by Frank French
What is Terra Verde? || Why Terra Verde? || The Secrets of Terra Verde
The response and reaction to the term Terra Verde has been precisely the effect intended by its originator and adherents: to stir questions and to cause listeners to question its relation to Ragtime and related music. The two most asked questions seem to be why is it being used and what does it mean?
As a performer and composer who has been invited to participate in the first Terra Verde recording to be released on the Pinelands Label, I have some responsibility to answer some of the questions that have been raised.
Why not "Ragtime"?The first consideration is a practical one. We have reached the point where we must face the facts about the general public prejudice about Ragtime music. As performers, composers, and musicians interested in having our music heard, we must face the fact that the word Ragtime has connotations in the American consciousness which have been planted there by the media, and despite our best efforts to the contrary, we have not been able to overcome these or to supplant them with anything different. We find that a great number of our potential listening audience will not even consider appreciating Ragtime music because they think it is trite cheap entertainment, hokey music played by heavy-handed brutes on out-of-tune pianos. The fact that there are prominent performers today who are doing their best to reinforce this stereotype gives greater validity to the existing public perception of Ragtime.
The second consideration is that while composers continue to create new Ragtime music, Ragtime is not the sole output of their efforts. In order to keep from being boxed-in or pigeon-holed, it becomes necessary to come up with a more suitable term than Ragtime to describe their diverse musical directions.
A third consideration is ethical. It would be misleading to call the new music something that it is not. Although Ragtime music may be included in what we present, it is not the only form of music being offered. Even compositions with syncopated melodic lines against a typical octave and chord bass line may defy certain other characteristics of Ragtime music, and should not be labeled as such.
Why "Terra Verde"?A term like Terra Verde seems to provoke curiosity and even reaction among the listening public. It opens a door to perception for some, while others seem to be put off by the term. The new label is more open to interpretation than one which already occupies a place in the public consciousness. The sense of crossing a frontier or threshold will encourage many new listeners who are ready and willing to move into the next century with an evolving art form. The simple labeling of the new music opens a window on our society through art and we see who will cross the threshold and thrive in the new realm and who must remain behind in the old one. The responses to these efforts reveal at least as much about the respondents as they do about the perpetrators.
In general terms we can begin to describe Terra Verde music in its extra-musical dimensions. Extra-musicality is an age-old aesthetic. We find it, for example, in Romantic music of 19th century Europe. We need only to examine the literary dimension of the music of Robert Schumann, or perhaps the demoniac element in the music of Franz Liszt to verify the existence of extra-musical ideas in the older music. But even in earlier ages of music, when a religious sentiment was being expressed, extra-musicality is evident. With this in mind, we may begin to explore some of the sentiments of Terra Verde music. Then perhaps we can discover who its adherents will be, and who will be its detractors.
Many of our trend-predicting gurus of today say that we are approaching a post-industrial age. Why should we not examine the relation of our music to these observations? We certainly know that we have enough people who think in the old way, for example, that they may run roughshod over the earth indefinitely, without regard for what the future consequences may be.
Today we see arrested development in the large numbers of middle-aged people who still hold on to their shattered rock and roll illusions of youth, illusions which should be considered in connection with emotional immaturity, loss of hearing, and in attentiveness to the dissolution of society. We may also observe some older people who hold on to very old Ragtime, Jazz, or swing music for illusory purposes and the strong emotional need to remember what it was like to be young. We need not cast aspersions on our ties to the past, but perhaps we should examine them and their motives, keeping in mind that traditions are important and very necessary to our cultural evolution, with a critical eye toward what is healthy and what is not healthy about them.
Terra Verde, meaning literally Green Earth has a post industrial application in the sense of a renewal following a period of ravaging. The term is as much true with our music as it is with regard to the earth. Terra Verde music rises from the wreckage of the era of media-hyped, overstimulated and overamplified sound, piped through the usual channels of the industrial age, radio, and television that left us empty and in search and in need of legitimacy. We now enter a period of healing in which the quality and nature of these things bear examination, especially the art and music pertinent to the times in which we live. A genre of music reflective of its time and place is especially suitable as a compliment to how we live today and to how we would like to live tomorrow. As creators, we hope that the extra-musical nature of Terra Verde music will convey the sentiment of a more reflective way of life, which we see as having a role to play of the societal transformation in which we now find ourselves.
Therefore, let us cultivate and appreciate an art form which will allow us the flexibility to maintain a tradition during a time of change. Some detractors of this effort may be the same people who will resist the change that is inevitable, and in so-doing may cling a little too fast to older art forms. The excessive clinging will only stifle new creation. Some kind of cultural equilibrium between what was and what will be must be found. We feel that Terra Verde music will allow us to attain the balance.
Having spoken of the extra-musical dimensions of Terra Verde music we may now approach the musical specifics of what this music is. As composers who have studied all the masters of European Classical music, Early American composers, Latin American music, Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, and other forms of popular music, we seek to create an eclectic mix of new music which is strongly based in tradition. To call the new work Ragtime would therefore be misleading. It can't really be called Classic, Romantic, Jazz, Latin, or Pop either, although it is a result of all of these styles. With this in mind we can begin to set the parameters for the style, Terra Verde.
Firstly, it is new music being written now. This sets it apart from all other styles that went before. It is composed and for the most part precisely notated music. This separates it from a great deal of Folk, Popular, Jazz, or Blues music, yet brings it closer to Classic music and even Classic Ragtime. With these two parameters, we have established a general category for Terra Verde as notated or notatable music being written today. We might also mention that elements of the non-written styles mentioned may be included in a performance of Terra Verde music, but it is primarily based in composition.
Secondly, as a compositional style, Terra Verde music stresses a general, although not exclusive adherence to the principals of traditional 18th and 19th century harmony and counterpoint as practiced by composers like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Scott Joplin to name a few. We can say that the style includes something very traditional and very old. We can even expropriate specific musical and extra-musical ideas from Romantic composers like Chopin and Liszt such as the use of Eastern European scales and modes. At the same time New World terms like Tango, Bomba, Habanera, or Ragtime in place of Mazurka, Polonaise, or Ballade have a definite application in this music.
Thirdly we can point to antecedents of this music, particularly composers and musicians who lived during important times of transition. Certainly, Louis Moreau Gottschalk needs to be considered as a pioneer of the New World ideal and a forbearer of Terra Verde music. Later composers like Cervantes, Lecuona, Nazareth, and Joplin followed in his footsteps. In a sense, Joplin was the most revolutionary of these and the term Ragtime was one that engendered strong response and reaction among various sectors of society, as much as the term, Terra Verde may do today.
Consequently, Terra Verde music places a great emphasis on tradition and in having a strong older model as a basis for moving forward. But in order to move forward we must clear up some misconceptions that existed in the past. For example, Gottschalk, an ancestor of Terra Verde, has still not received his due in the concert world. We find ourselves still burdened with the notion that Art Music only comes from Europe. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that American music is trite and cheap and a product of mass media. We have essentially sabotaged any new creation by carrying this older baggage, which we must now discard, firstly by recognizing the legacy of Gottschalk, Joplin, Morton, Lecuona, Nazareth, and others, and further by rising from the wreckage of pop music which has been inflicted upon us by the industry. We can do this with Terra Verde.
We thus approach the dimension that surrounds the music and view Terra Verde as an important musical resource during a time of healing, recognizing that some serious damage has been done to our psyche by the music/entertainment industry. For example, country music once stressed ties to and love for the land, but later became a set of pre-packaged crutches for the emotionally insecure bolstering and bolstered by commercial exploitation. By returning to the sentiment of Green Earth the healing process may begin.
In conclusion, Terra Verde enters the picture representing an idea both inclusive of and beyond simple musical definition. Among the musical elements of Terra Verde we include melody, harmony, rhythm, syncopation, and innovation within the legacy of New World idiom through composition. The extra-musical elements of Terra Verde include eclecticism, progressive thought, reflection on tradition, a period of healing following a time of ravaging, and a belief that art must move forward in the same way that other aspects of our lives do. In exploring this new territory and labeling it Terra Verde, we accept the risk of losing part of our existing audience. Yet at the same time we reach to a new audience responsive to the times in which we live as we create new music for these times. We accept that traditions reinforce certain beliefs among our existing audience, some healthy and some detrimental. We are steadfast in our intent to move forward into new territory with everything positive we have gained from a great musical legacy.