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MMD > Archives > August 1998 > 1998.08.25 > 11Prev  Next


Father of Ragtime & Origins of Syncopation
By Johnny Lite

The expertise evinced by Lobel, Berlin, Dyer, et al is indisputable.
I enjoy their debate, sadly -- because I like all these fellows --
ad hominem as it sometimes is.

But by simply using the music as evidence, and using current events,
churning their way into our own recent history (I've said all this in
past posts), we can hear that Gottschalk is no more the father of
ragtime than Bill Haley is the father of Rock 'n Roll.

Many composers, for whatever reasons, have day-tripped in the funky
section of town, seeking "material", and Gottschalk, according to his
biography, was no different.  Part black, part Jew, he perhaps felt
"akin" to the lower but libidinally livelier elements of Society.
Even the amazing virtually unknown talent, Alkan, a neighbor 
(literally) of Chopin, wrote a "rhumba".  And Bartok took to the 
hills, so to speak, for folksy "input" he could serialize bizarrely.

In our country, the growth of the "world music" industry (that's what
it is) reveals the populace's propensity for funky stuff from funky
places, put up for sale, these days, on "music-dot-com", perhaps after
a bit of white-washing (often not necessary, as our pop-culture has
fed back into these "resources" long before the producers have to).
Only the technology has changed since Gottschalk's time, people
haven't.

Notwithstanding our proverbial 15 minutes of fame, most great musicians
are never heard, never recorded.  (Take me, for example, please.)
Perhaps they pickle away in bar-room "venues", or diddling in their
messy bedrooms with their very own CD "toasting" materiel.  This is
even more relevant in an era -- Gottschalk's, Joplin's -- when
mass-media was barely infant.

It is silly to assume that greatness always surfaces and is "dis-
covered"; this implies several, if not scores, of unknown artistic
influences on both Joplin and Gottschalk.  There is little or no
evidence, in my opinion, of direct Gottschalk in Joplin's music,
other than perhaps as an inadvertently fellow carrier of similar,
ever-emerging music styles, emitted from the same streams of music
evolution: classical and folk, American and European.

Also, technology, i.e., the mediums of purveyance (the medium, while
not the message, influences it greatly), eventually feeds back into the
product becoming a source of "creativity" for more of the same, though
maybe more complex.

The modern drum-computer is a prime example.  Rap music and drum
computers are fused like a blob of lead neutrons.  No need then to
seek out the local idiot savant for inspiration.  Ideas can also be
engendered by a machine, notwithstanding any distant linkage to the
resulting product's organic origins.

Joplin, unlike Gottschalk, composed at least some of his material
with the player piano somewhere in mind, and an inevitable feedback
loop was established (no one is immune; your first glimpse in a
mirror establishes a lifelong feedback loop with a profound influence
on "self-esteem"): "This is how it will sound, with no mistakes, this
is what must be done to get that sexy can-can effect, this is how to
lilt the melody when there's no possibility of rubato and besides,
who needs rubato?!"

Any medium, however, becomes a limit after a while, as its feedback
loop with the item (idea, product) it purveys, when lacking living
input, becomes entropic, and a new innovation is needed to rescue, if
not the item, then us, from drowning in the stagnant mainstream.

Like the drum computer, the player piano was an excellent medium for
creating, or rendering, "syncopation".  The machine was unchallenged
by the aural oddities of the effect (that's what syncopation is: an
effect), playing a melody over a bipedal groove, come what may.

"Come what may" is the definition of syncopation.  Syncopation, by the
way, was not "invented" by anyone.  It was more a question of how to
render it via notation.  Gottschalk scratched the surface, but Joplin
did it, however genteely compared, say, to Jimmy Blythe (my favorite).

It'd be fabulous fun to unearth that, in a dusty parlor somewhere
in yesteryear, a notationally ill-rendered composition, yet played
perfectly by a skilled music-reader, resulted in the accidental
"invention" of syncopation.

"Hey," said the young Joplin, dismayed, and thrilled, "that's not how
I intended it to sound; it was supposed to be kind of ... lumbering
and plodding, like Gottschalk's stuff, but, golly, gee, it sounds ...
way cool!" ...   But I digress.

Thanks all, regards,

Johnny Lite


(Message sent Wed 26 Aug 1998, 04:42:16 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Father, Origins, Ragtime, Syncopation

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