as the ol' saloon.

Me? I'm a country mouse. I mean, city mouse. No! Country mouse...


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