Review Summary: Not just danceable music, but music that actually seems to dance
Everything on this record is perfect if you like this kind of thing. It would be perfect for me too, but with one exception: His most famous work of all, The Entertainer
. Even though it was composed after the Antebellum Era, for some reason I associate that song -- and only that song -- with the cruelty of that period, and the violently enforced class system that Joplin in his own time had to struggle through to compose his pioneering music. I don’t even know the details; I’m just totally 100% confident that growing up Black in late 19th century Arkansas meant that he grew up with all kinds of bad sh*t. The Entertainer seems to say to me, in effect, “ignore the glaring unfairness all around you. Everyone is happy, folks. Just keep moving: nothing to see here.” It renders the song false to my biased ears.
Anyway, The Entertainer is depressing for me in a way the rest of the album is not. The highlights are three tracks: The opener, the finisher, and the Stoptime Rag
The Magnetic Rag
starts with a relaxed cheerfulness that feels similar in tone to The Entertainer
. But it plunges into little minor-key sections of sudden profundity wholly absent in The Entertainer
; for example, at the first break that occurs at 0:58 of the following:
On my first several listens the Stoptime Rag
was the most annoying on the record. “Click, click, click, click, click, click….” Ok, ok, enough already, stop with the clicking. Please stop. Stop! Goddamn it, STOP!!
WHAT’S UP WITH THE F*CKING METRONOME!!!?
The answer seems to be that keeping time with a percussive beat during performances of ragtime pieces was a cultural thing back in the day, the percussion provided either by the performer tapping their foot, or by the audience clapping along; Joplin himself published instructions for the audience to stomp their feet to a beat.
However, while the theory of this public time-keeping is more complicated than I fully understand, it is not used to help guide
the music -- as it would be in a Classical piece, beholden as it is to the meter. Rather, it is used to emphasize the strong notes of the musical
beats that fall between the percussive
beats of the metronome, drawing our attention to places where strong beats “shouldn’t” be falling. That is, the metronome or the audience keep time to emphasize the syncopations in the music. You don’t need any theory to hear this, though, just try to focus on where the music stops and starts: Sometimes it starts on a click, other times it does not, and when “not” then that beat works as a sort-of disorienting surprise that draws you back and forth between the metronome clicks and the beats played by the piano. This sort of confuses your ear as to where the time “should” be, and makes listening to the music almost a variety of game, or maybe a variety of dance, as opposed to the background for meditation or relaxation.
I hated this piece at first, but it really grew on me. And philosophically it emphasizes as well as any in existence the revolutionary quality of this music, which helped lay the groundwork for the rhythmic complexities of the Blues, Jazz and Rock masterpieces that were to come.
(Incidentally, stop-time theory is still used in R&B, soul music and, according to Wikipedia, “led to the development of the break in hip hop.” But don’t ask me to elaborate unless you’re just doing it to emphasize my ignorance. Happily, “Stop Time” has its own article on the site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop-time).
Criticism of the record
The interpretations on this record by Joshua Rifkin have been criticized for their strict adherence to time signature, without any “emotional” expression. Outside of Joplin, Rifkin is also known for his Bach interpretations, where a mechanical obedience to the meter is paramount for many performers (I personally agree and think fermata in Baroque music almost always sounds terrible).
Critics say Joplin should not be played in the spirit of Bach, but in the spirit of, say, Joplin’s contemporary Debussy: Slow it down in places. Relax. Feel it.
But I like Bach better than Debussy, or anything Romantic for that matter, so Rifkin’s Joplin is the one for me.