Monday, April 28, 2014

Polite Syncopations

During my copious amounts of spare time lately I've been recording a few Joplin rags. Well, actually, I've been practically sight reading them into the microphone because that's how copious my time is, and my energy. It's the end of the semester, after all. Still, with the ability to do a few takes and some light editing, some of the playing isn't too bad. I've gotten used to playing music well on very short notice these past several years.

While I'm doing things on the fly, I'm also trying out some creative interpretations of the Joplin classics. Maybe it's my classical training, but some of the interpretations are rather expressive, and I'm doing some unusual things with the tempi as well. But today I thought I'd let you listen to one of my favorites, and point out one salient feature.

When ragtime was new, the public (well, the white public, anyway) didn't know what to make of it. Amateur pianists, who bought most of the sheet music, couldn't really play it because of the complex rhythms. In some cases, those rhythms were taken out, so the pretty little heads that bought the music wouldn't get too frustrated with it.

Rhythm can be a tough thing to notate, particularly if things are syncopated--that is, if they are not on the beat. If everything is between the beat you end up using a lot of ties and sixteenth notes and so on. A lot of ink is spent on what is really a pretty simple concept if you just listen and feel it. But on the page it looks daunting.

Then there are rhythms that aren't on the page. A row of eight notes might just be a row of eighth notes, or they might be swung. In that case, the first eighth note is longer, and the second is shorter, in what is pretty much a 2 to 1 ratio (you might say they are really triplets, with the first note getting the first two-thirds of it). On the page all the notes look equal. But they aren't. This concept actually existed in European music back as far as the Renaissance. But it also crops up in American jazz styles. Ragtimers probably did their fair share of it, too.

In this recording, I do a certain amount of it. Since Joplin repeats each section, on the repeated halves of two of the sections I do some swinging. There's nothing in the score that says to do this, and I don't know whether Joplin would have approved. But I'll bet you anything I'm not the first person to do this! In fact, I'm probably about a hundred years late.

Now in the second section of the piece, which starts at :48, I play it straight the first time, and swing it the second time (that repeat is as 1:09); after the opening section returns, there is another section, similar in nature to the second (it is more lyrical and melodic than its bouncier cousin, the first section) and this time I swing it the first time (1:49), and play it straight the second time (2:09). It sounds so polite and contained the second time! I love it. Sometimes an even passage of notes can sound syncopated--or at least give the same effect-- if they follow a group of notes that are syncopated. In that case, it is the sudden contrast between the syncopation and the unsyncopated notes that make the effect. Putting everything suddenly on the beat after several measures in which nothing is on the beat is a sudden rhythmic shift, just like your body experiences going around a tight turn in a roller coaster. It's a neat trick Joplin himself employs in the bass line near the end of the piece when, after a bit of unpredictable oom oom pah pah ooming he suddenly restores the old predictable oom pah oom pah in the bass (at 2:41 and on the repeat at 3:01). And, with the uneven notes becoming even notes when I repeat that earlier section I'm doing something like that as well.

Anyhow, have a listen. It's a fun piece.

Elite Syncopations   by   Scott Joplin

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