New Classical Tracks®

Lara Downes reflects on the music of Scott Joplin

Lara Downes continues to uplift Black composers. Courtesy of artist


New Classical Tracks - Lara Downes (Extended)

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March 16, 2022

Lara Downes — Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered (Rising Sun Music)

New Classical Tracks - Lara Downes

Pianist Lara Downes is reconsidering Scott Joplin, who he was and what he did. Joplin was an incredible innovator who really brought American music into the 20th century. Downes digs deeper into his legacy in her latest recording, Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered.

Why did you want to learn Joplin’s music, which many of us learned about from the movie The Sting?

“Even by the age of 7, I was pretty deep into classical music. My sound world was classical music. I heard his music and thought it was really exciting. It's really fun. There was also Paul Newman in the movie. That didn't hurt. So I learned ‘The Entertainer,’ and I think it was kind of a treat. In my world, my early training was pretty rigorous.

“It's really clear to me now that this whole journey into American music has transformed the way I hear and understand it. It's fun. It's reconnecting with my little girl self, but through a different lens.”

Can you talk about the arrangement of ‘The Entertainer’ you created?

“It was easy and obvious to me what I wanted to do with many of these pieces, but I will admit that ‘The Entertainer’ kind of posed a problem. We've heard it so many times and I realized the answer had been literally staring me in the face. On the title page of the piece Joplin dedicates ‘The Entertainer’ to James Brown and his mandolin club.” 

Where did you find ‘A Picture of Her Face,’ which you world-premiered with baritone Will Liverman?

“This is such an example of the music sitting right there for everyone to find, and we're somehow not finding it. There's this huge digital database of public domain sheet music, IMSLP. We all use it. I was just going through all the Joplin stuff to make sure there was nothing I overlooked, and there's this art song called ‘A Picture of Her Face.’

“That same day I was texting with my friend Will Liverman, and we were checking in about some things. ‘What are you up to?’ And I said, ‘I'm going to the studio. I'm working on this Joplin project,’ and he's like, ‘Oh, I love Joplin!’”

Are you really the only performer on ‘Eugenia’?

Oh, you're hearing a lot of stuff inside the piano that we put in there, because I kept saying to [producer] Adam [Abeshouse], ‘I want to play around with different sounds and colors.’ He said, ‘OK, hold on a second.’ He goes and gets all these rolls of tape and some chains, and he's putting it in the piano. He said, ‘OK, sit down, and try it again.’ I think it ends up sounding like one of those saloons where Joplin would have played.” 

How does this music reflect who you are?

I'm lucky enough to be what Joplin wanted to be. No one's getting in my way. It’s amazing for those of us, especially artists of color, who are living now. We are having for the first time the incredible experience of bringing the music of Black artists who came before us to the general public and having that be welcomed.”

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Resources

Lara Downes — Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered (Lara Downes’ Website)

Lara Downes — Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered (Amazon Music)

Lara Downes (official site)