This week's featured recording:
Elite Syncopations by
Let's celebrate the last week of February (my
not-so-favorite month) with one of Mr. Joplin's finest
effusions. In not-so-many words*, it's cool.
winter sports like 6 inches of snow in your
If you live in New England, you can send me your
emails, subject line "You are such a wuss" to
michael @ pianonoise.com. If you live in
Florida, get lost!
*Of course, if you'd like more
words, I just remembered
-- house concert April 17 -- by invitation -- I get to
invite about 15 people so if you email me quickly you might
get on the list! (posted Feb 20)
in Champaign, Illinois (michael @
--concert with "The Chorale" Sunday May 10, 7 pm. Craig
Jessop and Julie Beyler conduct music of John Rutter with
chorus and orchestra
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Onward and up--well, not this time, actually...
I felt like just having a little fun today, so if you're in
a similar mood, this is for you. It's a bit of Joplin. I've been thinking about
having a go at some Jelly Roll Morton, actually, but probably won't get around
to it until after Christmas. At the moment, just not being sick and too busy is
a good start. So let's have a bit of Joplinesque cheer...
Cascades by Scott Joplin
The piece is called "The Cascades" and it is
exactly halfway through the Joplin catalog. If you don't mind one
nerdy observation, since I spent a month in 2009 working my way
through the first half of Joplin's rags, I find this one interesting
for one particular reason. The ideas are great, the tunes, the
rhythms, are catchy, and, by the way, the second part of the piece,
a little over a minute and a half in, when the 'trombones' come in
in the left hand--that's the trickiest thing Joplin ever wrote, I
think--but if you're a composer you know that after a while,
cranking out piece after piece, you struggle not to keep doing the
same thing. And for Joplin, it wasn't easy to stay fresh, since rags
have a pretty set formula. The odd thing here isn't that there are
four sections, all of which repeat (and each, conveniently 45
seconds long in the recording!): no, what's odd is that, after the
first two parts, it's time to change keys. Nothing new there. But
for some reason, Joplin decides not to go where ragtime composers
nearly always go, which is four steps up; instead he decides to go
one step DOWN. What made him do that, I wonder?
People have always been curious about the nature of
certain artistic gifts, and, having been blessed with some of them, I
thought it would be fun and enlightening to share what I think I know
about musical talent and what I've observed about popular beliefs
There are such a myriad of different kinds of abilities
that it is not easy to zero in on what makes an artist. One of the most
mythologized aspects of the craft is that it "springs from nowhere."
People seem to want art to be mysterious, and, although there are plenty
of great artists on record talking about how much work goes into their
profession, most people don't seem to want to hear them. Inspiration is
the key, we are told. Hollywood keeps feeding us movies about "just
believing" or "following your heart" and the heroes of such films are
successful just because they want it real bad, despite their lack of
training. This kind of thinking may be so enchanting because it lets the
rest of us off the hook. If it either happens to you in a bolt of
lightning or it doesn't, and it doesn't, well, that's just too bad. No
need to try. The funny thing about workmanship is that some of the
greatest Symphonies ever written start off with tunes that just about
anybody could've come up with. Frequently there will be a masterful
subtlety that makes something that seems so simple actually evidence of
a rare gift, but sometimes the theme is about as basic as you can get,
and it is the working out of that theme that shows the composer's
genius. That requires extremely hard work. It requires the kind of
discipline that few people have. Many of my students could be much more
than they are if they would only work harder. There is nothing profound
about this. And there is nothing mysterious about the young lives of the
great composers, either. Somebody was there early to impose a rigid work
ethic on the child, in every case. A few composers known to history had
little early education and so had to scramble in later life to achieve
proficiency. Some were able to go a long way on what seems to be the
strength of their inspiration, but the way was not easy. These composers
are generally known for only a few of their best works. The lucky
accidents, perhaps? To some degree, yes, but notice how luck favors the
craftsmen, those with training, who know what to look for, recognize a
great idea when it rains down upon them, and are able to transform even
a mediocre idea into something sublime.
department of Godmusic:
Truth or Dare
About a year ago I had an interesting
conversation with some friends regarding the book of Jonah. They
had attended a sermon called ‘Jonah: God’s Truth or Fish Story?”
I’ll leave you to guess which side the pastor took.
I happen to think that it is more likely that the book of Jonah
is a work of imaginative fiction: my friends do not. In fairness
to the other ‘side’ of the argument, I cannot say with absolute
certainty that any or all of the events described in the book never happened,
just that it seems highly unlikely. And probably not only for the
reasons you are thinking.
If you aren’t familiar with the book of Jonah, I highly
recommend it. It is very short, and easily one of the most
intriguing books of the Bible. A prophet is told by God to go
preach disaster to the citizens of a great city unless they
repent; they do, and the prophet sulks about it because he
really wanted God to wipe them out, since he didn’t like them
very much--the reason being that they are Israel's arch-enemies
(and real-life conquerors). In fact, Jonah was so reluctant to
take the assignment in the first place because he was afraid
they'd repent, and God, being merciful, would let them off, a
motivating factor of Jonah's that is buried in the last chapter
of the book. Instead, without fully explaining itself, the
narrative races ahead from the opening sentence with one strange
development after another. The book opens with God's command to
go preach to the city. Jonah refuses God's assignment and runs
away aboard a ship bound for the opposite end of the known world
(the only prophet in the Bible to outright refuse God's call)
whereupon God sends a storm at sea to the stubborn prophet, the
sailors throw Jonah overboard at his own request, he is
swallowed by a large fish, prays to God from within the fish, is
vomited up on dry land, God repeats his orders, and Jonah
decides to take him up on it this time. All this may be crazy
enough, but I want to get to what really makes the book
interesting as we go along.
First, though, I want to discuss something about bias.
Friends Like These... pals dish a little gossip about
They were known as 'The Mighty Five.' Or 'The Mighty handful.' I think after
this article you'll incline to the latter interpretation. Then there is always
'The Mighty Fistful,' my personal favorite.
At any rate, there were five of them. Russian composers all, from a time before
the Petersburg (1861) and Moscow (1866) conservatories systematized musical
education in Russia (or were in their infancies), or the Soviet State mechanized
it. They met together to play their compositions for one another, give and
receive opinions and criticism about their music, and perhaps get moral support.
Reading their letters to and about each other, though, it is hard to imagine
much truth in that last phrase. For, like many people who are friendly enough to
your face but willing to let fly with all kinds of rudeness behind your back,
these composers were more than a little unkind to one another at times. They
could also be effusive in their praise, even sometimes when the other composer
was not in the room.
But you've never seen a composer cut down his peers with such efficiency as you
will in this letter from the group's spiritual head, Dmitri Balakirev, to a fellow named Stasov, a music critic who
was not a member of the group. Balakirev manages to cut the legs out from under
three members of the group in as many lines. Only Borodin is for some reason
omitted (maybe he hadn't joined the group yet):
write me, I have no one but you. I don't count Cui, he is a talent, but
not a human being in a social sense; Mussorgsky is practically an idiot.
R.-Korsakov is as yet a charming child, of great promise, but by the time he
blossoms into full light, I will already be old and will be useless to him.
Besides you, I can find no one whom I need..."
You'll note that Balakirev isn't exactly condemning them all
artistically, it's just personal. So far, anyway.