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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On social history, ragtime, and Chris Ware

I, like many, know little about Scott Joplin.  I didn't know, for instance, that he had composed operas, and certainly was not aware of Treemonisha, a work that draws on Joplin's own life experiences growing up in Arkansas part of a community of former slaves. It seems to be an opera meant more for working- and middle-class black audiences than rich European audiences, and its style (with heavy ragtime and spiritual influences) reflects that intent.

The breadth of this ambition is awe-inspiring. "It is the only opera in existence about the Reconstruction Era African-American experience written by a black man who actually lived through it. This fact alone makes it a work of tremendous significance. Further, Joplin's score is profoundly expressive and as stylistically unique as anything ever created in America." The Wall Street Journal writes about the importance of this work a century after its composition, because after extensive research by conductor and arranger Rick Benjamin (a leading interpreter of ragtime music), the orchestration has been reconstructed to reflect how it would have been performed in a 1910s theater orchestra. All this means that the new arrangement of Treemonisha, just released on CD by New World Records, is a much more historically accurate interpretation of Joplin's opera.

Oh hey, I guess it slipped my mind. Also, the CD, and its 112 pg booklet (with extensive analysis and history by the conductor/arranger Rick Benjamin) are both designed by Chris Ware. It's probably unnecessary to tell you this, but that means the Treemonisha CD is both a fascinating social history of an oft-elided part of the African-American experience, *annnd* a beautiful object. Buy it here!  


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