Lara Downes on the privilege of being creative with Scott Joplin's rags
For two decades, pianist Lara Downes has been examining American music through her recordings, crossing genres along the way. In 2020, Downes launched Rising Sun Music, her own record label dedicated to the music of Black composers, thereby reframing the history of classical music itself by including previously marginalized or unheard voices.
You might already be familiar with some of the music on her latest release, though. Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes, including the “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” have become part of the American fabric. Most listeners were introduced to Joplin’s catchy, hook-laden rags through the film “The Sting,” released in 1973. But Joplin’s influence is felt through many genres, including jazz, classical, and rock.
“Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered” takes a new look at Joplin’s music through fresh arrangements. For our interview, I spoke to Lara Downes by phone from her home in California.
This interview has been edited for length/clarity. The full interview can be heard in the audio link at the top of the page.
Nathan Cone: Your album is titled “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered,” and so I'm curious about that word, right off the bat. “Reconsidered.” What are you reconsidering with these recordings, looking back on Joplin's music?
Lara Downes: Joplin's been part of my musical life since the beginning, because when I was a very, very little pianist, I learned how to play “The Entertainer,” as so many of us did. And I've always loved his music [and] I've come back to it periodically over the years. But I think that the journey that I've taken through American music and the understanding that I have now about the history… and all the narratives and stories that connect, really give me a different perspective on his music, [and] on who he was as an American musician and an innovator. So I kind of wanted to just honor that, celebrate that. I think that there's more to his music and his story than many people may know.
Yeah, there's obviously the rags, but there's his many attempts to write opera, to produce song, which—by the way, I just want to say, how on earth did that beautiful song, "A Picture of Her Face" that's on the album, stay hidden for so long? It's gorgeous.
Isn't that amazing? And even the rags themselves are being built upon a foundation of classical music, of all of the influences that are kind of swirling around at that time, at the turn of the century. And so just kind of listening deeply, thinking deeply about what is actually here, what's in this music allowed me to pull out a lot of aspects, colors, ideas, you know, traditions that are right there to be found.
I'm always curious how [certain types of] music develop in the first place. I'm listening to these rags and [thinking] how did they develop? Well, they came from marches, and they came from this thing called the cakewalk, which had a little bit different rhythm before that. And where do they develop? Well, they developed in in St. Louis. And is that because it was along the Mississippi and so things could just travel up and down [river] like that? What does your own scholarship deduce along these lines?
I think it's everything that you just referenced, you know, all the different things that are kind of happening at the same time. So many things are happening consecutively, and it's really an accident of time and place that determines where you as an artist fit into that continuum, you know? At the same time that I've been working on this Joplin album, I've also been playing a lot of music by Florence Price, by Harry T. Burleigh... These are all Black artists who are working at relatively the same time. (Florence Price is a little bit later.) But, you know, Burleigh is born up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and so his life experience is completely different than Joplin's, right? Even though they're exact contemporaries.
So, yes, where Joplin is, that's really impacting what he's hearing and who he's meeting. And as human beings, that determines everything about your life and the choices that you make and the paths that you take. And then the other thing is that all of this stuff is happening so fast in American music and American life. Progress is so quick! We're just so quick to change and innovate, and the evolution is so rapid. The existence of ragtime was so short… it was a matter of a couple of decades. So everything that's feeding into that for Joplin, it's his classical training, but it's also the parlor music of the time, and the American folk music that he's hearing. His father, who had been born enslaved, was a musician. His father's playing him plantation songs. He's hearing all these things and they're kind of forming this blend, you know, which he then translates. But by the time Joplin dies in 1917, ragtime's done. And here comes jazz, and onward from there.
When ragtime was at its zenith, how did the public view it? Did they view it as specifically Black music?
So 1893, Chicago World's Fair. This is where the world discovers ragtime. Twenty seven million people came to the fair and all around the fairgrounds were these saloons and cafés and ragtime was the music that was happening. That was the entertainment that you were hearing at the fair. And so all of a sudden, this music that had been situated in pockets of geography and of class and race, it becomes mainstream. America's new thing. It gets discovered and becomes this national craze. And it was considered very dangerous! The devil's music, right? [Laughs] I was trying to think in my lifetime what takes the place of ragtime? I guess for a certain generation, it was Elvis. For my generation, it's rap music, probably, I don't know. But I don't think there's the same kind of mass hysteria because we've got bigger problems!
How did [ragtime] straddle the line of popular music versus so-called classical music? Was there any sort of delineation at the time? I mean, Joplin himself was like, "Hey, I'm writing music for all time. I want to write an opera I want to move into that classical world.” But how were people viewing this music?
Well, I think for one thing, Joplin was no dummy. And as soon as ragtime became so popular, he carved out his place there. He was known as the King of Ragtime, and he was writing commercially viable rags and he was selling them and everybody was making money. So I guess at that point is probably where things bifurcated for him, although we still hear his full musical self within the rags. But I don't know that most people would have been aware of that. They were just hearing the music that was new, and was fashionable, and was exciting.
As you said, ragtime goes from being a Black art form to being a mainstream craze. And at the same time, I think what's really interesting for me as a pianist is that the piano is central in that. The piano is central to the economy of that. Because the way people are making money is by selling the sheet music, and they're selling a ton of sheet music... and who's playing the sheet music? People at home, probably mostly women at home. And so that's how so quickly this music moves from the saloons and the brothels to the parlors of upper-class women—white women—all over America, which to me is fascinating. And so then Joplin is certainly digging into that and he becomes known as the King of Ragtime, and I think that the other places where he wants to exist, where his opera wants to exist, those are just doors that are closed to him at the time. And you're right, it probably didn't help matters that he did have this huge reputation as a ragtime composer. But it was certainly a conflict and something that was definitive to his lifetime.
Let me ask you about the arrangements on this album in particular, which I really dig. You've got instruments like violin, mandolin, vihuela and reeds, as well as your own solo piano. Did you write the charts or did you work with fellow players in order to come up with the sound of the album?
Yeah, there was kind of a collective of arrangers on this album. The pieces that have strings and clarinet and sax, those arrangements were done by Steve Buck, who's a dear friend, and we've worked together for a few years. It was really nice to go back and forth with him and talk about the things that we wanted to illustrate via these arrangements. For example, "Magnetic Rag" has this really interesting kind of like klezmer-y thing going on. It's a very melancholic strain, but I when I first started playing through and thinking about the tune, I was like, "Let's bring a clarinet into this," and really, really highlight that aspect of the piece, and it worked so nicely. And then he did a great arrangement of "Maple Leaf Rag," which I'm telling you… I listen to it over and over again myself, and it just makes me smile every time because … we love the piano because it has all of these colors and we can do so much. But then when you bring other people into the room, you can get even more broad with the kinds of colors and the atmosphere you can create. So that was really a treat for me.
And then some of the things were super obvious. You know, "The Entertainer," there's an inscription on the title page that it's dedicated to “James Brown and his Mandolin Orchestra.” Mandolin orchestras were a huge thing at the time. So to do "The Entertainer" as a piano and mandolin duet was just kind of something I had to do. And then of course, there's the final track, which is "A Real Slow Drag," from "Treemonisha," from his opera, which I did with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. And that was just such a joy to introduce these kids to Joplin's music. They didn't know--because kids don't actually learn "The Entertainer," anymore, it turns out--and to kind of share with them this story in this period in American music and make something very new, I think, out of this song.
It's just a fun song to listen to as well. And that's the thing that comes down to this music [for me] in general is, it's super catchy. And also, for the musicians, it's freaking hard to play. I'm a super amateur pianist, but I've tried to work my way through some of this stuff every now and then, and oh my god, it's so hard!
It's hard and it takes sensitivity and fluidity. You know, I think there are a few things that I really, really love and that really speak to me out of this music. Number one, [Joplin] was a good pianist! He's not writing stuff that is easy, or is obvious. I guess the heart of this for me is that we've kind of come full circle now, so when I look back at the time when he's writing... and as you and I have been discussing... There are all of these influences bubbling up inside his music, but he has to choose, right? He has to choose to identify himself with this art form and commit to this art form, and he's innovating all the time, but what the outside world is hearing is the thing that is new, that is, you know, of the moment.
And I think that right now in 2022, we have this beautiful perspective that allows us to hear everything that's in the music. And also as musicians, for me on this album and for my collaborators on this album, we've been so fortunate to grow up in a time and a space that encourages us to embrace the fullness of ourselves. So to sit in the studio with these musicians and just be really creative and fluid with a tune like "Maple Leaf Rag," it's really a privilege. And I think that we're on the cusp of a new era that that really celebrates that breadth and that inclusion.
Lara Downes' new album is "Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered," available now. You can also find Lara Downes online at her website, and through NPR and her interview project, "Amplify With Lara Downes."