Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band

On the centenary of the death of Alexander Scriabin, a guest post by David Gordon

Musicians who write about playing music can easily get themselves into hot water, but in this case I’m happy to bathe in the opportunity to gather my thoughts about the latest project I’ve embarked on with my jazz trio, entitled ‘Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band’.  We are of course celebrating the life of Alexander Scriabin on the centenary of his death, at the same time trying to locate his music in the context of popular music in and around 1915.

I first came across Scriabin’s music in the 1980s through a beautiful interpretation of his A minor Prelude Op. 11 no. 2 by the jazz giant Chick Corea www.allmusic.com/album/trio-music-live-in-europe-mw0000188008.  Clearly this is an area that has continued to interest him, and in a recently posted video, Corea workshops his ideas about another of Scriabin’s preludes in front of an audience.

This represents a harmonious meeting between the totally distinctive soundworlds of Scriabin and Chick Corea.  With a far less distinctive personal soundworld I’ve even tried this myself with a Scriabin-inspired composition, ‘Snakes and Ladders’ which the trio recorded on the CD ‘Angel Feet’ (Guild Records ZZCD9819).

With this current project, what started as whimsy – noticing that the ‘Prelude for Left Hand Op. 9 no. 1’ lent itself to an interpretation calling upon early tango and the jazz style of Errol Garner, and then noticing that a project that would include ragtime could bear such a fortuitous (for us) name – has become a more serious study of the connections between Scriabin’s music and popular music of the time.

The first concerns geography.  Whilst the life of the wretched five year-old Israel Berlin fleeing with his family for the USA from some far-flung burning village in Russia could hardly be more different experience from Scriabin’s rarefied aristocratic Moscow upbringing, perhaps we can ascribe something to a sense of place.  That is, if we accept that part of where music comes from is the land, the air, the birdsong, the language, then, by dint of geography, the music of Irving Berlin and Scriabin might be loosely connected by these things at least.  And it was not just Berlin but many of the other originators of the Great American Songbook who hailed from Russia or Russian immigrants.

Meanwhile the estimable anthology ‘Jazz in Print 1856-1929’ by Karl Koenig gives one example after another of how Afro-American musicians looked to the Russian people, and their folksong in particular, as a model for culture-building that inspired many of those involved the ragtime revolution.  And in a recent interview the Cuban pianist genius Chucho Valdes cites Rachmaninov’s music as one that naturally fits with, and can be seen as part of the heritage of, the vast and cosmopolitan tapestry that is Cuban music.

But now to brass tacks: let me enumerate some of the specific technical considerations that unite these two worlds.

  1. Scriabin makes use the AABA form, with each section 8 bars long, so beloved of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriters. And, going back to geography, ‘I Got Rhythm’, regarded as a template for this type of song, was written by the child of then recently-arrived Russian immigrants, George Gershwin.*
  1. Altered dominant harmonies, rightly regarded as Scriabin’s pioneering achievement.  But it also prefigures a great deal of jazz harmonic theory, and Scriabin’s harmonic system reads more easily when viewed in that light.  The so-called ‘Mystic Chord’ turns out to be just a specific voicing of the 7#11 chord. Scriabin’s use of interlocking tritones, so tonality-threatening to early 20th century ears, are water off a jobbing jazz musician’s back. And the octatonic – for jazz musicians, the diminished – scale is often in the background of, and occasionally present in some of his later music.  This scale which once appeared so tonality-obscuring, is now heavily associated with dominant harmony in mainstream jazz circles – indeed, a jazz musician’s best friend.
  1. Scriabin’s use of ‘rootless’ harmonies happens to be one of the innovations credited to jazz pianists such as Bill Evans in the 1950s.  The harmonies themselves were used by composers as far back as Liszt, but hearing these chords without their bass note, as Scriabin used them, was at that time unprecedented, as far as I know. The opening of the left hand part of Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata, for example, could easily pass for a transcription of Evans’s playing.  Did he know Scriabin’s music? (We notice that Bill Evans was half Russiann from Ukraine; the speculations start to pile up).
  1. Some of Scriabin’s later music prefigures even more advanced jazz innovations. The ‘Dance languide, Op. 51, no. 4’ seems to recall, or predict, the uncompromising sound-world of Thelonius Monk.  And a very slight configuring of the harmony of ‘Prelude Op. 67 no. 2’ gives us the hard edged dark harmonic world of the ‘60s or even later to produce an improbably hip post-bop workout.

These are to some extent naïve, not researched, connections, but they enable us to dream when approaching his music from a jazz standpoint.  The fact that this or that signature in the music reminds us of something – the ‘Album leaf Op. 45 No. 1’ works well as an early funk or Motown groove, because of its descending chromatic figure in the bass – in itself may not be good enough reason to play it thus.  On the other hand it might!  But interpreting some of his pieces as choro, jazz-samba or north European style modal jazz, etc. allows them to speak to us in a different way and, when we record and perform it in this way, should give his music a new public (albeit a small one, given the size of the jazz audience!)  And I very much look forward to putting some popular music from 1915 alongside this music: we will attempt ragtime, of course, but also, tango, choro, danzón, perhaps – if we can find a way – even the Original Jelly Roll Blues, published in that same year.

Would Scriabin have liked jazz, which his early death deprived him of hearing, by a whisker?  Perhaps the earliest jazz of his time would not have appealed, and it’s hard to see the blues doing much for him. But perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to think that the unstoppable, transcendent flow that the best modern jazz achieves, the ecstasy and transformative power it strives for – the fire and air elements that characterize e.g. Keith Jarrett’s playing – yes, it’s possible.  And if his music helped in some way to shape that language, perhaps that should come as no surprise.

Finally, I have just put the finishing touches to our signature song, Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band, which is a light-hearted summary of the whole project, and finds the trio in full-throated song.  I am very excited by this new project, which is unlike anything I’ve tried before, and which I hope will be as entertaining for the listener as it has been instructive for me.

Work in progress video:

*For those of us who like to take things as far as they will go, doesn’t the Rêverie Op. 49 No. 3 bear a resemblance to Gershwin’s ‘Nice Work if you can Get it’? Or am I just imagining things?

www.davidmusicgordon.com