Do not play this piece fast
It is never right to play Ragtime fast.
That’s as much of a preface as you get for E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, but it’s effective. The novel is one you can breeze through: if you’re not careful, you will exit on the other side with little more than an amusing plot line and a vague reminder of history lessons past. Play it slow—soaking in the rhythmic structure and appreciating the character harmonies—and you’ll come out with an accessible masterpiece. In fact, after reading it, I’m of the opinion that it should be required reading for all American Studies students. The talking points are all there, some obvious, others subtle.
Rather than delving into the American Studies core, I’d like to take a moment to highlight an important feature in Doctorow’s writing. While pondering and researching this novel, I came across several people online who were confused or jarred by the abrupt switches between character plots. The common conclusion was, “I guess it’s fine, because the author ties them all together in the end.” Basically, they write the transitions off as sloppy form, redeemed by a palatable story (thank goodness). I think this train of thought is a mistake. A big one. Here’s why.
The defining characteristic of ragtime music is a specific type of syncopation in which melodic accents occur between metrical beats. This results in a melody that seems to be avoiding some metrical beats of the accompaniment by emphasizing notes that either anticipate or follow the beat (“a rhythmic base of metric affirmation, and a melody of metric denial”). The ultimate (and intended) effect on the listener is actually to accentuate the beat, thereby inducing the listener to move to the music.
If you listen carefully, Doctorow plays a literary ragtime using his characters. He presents—for your entertainment—a handful of interesting figures with intriguing stories and leaves it to the reader to determine which plots belong to the melody and which belong to the metrical beat. This realization begs the question—who is what?
My theory is that the fictitious characters—the family, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Ashkenazy and his daughter—serve as the melody. The reader is keenly aware of their plot lines arching above all others. Theirs is the climax. They have our attention. Taking a step back, this melody seems a little odd considering the other characters involved—dynamos such as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, etc. etc. etc. Surely these bastions of progress and influence would take center stage in whatever stories they crop up. But no, such is not the case in Ragtime. These characters and their appearances form the beat, the comping chord progression, assuming what some readers might consider a background role.
It is important to note here that these characters are no less significant, powerful, or compelling for their being the beat. They’re no less crucial to the music for providing the rhythm. In fact, some (including myself) would argue that the role makes them even more critical to the success of the piece than the melody. They are not so much the background as they are the backbone. They determine the speed and direction of the work; the melody is at the mercy of their whim. They provide the context for the melody. The melody can be stripped, rewritten, replaced, even improvised, but it will ultimately be defined by that rhythm section.
Chords progress and melodies must change, anticipating and following the beat. Ragtime—the book, the music, and the country it represents—moves us, precisely for this reason.