I am the Lord of Ragtime.
Nay, nay, keep your oaths of fealty for later. There will be ample time for groveling, sniveling, and genuflecting in the months to come (although practice does make perfect).
For right now, I ask only that you bask, lizard-like, in the glory that is moi, because after 16 years of playing the piano, I finally have a trophy worthy of Mordor. And not just any trophy: the World Old-time Piano Playing Championship trophy.
Oh yeah, baby. Drink it in.
Clearly, I’ve been struggling to contain the size of my rapidly inflated ego. You would, too, if you were crowned the “world champion” of something. Like all artists, however, I have to hold two truths as self-evident:
- I am the most inspired creation to have ever walked the planet Earth.
- I am a flaccid sack of nothing.
The truth, hopefully, is somewhere solidly in between, but being a “world” champion of something does feel pretty good. It feels especially good because the last two times I competed in this competition, I came in fourth place, just somewhere between “relative obscurity” and “Martin who?” Now my name will forever after be emblazoned in brass on a honkin’-big trophy alongside some of my musical heroes – Brian Holland, Mimi Blais – and I can sleep easier in the knowledge that I finally outfoxed my self-doubts and played as if I had nothing to prove.
Even better, I’m the first contestant in the history of the contest to win the composition and performance contests in the same weekend, hence why I’m the “lord” of ragtime and not the “dark prince” of ragtime (although I do anxiously await my fall to the Dark Side and the eventual rescue of my soul by my blonde-haired one-handed son). And I won against valiant competition, including former champions and other deserving parties, which makes the victory all the sweeter.
As lovely as it is to have won, however, and as fun as it is to pretend I’m the “lord” of anything, when I placed fourth in 2007 and 2010, I had to tell myself that competitions were just games, and the victor was the one who had best played the game. It wasn’t an accurate measure of musicality, success, or potential, and so to see this victory as anything other than an acknowledgment that I played the game well this year is disingenuous.
If anything, winning has made me anxious to get better.
Still, I’m not above appreciating some sweet, delicious external validation, and I do secretly hope this victory will open up some opportunities to reach new audiences with my music. And let’s be honest: being the Lord of Ragtime is kind of like being the Lord of Fedora-Wearers. It doesn’t exactly come with, you know, the ability to shoot lightning-bolts out of your fingers.
The grande bold slicks down my throat. I wrap myself around it like a cat at the fireplace and when the heat of it reaches my toes, I feel warm for the first time in two hours. The bus had its A/C cranked, beating back the heat of a sun on the other side of the planet and, coupled with the lack of a pillow and the seat-adjustment lever in my thigh, I felt like a hunk of meat swaying in the freezer, waiting for the butcher’s block.
Now I’m in downtown Pittsburgh without a car at 5:36 AM, flip-flops on my feet, looking like I should be pushing a shopping cart.
I left DC at 12:15 in the morning on the first leg of my second ragtime odyssey of the year, and all I’m dreaming about as I wander the streets is a hot cup of coffee and a warm blueberry scone. Chances of me finding something with its sign lit up, however, let alone open for a cup of joe, are infinitesimal. Unlike New York, Pittsburgh is the city that never wakes.
At least it feels that way at 5:36 AM when the sun isn’t up yet and even the 7-Eleven – the 7-Eleven – is closed. But I’m from this city. I bleed this city. And I have a sixth sense about its strengths, its hopes, which is how I found the Starbucks I’m sitting in; first rule of Pittsburgh: when in doubt, walk to Heinz Hall.
Starbucks before 6 AM is an entertaining place to be. The half-aproned, half-perky people behind the counter, in between serving vats of coffee to the shocking number of people already in line when I arrive, are going through the shelves writing down what they need more of. “We’re out of tons of stuff: dark coffee beans, Rice Krispies, brownies, vanilla, strawberry, whipped cream…” The list reads like the digestive tract of the AM urban effete. At this point though, any feelings about Starbucks and their “grande” instead of “medium” aside, I’m just happy to be counted among them, the Camel-draughting construction worker and plaid pantalooned boy toy alike.
My intimate ‘burgh knowledge rewards me with a comfy space to sit and sip, waiting for Bryan and Yuko to come pick me up. We’re driving nine hours to Peoria, IL today, the site of the World Old-time Piano Playing Championship.
This event is unique in the world, the only long-running old-time piano contest in existence. I’ve competed in it twice, in 2007 and 2010, and placed fourth both times. For someone who bills himself as “face-melting,” fourth place was pretty ego-bruising, to be honest. Spitznagels not named “Mark” are, by nature, not very competitive beasts, but I do have one very big competitive bone that, when roused, roars like a hungry mountain lion and demands to rule the world. Maybe that’s why I’m returning to Peoria one more time – a chance at a bigger piece of meat.
The main event this sunny Friday is the composition contest, held in the ballroom of the Hotel Pere-Marquette. I won the composition contest in 2007 for my “Red Elephant Rag” – very cool – but got my ass pounded in it last year by Jacob Adams and Bill McNally, each of whom wrote lovely rags that had a lot more colors and variety than my contender, “The Seagull Shuffle,” did. (I got the last laugh, though – teen idol and man-throb Brian Holland now plays “Seagull Shuffle,” which kind of makes my life).
Indecisive as I am, I spend the car ride to Peoria fretting over what piece I should enter. My entry needs to have more than one mood, a strong melody, and a great flow. Bryan and I debate it, weighing the strengths of my pieces. The “Newbie Eubie” is grand and impressive, but it might get docked points for being evocative of another composer. “Marty’s Blues” is my most harmonically advanced piece, but I can’t bear the thought of swinging it around like some kind of ragtime sword and risk it getting dinged and scratched.
We do this for each eligible composition, and I don’t select a contender until right beforehand, finally deciding to enter “The Smoky Rose,” my latest composition, as the one with the best chance of wooing the judges.
It proves to be a good choice, as this first-place trophy attests 😀 Okay, I think, this is off to a good start. Little did I know just how good the next ten days would turn out to be…
Hi all! In the lead up to my new album being released, I thought it might be fun-slash-illuminating-slash-cathartic-for-me to share with you some of the tracks for the new CD that didn’t make the cut.
These are the rejects, the failures, the has-beens and never-weres, the kinds of things usually saved for “Special Edition” DVDs. But since I’m not making a “Handful of Keys: Special Edition,” I thought it was pretty safe to share them with you here in the privacy of our very own Internet.
There are 22 tracks on the final CD, but in reality I recorded 113 takes over three nights – 113! – so there is a lot of music, most of it bad, that the world will never get/be forced to hear. Some tunes, like “Handful of Keys,” got two takes, whereas others like “The Ragtime Dance” got six takes.
As it usually goes with recording sessions, however, having takes doesn’t equal a tune making the album. Perfect example? “Handful of Keys” is on the album, and “The Ragtime Dance” is not.
The first deleted track is an improvisation on Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in the key of G (the piece is originally scored a half-step higher in Ab). I decided not to include this cut on the album for two reasons: it’s too fast, and I like the one that I did with Bryan (which made it onto the album) a lot better. But! It’s a jaunty rendition of Joplin’s classic, and I hope you get a kick out of it 😀
Maple Leaf Rag in G(ospel)
iPhone-friendly version: click here
I had an interview with a newspaper today. It made me feel like a rockstar.
One of the music festivals I’m performing at suggested me as a good interview candidate – a risky move, considering that I tend to say crazy things when my mouth moves – but I know it went well because I spent over 50% of it talking about Star Wars.
The interviewer, John, was just a few years older than me, and his voice, a low, warm rasp, coaxed just the right amount of information. That is to say, I didn’t shut up for, like, 50 minutes. Despite my yammering he was respectful, asked good questions, didn’t sigh audibly when I talked for five minutes at a time, and actually sounded interested in the festival, in me, in ragtime. He also admitted to defending George Lucas on occasion, disliked the prequels but loved the OT, and said he felt God more profoundly when Yoda talks than when a priest does which, you can imagine, warmed every cockle in my Star-Wars-laden body.
He asked a number of great questions, but my favorite was about how I make non-ragtime tunes into ragtime and whether I was doing it because I thought it would make me “cool.” The answer is, um, I was playing Legend of Zelda in ragtime before YouTube even existed. I wish I could claim to be the mastermind behind some vast, calculated conspiracy to make ragtime relevant, but honestly I’m still in shock that, A) “Ragtime” and “cool” were used in the same sentence by an intelligent human being other than myself, and B) Combining two nerdy things that I love makes not one massively nerdy thing like I expected, but one frigging cool thing, i.e., “Star Wars” plus “ragtime” equals video with a half-million hits. This is kind of the opposite of what I expected to happen, but damn, it’s a happy surprise.
It was entertaining to sit back in my head listen to myself be interviewed. I’m not a preachy person, but get me talking about ragtime, it’s future, and it’s history, and I start thumping books like the Rev. Billy Graham. I wasn’t “replying to questions,” I was “proselytizing to the unbelievers” – and it’s not like I could help it, either. I went to answer a question and all of a sudden this big elephant stood on its hind legs within me, took a draught of fresh air, and began to blow a giant ragtime horn until its ears turned blue. I unabashedly love this stuff. I do. not. know. why. Scientists have been unable to determine the reason. I’ve confounded the greatest rational minds of our age. It just is, and my only hope is not to scare people with how passionate I am about this thing that I love so damn much.
That said, the interview got me very excited about my upcoming musical adventures. The trek begins on May 27th in Peoria, IL and ends in Sedalia, MO on June 5th. I’ve got, like, 6 concerts to give in that time, not to mention a number of 20-minute sets, and right now I’ve spent so much time listening to myself play on my album that I haven’t physically touched a piano in over two weeks.
I hope people like “Chopsticks” in ragtime, because that’s what I’m going to be able to play unless I get my act together. Ragtime rockstar, indeed.
Alright, you’re likely sick of hearing about the new album. This is the last post about it I promise – at least until it’s about to come out at the end of May. But it’s kind of been my whole world for the past month, so it deserves more than a passing message in this, the recorded play-by-play of my ragtime life.
It’s amazing the number of steps and amount of work that goes into a single album, which makes the fact that we sent the album to the plant today all the more amazing to me. Bryan spent literally three straight days this week assembling the cover, liner notes, acknowledgments, producer’s note, introduction, and track list into the PDF files he needed to send to the plant. This was the last step on our part, assembling the materials for the plant to print, and now it’s out of our hands. The master CD went out yesterday, all 73’39” of it. I can’t believe we managed to record that much music in three nights, especially after cutting five of the tracks we recorded because they weren’t up to snuff.
I’ve spent the past month editing the tracks – roughly 1 or 2 a day – and then sent them to Bryan for mastering, which is the process of tweaking the equalization, volume, and overall sound of the album so that tracks recorded at different times and on different nights sound like they belong to one cohesive whole. Once that was done, it was time to order the tracks, something I took seriously; despite the fact that I usually set my iTunes to shuffle, I wanted the album to be listenable from start to finish, and in order to do that you have to be deliberate about which pieces you put after one another. Instrumental music has a tendency to sound the same, so you have to be diligent, changing up tempo and key signature in order to maintain listener interest. I definitely fretted over this. It’s like planning out a concert, only you can’t see the audience. Happily, however, I think I found a flow that works.
One of the highlights of this album for me is the introduction, written by my friend Brian Holland. Brian is one of the top talents on the ragtime/stride scene, and is also one of the nicest guys I know. I met him when I was 16, just a starry-eyed youth with ragtime on the brain, and so for him to be writing the introduction to my CD is surreal to say the least. The feedback from him and my friends thus far has been very positive, so I’m hopeful the general public will like the album as much as I do. We’ll be cutting it close as far as delivery. In less than one month, I’ve got five ragtime events lined up in the span of 10 days, and I really want to have the new album with me and for sale so that I can make back some of my considerable investment. I haven’t decided how to pitch it yet, but I have decided that it’s important to mention at every performance that I’ve got a new album and that it’s worth checking out. Some friends have been razzing me for overselling it, but in this corner of the musical world you’ve got to be your own biggest fan! And of course I’m so knee-deep in the process that it’s hard to imagine other people not liking it, too. I’m sure time will help put the project in perspective, but right now it seems like a Big Frigging Deal.
Anyways, it’s out of my hands now. The plant has it, and in short order there will be 1,000 instantiations of my new album, a thousand pieces of Martin floating around on the planet, looking for eyes and ears. Who knows where the music will go? Who knows who the music will find? It’s fun to think of it traveling the planet, reaching listeners far and wide and hopefully bringing a smile to their faces.
I have a secret dream for this album, and I’m going to speak it out loud in the hopes of attracting it to me. I want this album to be nominated for a Grammy. I want other musicians to hear it and go, “Wow, this guy has something to offer the world musically. This is something special.” I want to stand on the Grammy stage and keep my promise to Tony Caramia, who asked as his sole payment for my lessons that he get acknowledgment on the day I accepted the award. Is it vain to want this? Is it too bold? I don’t know. I don’t care. You have to have dreams and this is one of mine. I feel like Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” – if you record it, they will come. Here’s hoping.
In the meantime, thanks to Bryan at Rivermont Records, and to Brian Holland for the intro and the feedback. If this CD is the torso, you guys are its legs. Couldn’t have done it without you. And now? We wait…
One of the most challenging parts of the process of producing an album is deciding on a cover. The cover has to catch the eye, communicate key information, and make a positive, take-out-your-wallet-and-buy-three impression on all who look at it.
A ragtime CD isn’t like your typical album, either. Most of my sales come not off the shelves of a Barnes and Noble but at concerts I give or at a music festivals at which I perform. This is why I made two mistakes with my first album: 1) Not putting my face on the cover, and 2) Making the cover too dark.
Scenario #1: You are at a music festival, you heard a pianist you liked but you can’t remember his name, and you go to the CD table to look for his album. On the table are, literally, 100 different albums. You pick a few up, trying to find the one of the pianist you heard, but what the heck was his name? Without a picture, you have little to no chance.
Scenario #2: You are at the CD table looking over the offerings. Which ones catch your eye? The dark, moody ones, or the bright, inviting ones? Human beings like shiny things. You pick up the shiny ones first, and thus you buy the shiny ones first.
With those two lessons in mind, my producer Bryan and I have been on the search for the right cover for the new album. We wanted something bright, inviting, and featured my picture, but also captured the spirit of the album, the playful and serious sides.
Here are a couple of the options that didn’t make the cut…
So what does the final cover look like? That is the subject of another post 😀
The playlist for my latest solo album has been finalized. Yay! 22 tracks of ragtime goodness:
Handful of Keys
The Easy Winners
Mary Poppins Medley
The Chips Are Down
The Smoky Rose
The Train Town Rag
Hobson Street Blues
Legend of Zelda
The Newbie Eubie
Amblin’ with Chocobo (feat. Bryan Wright)
The Entertainer (Blues)
Pork and Beans
The Seagull Shuffle
Super Mario Medley (feat. Bryan Wright)
Bonus Track: Maple Leaf Rag @ 4AM
I’m really excited for this album. Each track has been a labor of love, and I’m delighted that I’m able to offer so many tracks on my second album. My friend and producer Bryan Wright said “it’s 10,000 times better than Tricky Fingers,” which is amazing and terrific news! It should be available for purchase at the end of May, if all goes according to plan. I will keep you posted! Woo! Just need to get the liner notes written, and then it’s off to the presses…
The third desktop computer my family ever bought was a Gateway 2000 Pentium 120MHz. It was 1996. I was 13.
There are so many things in that sentence that make me sound old, it’s hard to know where to start. However, that computer lived for a good, long time, and when my Mom updated last year to a brand new 17″ Macbook Pro, I inherited the old boy.
There wasn’t a whole bunch to do with a system that ancient. No modern OS would run on it. I remember that it used to struggle ripping a CD to MP3s. It was old a long time ago. What to do?
Thankfully, the internet came to the rescue, with lots of ideas on what to do with an old computer. After some Googling and research on Etsy, here’s what I did with mine!
Difficulty: Easy peasy
Notes: Cut the RAM stick in half with the scissors and round the corners. The keyring fits right through the hole in the RAM stick, and voila!
Tools: Pliers, drill, clock kit from Klockit.com, blood of the unicorn
Difficulty: Annoying as [bleep]
Notes: The clock kit was easy to assemble. The hard part? Clearing off the AGP port, RAM slots, and resistors from the underside of the motherboard in order to attach the clock movement. SO ANNOYING. Seriously, it took animal sacrifices to the Four Towers of Galondor to get those things off. But! The result is pretty sexy, if I say so myself 😀
Yay! Very happy news to report. Two big things:
- After seeing me on YouTube, Rambling Records in Japan contracted me to record five video game tracks in ragtime for a compilation album they are producing. After going back and forth with them for three months, I’ve finally recorded the tracks and sent them off to the label for approval. Wish me luck!
- I’ve recorded my next solo album! Now it just needs liner notes, a title, a cover, and $2500 to press 1,000 copies. Piece of cakohmygodthatissomuchwork.
I would love to share the final track list for the solo album, but it isn’t finalized yet. I’ve made a rule for myself, however: I’m not going to put any track on this CD that I don’t absolutely love.
It’s been over three years since I recorded my first solo album, Tricky Fingers, and I forgot how exhausting it was to do. Recording is like performing, only without any of the feel-good applause at the end; the only audience is the one in your head, and man are they mean. Happily, however, I’ve learned so much and changed so much in three years that it’s kind of creepy-slash-satisfying to hear the difference in my playing. It still sounds like me, only more… controlled. More deliberate.
Thanks to Rivermont Records, I had the privilege of performing on one of the best pianos in the city of Pittsburgh, a gorgeous Steinway concert grand on the University of Pittsburgh campus. After playing it for 20+ hours over the course of three nights, I am inclined to agree and am now horrifically spoiled.
For sure, I will keep you posted. Very exciting stuff for me!
This is going to sound strange, but in 2001, when the Twin Towers fell, the first thing I did – after calling friends and loved ones – was to turn off the TV and play Diablo II.
While watching the plane hit the second tower, something in my mind just… disengaged. I needed to occupy a fantasy world for a time, one in which Good had a fighting chance of defeating Evil, one in which simple lines were drawn between good guys and bad guys. In the game, defeating evil was not only within my ability, it was the point of my existence.
It’s been 10 years since I rescued Deckard Cain from his burning-chicken-coop-on-a-string, and games have gotten exponentially more beautiful, movie-like, and immersive. But when I need to turn off my mind and just disappear into a world, Diablo II is still waiting for me in all its pixelated 800-by-600 glory. If there is one game into which I can plop into like a oversized bean bag, it is this one.
And so I found myself booting it up again tonight. I was feeling a little aimless, pawing for familiar ground on which to stand. I think this is why games like Super Mario and Legend of Zelda maintain an appeal, even all these years after their release. Like our childhood, they are worlds with boundaries, worlds with limits. You don’t have to build the boundaries for yourself, you can just enjoy the world contained within the walls. There is a sense to them. An order. And returning to that ordered, if chaotic, place is comforting, like running a hand along the lines of your old bedroom; that familiar space helps you to architect a sense of perspective on all that has happened since. It gives you something to stand on.
And so as I clicked my way through the Den of Evil and hawked the Gothic Plate I found to Charsi the Blacksmith, I felt a momentary, delightful sense of my feet on the ground.
It’s strange these days that it takes a fantasy world to make me feel like I am truly real.