RHYTHMS AND BLUES: AMERICAN PIANO MUSIC
In a nutshell, this music is mostly jazzy or minimalist, and I find each style contrasts nicely with the other. When I chose these selections, I wasn’t originally looking for much of a theme; all were pieces I wanted to play, and it made sense to group them together since they’re all composed in America.
It turns out, though, that there are a couple of underlying threads here. One is the music of Africa, with its harmonies, rhythms, and organizing patterns. Ragtime, jazz and the blues of course all began as African American music, and minimalism shares many similarities with (and in many cases owes a huge debt to) African rhythmic patterns. Another thread running through this music is a tension between notation and improvisation. These pieces are written out note for note, but take much of their form and content from improvised styles. My job as performer is then to try to make the notated music sound improvised.
I’ve found that these disparate works resonate with each other in surprising and enjoyable ways. The drumming patterns from Ghana in Rubin’s Grace make Adams’s China Gates sound both familiar and new. Parts of Bolcom’s The Serpent’s Kiss and Scherzinger’s When One Has the Feet of Wind and Jelly Roll Morton’s Finger Buster feel like pure rock and roll. Barber has moments that sound to me like they could prefigure minimalism, and his plaintive blues movement has a simplicity that feels something like the nostalgia of Bolcom’s Through Eden’s Gates. Finger Buster is from a transcription of an improvised performance; my own piece, Afterwards, is completely improvised.
Samuel Barber Excursions
The composer’s epigraph states: “These are ‘Excursions’ in small classical forms into regional American idioms. Their rhythmic characteristics, as well as their source in folk material and their scoring reminiscent of local instruments, are easily recognized.”
These also sound to me like excursions with different forms of transportation. I hear the first movement, with its ostinato bass in a boogie-woogie pattern, as a train. The second movement sounds like an aimless stroll: it is a straightforward 12 bar blues, exactly notating every swung and syncopated rhythm with the goal of sounding improvisatory. The third movement is variations on a theme similar to the cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo.” It has complicated polyrhythms including seven against eight and five against six. I hear it as a boat on water. The last movement evokes fiddle and harmonica tunes in a barn dance, and also makes me think of a journey in a convertible car.
Amy Rubin American Progressions
In some ways, this piece is the glue that holds this album together, with its fully notated jazz and its African drumming patterns and its page of chord changes for improvisation in the third movement. It is dedicated to and inspired by composer and theorist Akin Euba, who, the composer writes, “has encouraged me and others to freely explore rhythms, forms and musical concepts as they migrate and transform themselves from culture to culture, across continents, historical time periods, and styles. Blues…is the most distinctly “American” piece of the group, nostalgically recalling blues riffs and a barrel house style of piano playing. Grace is rhythmically structured around repeating patterns in 12/8, not dissimilar to the agbadza drumming pattern I fell in love with during my time in Ghana in 1992-93. Dramatically, Grace refers to a spiritual voyage through confusion, difficulty, struggle and ultimate transcendence of the physical world. It is dedicated to the memory of my cousin, Dr. Lawrence Sharpe. ‘Pascoalette’ is a made-up word created in affectionate homage to the Brasilian composer/pianist Hermeto Pascoal.”
Martin Scherzinger When One Has the Feet of Wind
In South Africa, where Scherzinger grew up, people are said to have “feet of wind” when they have danced themselves into an ecstatic state. Much of the piece’s language is based on Ngaya pipe structures, where multiple players each contribute single tones to a complex communal rhythm. The piece is in four continuous movements, the first three of which use only the white keys of the piano. The first movement, marked “casually, strollingly,” is similar in feel to the first prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; its shifting accents recall music played on the mbira (sometimes called a “thumb piano,” where the thumbs pluck strips of metal mounted to a gourd or box). The second movement is marked “Beginning to tumble,” then “as if enchanted,” then “like one caught in a dance.” The third section is “thinkingly, like going back.” The last, marked “with the timing of laughter, charm, surprise,” introduces tonal dissonance and black keys for the first time in the work. The composer says that the dissonant chords and jazzy syncopations of the last movement refer to New York City, where he wrote the piece.
John Adams China Gates
China Gates is one of Adams’s first works in the musical language of minimalism, a style also popularized by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The shifting accents and repetitive cell structure in minimalism are related to, and indeed sometimes directly inspired by, patterns in African music. Adams wrote China Gates as a small companion piece to the much longer Phrygian Gates, defining “gates” as “a term borrowed from electronics…the moments when the modes abruptly and without warning shift. There is ‘mode’ in this music, but there is no ‘modulation’.” Of China Gates, the composer writes: “It…oscillates between two modal worlds, only it does so with extreme delicacy. It strikes me now as a piece calling for real attention to details of dark, light and the shadows that exist between.” I find that performing this piece, especially from memory, puts me in something close to a transcendental state.
William Bolcom The Garden of Eden: Four Rags for Piano
William Bolcom got to know the great jazz pianist Eubie Blake towards the end of Blake’s life, and that musical friendship inspired Bolcom to write a series of rags that were part of the ragtime revival of the 1970s. I was then a young piano student on a steady diet of European old masters, and playing Joplin was my forbidden fruit; I remember playing the Maple Leaf Rag much too fast but with great joy. Old Adam, a lively two-step, reminds me of that feeling. The Eternal Feminine begins with a lilting melody, and flirts its way through different moods from coy to burlesque. The Serpent’s Kiss is a virtuosic “rag fantasy” that includes heel stomps, finger taps, tongue clicks, and, at the very end, a whistled rendition of Eve’s initial tune. Through Eden’s Gates is nostalgic and aching in its simplicity.
Jelly Roll Morton Finger Buster
The great New Orleans jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton recorded Finger Buster in a studio in 1938. An example of the kind of piece Morton used in cutting competitions with other pianists, it was an improvised performance that had probably been well-thought out beforehand. This performance is based on a transcription by James Dapogny; I made a few small changes, mostly because Morton had much larger hands than mine.
Jocelyn Swigger Afterwards
It seemed fitting to end this program, with its layers of notation and improvisation, with my own improvised reflection. These four short baubles are what came out at the end of the recording session when, steeped in syncopation, I found myself also hungry for dissonance and simplicity.
Samuel Barber: Excursions
1. I Un poco allegro
2. II In slow blues tempo
3. III Allegretto
4. IV Allegro molto
Amy Rubin: American Progressions for Piano
8. When One Has the Feet of Wind
9. China Gates
William Bolcom: The Garden of Eden - Four Rags for Piano
10. Old Adam - Two Step
11. The Eternal Feminine - Slow Drag
12. The Serpent's Kiss - Rag Fantasy
13. Through Eden's Gates - Cakewalk
Jelly Roll Morton
14. Finger Buster
Jocelyn Swigger: Afterward