Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin: Ragtime Piano Roll

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It's not clear exactly what is happening on this disc of Scott Joplin's piano rags. The front cover proclaims that the disc is a "ragtime piano roll 90th anniversary edition." (The anniversary involved is that of Joplin's death, not his birth.) The back cover states that the disc contains "digitizations of the original rolls completed by Jean-Claude Vartanian" -- and nowhere is one told which Joplin rolls are involved. If performances by Joplin were indeed used, then they were atypical in the absence of ornamentation of repeated strains. Things get murkier still in the booklet, where one learns that "thanks to technology, we can access his work without the imperfections of a mechanical piano. The method consists of using a music publishing program that provides the necessary information to reproduce the instructions on the score manuscript. The created music sequences can be reproduced by an adapted music instrument like MIDI, or can be digitized and published on a CD like this one." Fortunately, it's not important to figure out what in the world this might mean, for the musical results of the process are unsuccessful. These recordings emphasize the worst qualities of piano rolls: their mechanical quality, their lack of dynamic and expressive range, and their inability to capture details of articulation. They actually become tiresome to listen to after a while, and one feels the frustration one experienced in the early days of the Internet when MIDI representations of musical works were all that could be sent through the ether. Joplin's rolls are valuable historical documents, showing that he did indeed observe most of his own strict instructions regarding the performance of his music -- he kept tempos tightly in check, for example -- but sometimes felt free to disregard them. Simple realization of Joplin's rolls on equipment of the time remains the best way to glean the insights they convey.

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