Marc-André Hamelin explores William Bolcom's piano rags in his new album


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Marc-André Hamelin – William Bolcom: The Complete Rags (Hyperion)

New Classical Tracks - Marc-André Hamelin

“In 1985, I won the Carnegie Hall competition for American Music. One of the prizes was an invitation to the Cabrillo Festival in California, which is still going on, I think. And the two composers in residence that year happened to be Arvo Pärt and William Bolcom. So, I got to meet him.”

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin not only got to meet Bolcom, the American composer whom he’d been admiring since he was 16, but he also got to make music with him. For his latest release, Hamelin has recorded a two-disc set of The Complete Rags of William Bolcom.

There's a lot of diversity in Bolcom’s rags. Can you talk about the many moods that we experience throughout this two-disc set?

“I think his first rags were a little more Joplin influenced, even though he was adding some touches of his own.

“There is one of them, which is a kind of a joke, actually, it's called Brass Knuckles. And it was written in collaboration with the late William Albright. They decided to write that together one day as sort of an antidote to the overdelicate rags that they'd each been writing. It's just a joke, of course, but it's full of clusters and very violent piano writing. And that's why I put it at the very end of the two-disc set.

“One of the rags from the Garden of Eden Suite, which is called the Serpent's Kiss and is actually one of the ones that's more often performed, asks for the same kind of percussive sound on the piano. And I couldn't do it fast enough. So I just developed a system of tongue clicks. And Bill was so amused by this during the recording session that he allowed me to keep that.”

The opening rag, Eubie’s Lucky Day, is dedicated to American pianist Eubie Blake, whom Bolcom considers to be his last great teacher. Can you tell us more about that correspondence?

The fact that he [Bolcom] connected with Eubie Blake is really extraordinary for him, because Bill knew so much about the history of American popular music, and, of course, performing with his wife, Joan Morris, during all these years. So, it was wonderful to be in contact with someone who was there from pretty much the very beginning.

The first track of the album is called Tabby Cat Walk. Bolcom makes use of silence effectively in the piece, kind of catches us off guard, maybe the way a cat would. Can you tell us more about that?

They called it stopped time. The music would stop for a bar or two and then it would start again. But the rhythm would always be going on behind, regardless, you know? Just recently I got an early LP of his, which is just his own rags, and Tabby Cat Walk is on there. And of course, you know, I couldn't say it was a CD player because it was vinyl. But I asked myself the same thing. There's something going on here. But no, it's just written like that, and it's quite an effective little thing.”

Is there another rag on this two-disc set you’d like to talk about?

Well, there's a couple, actually, that sort of distinguish themselves from the others because rather than having straight ragtime rhythm, they have more of a dotted rhythm. So, a ragtime would be ‘Da Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.’ But a dotted rhythm would be more jagged. So, there's one called Knight Hubert, as in Eubie Blake, [also known as] Hubert Blake, and [an]other one is called the Brooklyn Dodge, and they're both wonderful and very swingy.”

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.


Marc-André Hamelin — William Bolcom: The Complete Rags (Hamelin store)

Marc-André Hamelin — William Bolcom: The Complete Rags (Hyperion store)

Marc-André Hamelin — William Bolcom: The Complete Rags (Amazon)

Marc-André Hamelin (official site)

William Bolcom (official site)

348 episodes