Saturday, July 11, 2015

Furniture Music, and, How to Play "Sponge"

Tomorrow, 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, is the sixth in my "This Is It!" recitals of my own piano music. One of the featured works is Furniture Music in the Form of Fifty Rag Licks. This composition consists of fifty four-measure phrases of ragtime, each taken twice. The resulting 100 strips of paper are shuffled, cut by a member of the audience, and played in the resulting order. I wrote this piece in 1979-80 (most of it in '80) and it took me a year to learn to play it. The "original" version, two copies of each of the rag licks, takes about fifteen minutes to play.

On July 12, however, I am going to try something new. The term "furniture music" is borrowed from Satie, whose "musique d'ameublement" is not intended to be listened to, but simply go on in a corner of the room, as if it were a piece of furniture, just sitting there. Whenever I have played this piece I have tried to get the audience to treat it as muzak. I've asked them to converse, stretch their legs, go get a drink of water, whatever. It doesn't work. People get interested and listen to the music, and there seems to be little I can do to change that. Satie had the same problem. At the premiere of "Musique d'ameublement" a string quartet was playing in the lobby of the concert hall, off to the side. A small crowd of intense listeners converged on the quartet. Satie approached them several times, and attempted to break up the gathering, saying "Converse! Converse!" It didn't work for him, and it hasn't worked for me. (My composition is a complex commentary on ragtime, as well as an homage to Satie. I have a lot to say about it, but in this blog I will content myself with describing this particular performance, and then writing about the only rag that my piece quotes.)

It occurred to me that if the piece were to go on long enough, people would have to move, that is, take an intermission. So I have doubled it. There are now four copies of each rag lick, so the performance will last more or less thirty minutes. I will also provide a cup of cider, on stage, for anyone who would like it. (Tomorrow is Thoreau's birthday, so cider seems appropriate.) On stage, next to the table with the cider, will be a large portrait of Charles Ives. (Christopher Grundy is singing "Thoreau" by Ives to open the concert.) All of these things — taking a break, a friendly glass, looking at a painting — will be sufficient distractions, I hope, that at least some of the audience will let the music be heard as the composer intends!

The only quotation in Furniture Music in the Form of Fifty Rag Licks is the remarkable "Sponge" (1911), what amounts to a slow drag by New Orleans-born piano salesman and fighter pilot W. C. Simon. Among other things, the term "sponge" is early twentieth century New Orleans slang for "pimp." (I checked Urban Dictionary and, as I suspected, the word no longer carries that meaning, though there are many impolite connotations that remain. Language, especially slang, can change a lot in 100 years.) This rag is one of my candidates for the sleaziest piece of music ever written. It is also remarkably like the opening of "We don't need no education" by Pink Floyd, but I am certain that is a coincidence.

To introduce my piece, and provide a bit of a buffer zone between four intricate, perhaps over-intellectualized fugues and a gigantic random rag, I will be playing "Sponge." I have been playing this piece now for more or less 35 years. Every time I play it I ask myself the same question — are those eccentricities misprints, or are they for real? The title page says it is a two-step, but it is not (although the surviving piano roll from the period takes it as a two-step). It has three tempo markings: "Moderato" for the first strain; then "Broad and moderato not fast" for the second; an assumed but not marked "Moderato [tempo primo]" when the first strain recurs; and finally a reprise of the second strain (abbreviated), marked "Slow and deliberate." There is a chord variously spelled as a B flat minor seventh and a B flat dominant seventh, used in the same place in the phrase, but with no perceptible pattern as to the D flat or the D natural. There are countless irregularities in the harmonization of the second phrase. Most interestingly, the bass line for much of the piece consists of unpredictable fourths, fifths, or octaves with internal fourths and fifths. For the curious reader, the piece is easily consulted. It is reprinted in Ragtime Rarities by the late, great Trebor Jay Tichnor.

My first inclination, in the early 1980s, was to smooth out the irregularities, at least some of them. My second inclination, early in the twenty-first century, was to play it by memory and let the chips fall where they may. Relearning the piece for this event, I resolved to play the piece "exactly as written," but this is a combination of impractical, unconvincing and even almost impossible. So what's a pianist to do? The period piano roll is almost no help, incidentally. But it does confirm the fifteen-measure phrase (!) at the end, and the weird, almost ephemeral last measure, which has no low bass note to resolve the motion of the line.

I'm still pondering the general question, "how to do this?," and still debating details. Come tomorrow and see what you think! For those can't come, I'll eventually have this recital up on SoundCloud. But give me some time! In my postings I'm still a couple of recitals behind.

For more about "Sponge" and W. C. Simon, I recommend David Thomas Robert's note about the piece (which he has recorded) and William Edward's biographical note about its composer. (Edwards is also known as Perfessor Bill, and has assembled an astonishing amount of hard-to-come-by information about ragtime and ragtime composers.) Here are the links: (scroll down for Roberts's excellent note) (scroll down to find Simon; the list is not alphabetized)

My blog today is a copout in some ways. I should write about the whole experience of writing and playing my Furniture Music, and I should get down to the nitty-gritty about how to perform "Sponge." But now we're talking musicology, not blogging. This is a blog, after all, and I've got to get back to practicing!

For what it's worth: I have a second piece of Furniture Music, and am contemplating writing a third. Details to follow in due course...

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