Shh. I’m not even supposed to be typing about this. But I had to tell someone, and who better to confide in than the Internet?
I’ve finished a new piece. Only I can’t play it for you. I can’t post a video. Hell, I can’t even post a screenshot. The rules are clear: “Rags which have been previously published, formally or informally, or which have been premiered at a
public gathering will not be considered. A statement that the composition conforms to this requirement must
accompany the submitted rag.”
That’s right, the Scott Joplin Foundation (http://www.scottjoplin.org) is hosting a ragtime composition contest, the first in many years. They’ve commissioned a piece called “The Train Town Rag,” which is in honor of the the sesquecentennial of Sedalia, MO, as well as the 30 years of ragtime festivals held there. Pretty cool. But then take into account that there is an obscenely huge (by ragtime standards) first prize of $500 to the winner (and $250 to the first among losers i.e., 2nd place), and you have the makings of my latest obsession, “Operation New Rag” (it’s like Desert Storm only with more syncopation).
I’ve been on it like blood on a cat.
Classic ragtime, for the 99% of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, refers to rags that follow a defined sequence of sections: Introduction (optional), Section A with repeat, Section B with repeat, Section A transition (optional), Section C with repeat, Section D with repeat, Coda (optional). Us cool kids write it like so: Intro AA BB A CC DD Coda. Sections A and B are usually in the same key, Section C is in the subdominant of that key, and Section D can either stay in the subdominant or head back to the original key. If this sounds a lot like most every Joplin rag you’ve ever heard, that’s because he’s the one who invented the form.
The challenge is, the last classic rag I wrote (my Red Elephant Rag) was in 1999. That’s over, like, a hundred years ago. I’ve written a bunch of music since then, but it’s not been classic ragtime, not by a longshot. I’m interested in innovating, you know? Moving beyond what was done before. And here was a $500 motivation to return to my roots, go all AABBACCDD on that sh*t and take everything I’ve learned and make a statement about the kind of musician I’ve become.
The best way to do that, it turns out, was to pillage the crap out of the pieces I wrote a decade ago.
Ah, 14. I was young. Innocent. Hormonal, yes, but also fearless. I didn’t sit down at the piano and worry about whether the music I was creating was any good. It was coming from such a profound place within me that the very act of making the music felt like The Point of Me, and although this meant that I wrote a lot of terrible (truly bad) music, it also meant that I wasn’t afraid to try new things. And new things – well, new old things – were exactly what I needed now, sitting at the piano and trying to squeeze a classic rag out of my novelty-and-stride-ridden fingers.
It took a couple months, but I finally have something written out and ready to send into the contest. I feel pretty good about it, I guess. I don’t know if it’ll win or not – there are many talented composers submitting pieces that will likely kick my tail – but writing a classic rag again feels like a little victory for me. And, the best part, my latest kick of actually writing down my music has been great for my self-confidence. It feels good to hold a composition in my hands and know that anyone out there who can read this musical language could perform it, even long after I’ve gone to that great gig in the sky. It feels like a worthy investment of my time, for what little difference it makes in this big world, and I’m excited to debut it for you here, regardless of whether it wins or not, after the contest ends on June 6.
Wish me luck! And if anyone with a Missouri accent and a bucket of bull testicles comes snooping around with questions, just remember: We never had this conversation.
I’m going to print this out and show it to the next street person who asks me for money.
My French teacher in high school had a thing. Whenever a student would come to talk to him about late homework, he would curtly ask, “Is this a big long story ending with ‘I don’t have it’?” And invariably, if the student (usually me) indicated that yes, this was indeed a story ending with “I don’t have it,” he would quickly go, “Okay, sorry. Better luck next time.”
My point: Hi. Sorry. I’ve been a negligent blogger. The reason why? A big long story ending with “I don’t have it.” Moving on.
There are few things more pleasurable for a person interested in ragtime, stride, and early jazz than finding other, ridiculously talented people who are also into it. The internet is more adept at causing this phenomenon than any technology ever, and helped me discover this guy. His name is Bernd Lohtzky. He’s a German. And he might be one of the best interpreters of this style of music I’ve ever heard.
It’s hard to communicate how watching something like this makes me feel. To be honest, it elicits a mountain of self-doubt. First, I’ve been thinking about ragging/striding this etude for a long time. It lends itself to it very well. And then I see this and… I quit. I mean, I cannot do what this guy does. I don’t think I ever will be able to. His playing is nearly flawless. He has no trouble keeping rhythm. It’s effortless and beautiful and sparkling. Listen to some of his other videos on YouTube. He plays Jimmy Johnson’s “Caprice Rag” like it’s a piece for children. My playing sounds sodden and weak in comparison.
And to top it all off, he has fantastic hair. I can’t win. Bastard.
That said, I really would love to meet him. Shake his hand. Maybe steal some of his secret genius BBQ sauce. Seriously, how am I going to get good enough to do what this guy does? He’s probably 10 years older than me. I have exactly 10 years to get this good. I guess I have to try harder or quit.
Williamsburg, VA, has a serious problem. A dire problem. A pancake house problem.
Seriously, this town has way too many pancake houses. You see a pancake house, you’re like, “Aw, cool. That’s fun.” Pancake houses seem vaguely Nordic to me, like something you’d encounter nestled in a cove in the Alps on your trek through Europe, and so when I saw two pancake houses I was like, “Wow! Jackpot! Which one do we hit up first?” But by the time I counted eleven pancake houses within three miles of each other, I realized that I had entered another world. A syrupy world. A world that doesn’t know when to stop building pancake houses.
Jess and I celebrated our ninth Valentine’s Day together. This is, of course, ridiculous, seeing as it’s hard for me to believe that I’ve even been alive that long let alone in a relationship for that long, but here we are. Jess has always been naturally gifted with this “holiday,” even though we both regard it warily, like mice in the garden watching the prowling house cat, as a painfully commercial day full of artificial pressures to spend money. This conviction hasn’t yet translated into not celebrating it – like many Americans we are vaguely against it and still participate – but we’ve gotten to the point where price-hiked roses, store-bought chocolates, and teddy bears made in China (all three of which I got Jess for our second Valentine’s Day – I’m a winner) just don’t really mean much anymore. I take this as a good sign.
We decided to take a trip this year for Valentine’s Day, but we didn’t have a lot of scratch to drop, seeing as the Camry decided to celebrate its 200,000th mile by swallowing two thousand of my favorite dollars for a younger transmission, so we decided to stay close. I had never been to Colonial Williamsburg, and Jess hadn’t been there in 20 years, so we got a hotel on Priceline for less than a good bottle of wine and trekked two hours south into the land of rummers, coopers, the Stamp Act, and Shields Tavern.
We arrived late Saturday morning and went first to Jamestown. For as much as I love history and made a study of it in school, I know embarrassingly little about American history. I’ve always been more interested in ancient and medieval times – Roman history, Chaucer, etc. – and I came to Jamestown with a vague image of Thanksgiving and an expectation of seeing the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. I’m delighted to announce that I have been healed of my total ignorance.
I also learned that I am a freaking weenie. Compared to those early English settlers who trekked for four months in the bowels of a small sailing ship only to find a hellish place where three-fourths of them would die, I am a puffed pastry of a man. But that didn’t stop me from soaking up as much as I could.
We did find some magic. The visitor’s center at Jamestown was beautiful in its design and bountiful in its information. Museums have come a long way – much more immersive and engaging – and it seems like they really want you to be able to relate to the past and not just know about it. One of the coolest parts of Jamestown was sitting in the Powhatan yehakin (long house) on benches covered in deer pelts around a warm fire that billowed smoke up and out a small hole in the ceiling. The space was cozy, out of the wind, and intimate.
Something about sitting in a yehakin and learning about the Powhatan people connected me to them more than any museum exhibit ever could. Our small tour group, led by an eloquent if austere man in deer skin, warned us that the space would be smoky from our entrance disturbing the air, which it was, but after a minute or two the smoke rose above our heads, hovering there like a blanket, and in that ancient calm we spoke in hushed voices about what they ate, how long they lived, what they cared about, etc.
History for most of us is a drama of princes. When we talk about the past, we focus almost entirely on the rich and the powerful because they’re the movers and shakers, the ones that people wrote about and painted and enshrined. Comparatively little survives about the lower classes, the “us” of history, and what we do know about them is often told through the lens of the powerful. Thank you, college.
I’ve always wanted to find a famous or powerful ancestor, as I don’t like the idea that I come from bumpkins in the fields. Sadly, my only ancient birthright is bumpkin-ness, so it’s fun to explore the way the other side lived and pretend that that’s how I would have lived, too.
In Williamsburg proper we toured the grounds of the Governor’s palace, which featured a large symmetrical garden with a stunning long archway of trees that looked more like an entrance to Narnia than the arbor of an 18th-century politico. We ducked into the cellar, a shadowy place pulled straight out of a horror movie, and then made our way over to the kitchen which, like many of the buildings in Williamsburg, had interpreters busy at work. The kitchen in those days was separate from the house to reduce the risk of fire, and we spent a good 20 minutes there asking questions and watching, hungry, as mushroom-stuffed puff pastries browned in the wood-fired oven and fresh dough was pressed into a fluted metal pan for rice pudding. Large copper pots hung on the walls, and in the middle of the cheery space, complete with its walk-in hearth, was a table set with foodstuffs that had been made over the past week: apple pie, omelets with onions, salted pork shoulder, roast duck, macaroni and cheese, apricot jam, candied plums, bread, and fresh-churned butter were just a few of the noms arrayed on the wooden table meant to show the kinds of food that might be featured at the Governor’s house.
Looking over the array, which looked like a Thanksgiving feast, I asked the interpreter-slash-cook what the “us of history” would be eating. “Do you like grits?” she replied.
“Do you like them every day?”
The house was similarly striking. Marble floors, burled walnut walls with moulding so ornate you could grate cheese on it, and a fireplace in every room made the whole place smell of prestige and comfort. The most impressive space was the foyer, made of dark wood with literally hundreds of guns and swords mounted to the walls. It was crazy. It looked like an armory in a war against deer.
Most of the houses you can tour in Colonial Williamsburg belonged to the gentry, but one of the great, not-rich-person-spaces is Shields Tavern. Large wooden casks lined the walls, and bricks painted white flickered in the light of simple candlesticks in pewter on the table, calmly dribbling yellow wax. Jess and I ate there on Saturday night and enjoyed hearty food made with real butter, musicians, magicians, costumed characters, and drinks that would put hair on your shoulders. My favorite was the Rummer, an epic mix of dark rum, peach brandy, and apricot brandy. It knocked me nine feet.
The next night we ventured to King’s Arm Tavern, which had originally been run by Mrs. Jane Vobe, a widower and business owner in an era when women weren’t welcome to eat and socialize at fancy taverns. On Monday we hit a number of the houses we missed, visited with the Cooper and watched him make a barrel (I will never destroy a barrel in a videogame with as much joy again), and then hit up the stunning Cheese Shop for lunch.
It was a great trip. We left with a Colonial Williamsburg cookbook that we’ve been cooking from in the weeks since, and I have newfound love to rum. We definitely want to go back around Christmas time to see the place decorated.
More than anything, however, I left with a powerful new appreciation for the 21st centry. The 18th-century is great for a weekend, but I’d rather spend my weekdays in this century!
Had to share this epic video, courtesy of Scott N. Here is one of my heroes, Billy Mayerl, making all other pianists look like hacks and liars.
BILLY MAYERL AND HIS CLAVIERS
Fun fact: Flying across those keys on the right is a very young Marian McPartland, the famous host of Piano Jazz on NPR!
I play a number of Billy’s pieces, but no one alive can play them as well as he did. That said, I really, really want to try that play-two-pianos-at-a-time trick now 😀
I’ve been working on a couple new tunes lately. I had a relative dry spell there for *cough* six years *cough* but am happily back to writing music on a pretty regular basis. And, unlike when I was a teenager, I’m actually writing things down this time.
Part of this latest effort has involved going back to tunes that I wrote when I was a teenager and sprucing them up, updating them with new harmonies and ideas. It’s not like anyone has heard those old pieces, and I’d rather turn them into something I perform than just have them sitting in the past forgotten. Besides, I can do a lot of things at the piano that I couldn’t do then, which helps.
Oh, and I have some idea of how music works now. That helps too.
And so, with that said, here’s my latest tune. I’ve been writing a bunch of meaningful pieces – Theresa Novelette, Marty’s Blues – and I thought it was time I went back to my roots and wrote a piece of beer drinkin’, cigar smokin’ ragtime.
Oh, and it needed to be named after a bird. Don’t ask questions.
I give you “The Seagull Shuffle”:
From my step-nephew:
The boxing reindeer is dead. He got crushed in Tyler’s book bag. But, you get one of his body parts in memory of him. Please, be safe.
I cannot be the only person who recognizes the genius of my nine-year-old step-nephew.
Literally, he may be one of the funniest, quirkiest people on the planet. I aspire to this.
The entire reason I came to Pittsburgh this weekend was to perform in a theater organ concert with Bryan Wright and the Boilermaker Jazz Band. That was before anyone knew Pittsburgh was about to get 24 inches of snow.
Needless to say, my concert got canceled faster than a Joss Whedon series on FOX.
I was really looking forward to it, too. I was nervous – I’m not a theater organist and was about to pretend to be in front of hundreds of people – but I was also excited, the same kind of excited I get every time a new “Star Wars” project is announced: blind hope that it’s going to be awesome, and stark terror that it’s going to be terrible.
But after the sting of that passed, and the calls were made to family and friends that we wouldn’t be getting together after all, and after a day spent shoveling hundreds of pounds of snow out of Mom’s driveway, not to mention rescuing a few stranded motorists unlucky enough not to have new tires on their car (and who were, I assure you, surprised to see someone with Virginia license plates so deft with a shovel), I was shocked to find myself so energized at 11 PM that I had to go for a walk in the snow-blanketed neighborhood to get myself anywhere near ready to sleep.
The last snow I can remember like this was 17 years ago, in 1993. I was 10. Pittsburghers call it the “Blizzard of ’93,” which isn’t quite as awesome a name as DC’s “Knickerbocker Storm of 1922” but I still love it. I want to call this most recent snow the “Blizzard of Ought-Ten,” which, sadly, makes no sense. We are all out of oughts.
I accept that I am in the minority of Pittsburghers and Virginians because I love snow. I heart snow. If snow was a girl in my grade school, I would pass it notes and have dreams about it.
I don’t just love snow, I crave it. The silence of snow is profound. The silence of snow is literal – it makes everything quieter because it absorbs sound waves – but it’s also metaphorical. And you know how I loves me some metaphor.
My mom’s house, where Jess and I ended up getting stranded last night (if by “stranded” we mean “stuck in a comfy bed with hot popcorn and freshly made hot chocolate while watching the snow fall and trading stories”), lost power because of all the snow. This meant no internet, no phones, no TV, and no heat all day today.
The first three of these delighted me. I don’t think people realize how much stress our connected, wireless, broadband lives put on us. I spend a huge portion of every day keeping up on the news, checking Facebook, working, etc., and the fact that I literally could not get onto the Internet no matter what today was not frustrating, it was a huge relief. All the obligations of the Internet, the distractions and the noise and the cacophony of pixels bearing down on your eyes as you struggle to connect to an intangible world of information and experience, was suddenly, mercifully, gone.
Now, I’m glad to have it back. I’m not Amish. I like the power of technology, even if it comes at the cost of silence. And we got tired of being cold and came to stay with Jessie’s family, who has power and, more importantly, heat.
But the snowfall gave me a wonderful period of silence today, of simplicity. As I was shoveling, kids were riding down the middle of the street on their snowboards and sleds. Couples were out walking. Cars were only occasional occurrences and, when they did come, felt like an invasion and the driver knew it, his face apologetic as he passed by. Not to overdo it, but it really was kind of idyllic. I think that’s why I get so excited about snow. It comes and extends its flakes and invites you to slow down, stop feeling all this pressure to do, and just focus on the important things like hot chocolate and sled-riding and time with the people you care about.
I am convinced that people in DC, whose city Marion Barry decreed was “not a snow town,” are secretly thrilled by snow – regardless of the amount – because it’s the perfect excuse to stop being so… so… DC, so obsessed with doing and accomplishing and achieving. My friend and former co-worker once told me that DC’s reaction to two inches of snow and twenty inches of snow was exactly the same, and I think my theory proves why. People are hungry for an excuse to be silent, free of their modern obligations, and the more snow you get, the longer the silence can last.
On my walk tonight, accompanied only by the sound of crystals crunching under the treads of my shoes, I looked up through snow-covered branches at a winter star shining, breathing the air of my hometown, minutes from the house I called home for 15 years, and I felt good about being 27. I felt good about being home. I felt grounded and grateful. I felt like I had traded youth for a real understanding of how good a good day was, and I liked me a lot in that moment.
I’m sure, as the snow is cleared and as it melts, the weight of my world will feel a little heavier. But for today, nestled under blankets next to my wife and sipping hot chocolate and moving and shoveling and hanging socks to dry and putting pictures in albums and playing cards and eating dinner with friends and family, I felt as light as a snowflake drifting, quiet, to the ground.
I think I’m in need of an intervention. I went through all of my CDs this weekend. Not a single disc matched the case that it was in.
Josh Groban was in Jo Ann Castle. The Chieftains lived with Dave Matthews. Scott Joplin lay with John Williams. Bon Jovi was stuffed inside Michael Jackson. Honest to God it looked like someone had deliberately gone through my stuff and messed it up to screw with me but, no, this is my natural state. When it comes to organization I am, as the French say, a hot mess.
They say opposites attract, which is why I’m friends with Bryan Wright. His CD collection is alphabetized, prioritized, cataloged, categorized, displayed, diagrammed, digitized, duplicated, researched, registered on the list of Historic Landmarks, and indexed by Google. He can find any CD, record, recording, research paper, picture, piano roll, or page of information in a manner of seconds and tell you exactly what it is, where he got it, why he owns it, how much it’s worth, who collects it, and which needle to use on his record player to play it. He’s like RoboCop with a spreadsheet. He might as well have x-ray vision, because being that organized seems like a superpower to me.
I don’t know why I’m so afflicted. I don’t come from messy people. I clean up well, when I dedicate myself to it, but inevitably it’s going to plunge into disarray again because the behavior that causes the calamity, my je ne sais quois, is hard to change.
Nowhere is this more evident than on my computers, where the accumulated detritus of 14 years years of papers, stories, scripts, pictures, videos, compositions, and recordings is spread over five computers with 12 hard drives and 3 terabytes of storage space. After tackling my CD collection (and by “tackling” I mean shoving it back in the box and stuffing it in the closet, horrified), I’ve been slowly aggregating related files into folders and trying to simplify, simplify, simplify. Having made it this far with absolutely no backup strategy whatsoever for my most valuable files (e.g., the irreplaceable pictures and data associated with my SW movie), I’ve begun to hurl my adult money at RAID arrays and other toys that will give me the illusion of organization and security while actually just giving me more storage space in which to hide things. It feels like I’m being proactive.
That counts, right?