by Jack Rummel
What is Terra Verde? || Why Terra Verde? || The Secrets of Terra Verde
Within the past year or so, a new term, Terra Verde, has arisen in the ragtime community to encompass some of the music written by today's composers that might not fit under the strict definition of ragtime. In the July 1996 issue of the Rag Times, author and critic Gus Willmorth questioned the origin of the term and what of today's music might fall thereunder. Since my name was mentioned in that article, I was thus prompted to put some thoughts down on paper.
I will not attempt a definition. Writers far more knowledgable than I have already done this and to read their theses one only has to visit the ragtime home page on the Internet (http://www.ragtimers.org/). It seems, however, that some perspective is in order, in light of the proliferation of Terra Verde music and the subsequent reaction of apparent apprehension by some of the ragtime public.
Speaking for myself, I have no post-secondary music training whatsoever and so I just write what I hear in my head. This has undoubtedly been influenced by sounds that I have heard outside my head. At first I was attracted to what William Bolcom has referred to as "the simple harmonies and just plain modesty of the rag form," and this is reflected in many of my works. But I also wanted my compositions to sound new, not trite reworkings of what had already been done before. After all, with over 2000 rags published between 1897-1925, maybe what needed to be said had already been said!
Thus new ideas began gnawing, and they didn't always fit the accepted definition of ragtime, namely three or four sections, each sixteen measures long, featuring a syncopated melody against an even, steady duple rhythm. Most of the results, in my mind, were clearly in the ragtime mold, but some had no special definition, except that they were inspired by my love of ragtime, they were syncopated and they were melodic. If that makes them Terra Verde, so be it.
New ideas in music have always been threatening. Over 250 years ago, the critics panned the music of Bach, saying that the composer "would be the admiration of whole nations if he had more amenity, if he did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, and if he did not darken their beauty by an excess of art." The young Beethoven was later attacked, with critics saying that "he can do nothing in decent style" and that his works were "the confused explosions of the presumptuous effrontery of a young man." Yet this is music that we revere today, clinging to its comforting familiarity when confronted with the dissonances of later composers. (Even Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which was condemned in 1914 as "a treasure chest in which (the composer) has lovingly collected all sorts of musical filth and refuse," has become a concert standard today.)
Let us not forget that when our beloved ragtime first appeared on the scene, it was vigorously attacked by musicians such as Edward Perry, who said it should be treated "like a dog with rabies, with a dose of lead" and worried "whether it is simply a passing phase of our decadent art culture or an infectious disease which has come to stay, like la grippe or leprosy;" and Philip Gordon, who wrote that "Ragtime will ruin your touch, disable your technique, misuse your knowledge of pedaling, and pervert whatever sense of poetry and feeling you have into superficial, improper channels."
Other forms of music have also contended with this. Bluegrass, a music which I also play and enjoy, has been invaded by new sounds and ideas - dubbed "newgrass" - and letters to bluegrass editors regularly question whether newgrass should even be allowed at bluegrass festivals. Modern country has overtaken the airwaves and I challenge you to find a commercial country music station that plays such "old" artists as Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard anymore. Rock and Roll is constantly evolving, but at least the commercial stations recognize that there is profit to be mined from the "golden oldies." Ragtime promoters recognize this, too.
Several years ago, a certain classical music conductor founded what has since become an annual summer music festival. It quickly became popular and concerts regularly sold out. Buoyed by his success, he began to insert more and more of his favorite idiom, namely 20th Century atonal music, into his programs. The audience reacted to this by voting with their pocketbooks and soon the summer festival was in financial trouble. The board of directors reacted to avert disaster and today the programming still features some ultra modern selections but also healthy segments of Mozart, Beethoven and other time-honored favorites. The audience acceptance has been enthusiastic.
The moral from this story will not be lost on those who organize ragtime concerts and festivals. The music of Joplin and his contemporaries will never disappear from the ragtime circuit but increasingly it will be found coexisting with the newer syncopated sounds as time goes by. Happily, there is room for both.
We are blessed with an infusion of younger talent on the ragtime scene as it is these younger artists who will shepherd our music into the 21st Century. True, they have studied classic ragtime and their love for it is sincere but they have also grown up not to the sounds of Traditional Jazz and Swing but to the sounds of Rock, New Age, Modern Country and Spanish language radio stations that play Latin and Tex-Mex. Many of these outstanding performers are also gifted composers who will, more and more, write the "new" music.
A final note of caution: Do not confuse "slow" with Terra Verde. At the 1996 Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival, a regular attendee was sharply critical of our Saturday evening programming, claiming that Terra Verde had dominated the event and he had come "to hear ragtime." A close examination of that concert's playlist revealed only four Terra Verde selections among a predominance of classic ragtime. Unfortunately, those four numbers were all slow and introspective and had been grouped together. While this interlude had provided much opportunity for romantic appreciation, it had also unwittingly created a lull in the kinetic energy of the evening.
This same attendee was full of praise for the previous night's concert, which had contained a similar number of Terra Verde selections but not programmed contiguously and two of the four had been snappy, high-octane numbers. The moral here is obvious and it, too, will not be lost on festival promoters from Missouri to California and beyond. Let it not be lost on our audience as well.
All forms of music have undergone change and will continue to do so. In almost all cases, the root music forms continue to be programmed and loved, but appreciation has slowly grown for the newer forms. Over time, the newer forms have become root forms for our younger generations as even newer forms evolve. I am confident that Classic Ragtime has earned its place in history and will not ever disappear from the scene. I am equally convinced that there is a place alongside Classic Ragtime in ragtime concerts for Terra Verde music and, if appropriately programmed, it will add to the musical enjoyment and appreciation of any audience.