Monday, November 07, 2005

I've been obsessed with a phenomenal CD that I discovered while browsing CDBaby: Black Baby, a collection of Scott Joplin's ragtime music played by Italian pianist Alessandra Celletti. I love Joplin's rags, and Celletti plays them flawlessly -- but what makes this recording unique is that it was recorded in 2001.

No one records Joplin today. There's always a small market for his music, so you can find a few inexpensive CDs; but the recordings are old and scratchy, the audio equivalent of mothballs. His ragtime compositions still earn a nod of respect among musicians, but no one plays them. Jazz musicians can't be bothered to commit them to memory, and classical musicians consider them clunky and repetitive; unfortunately, a Joplin recital doesn't carry the cachet of Liszt or Debussy. For whatever reason, the style is inextricably tied to its time period; and no one wants to play their grandfather's music.

But there's another element of time in music. Just like language, performances from decades past always sound dated compared to contemporary recordings. We speak the same English language today as our nation's founders; but when we read their personal letters, the difference is unmistakable: We don't talk like that. The same is true with music. Two musicians, playing the same notes a century apart, will always sound different; and each will sound more familiar to his contemporaries. That's why classical musicians continue to record Bach and Beethoven. To believe a modern performance has nothing to add is to misunderstand music.

Joplin considered himself a classical composer. His dream was to launch a successful opera. He would probably be disappointed to learn his name became synonymous with ragtime -- a style which, although he didn't invent it, he certainly defined. But the greatest works often come from painters who would rather be sculpting or playwrights who would rather write novels. Joplin's rags are clever, complex, and absolutely beautiful; and I'm thrilled to finally hear them sung in a contemporary voice.


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