Pianist Lara Downes reexamines Scott Joplin, the king of ragtime, in her new album

lara downes
Lara Downes, pianist and NPR host of "Amplify with Lara Downes," has a new album out called "Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered." (Photo credit: Jiyang Chen)

Pianist Lara Downes has described ragtime as the “overture to the music of the 20th century.” The American composer Scott Joplin is often referred to as the “king of ragtime,” though he was classically trained and wrote other forms of music, including opera. Lara Downes’ new album of Scott Joplin’s music is titled “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered.” She joined “City Lights” via Zoom to talk about the recording and how it brought her to a deeper understanding of Joplin as a true alchemist of early 20th-century music.

Interview highlights:

The distinctive cultural moment of Joplin’s emergence:

“He has this foundation that’s coming from two distinct places, European classical music and Black American music that’s coming out of the rural South and the days of slavery, and those two things bring him to the turn of the 20th century when everything in America is shifting so fast. There’s all these different streams of migration, and all kinds of people are hearing other people’s music for the first time,” said Downes.  “I think that that speed and that collision course of culture is what allows ragtime to come into being because he’s taking, essentially, a very polite European-born tradition, this 19th-century parlor music sound, and … [introduced] the critical component of syncopation.”

Pianist Lara Downes’ new album was released Feb. 4, 2022. (Photo credit: Max Barrett)

Giving a fresh sparkle to Joplin’s most recognizable song:

“I struggled a little bit with what to do with ‘The Entertainer,’” said Downes. “It’s so embedded in our sound memory. And so I was back and forth about different things, and I didn’t just want to do something cute, you know, for the purpose of doing something cute. And then I realized that the answer to the puzzle was just staring me in the face.” 

She continued, “Joplin, on the title page of that piece, dedicates it to James Brown and his Mandolin Club. Different James Brown, not the R&B James Brown … But some James Brown at the turn of the century who had a mandolin club, which was a very popular thing at the time, and so I thought, ‘Whoa, what if I did this as a duet with mandolin?’”

How Joplin speaks to listeners of every age and era:

“I’m sure that many of your listeners can relate to the memory of playing Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’ when we were little kids. For me, by the time I played ‘The Entertainer,’ I was six or seven. I was already a very serious little pianist. So playing this fun little ragtime piece was a treat. It was something very different than the Mozart and the Bach that was happening.”

“I think that once you hear the music from [Joplin’s opera] ‘Treemonisha’ … you can’t hear the rags in the same way. You can’t hear them as something superficial or lighthearted or inconsequential; they’re coming, really, from a deep place, a deep musical understanding, and a broad musical vision,” said Downes. “I wanted to, kind of, hand this music to the next generation. I think we’re bringing back music from a hundred years ago and positioning it in the here and now, but also sending it off on its way into the future.”

Lara Downes’ “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered” is out now on all major streaming platforms. Listeners can learn more about the original performance and personnel, and stream and purchase the album at www.laradownes.com/joplin-new-release