May Features


Composer/pianist Elena Kats-Chernin was born in Russia but now lives in Sydney, Australia. David Reffkin was able to interview her for the "Ragtime Machine" when she came to San Francisco to perform at the Other Minds Music Festival. (Photo: Koruna Schmidt-Mumm).
The Ragtime Machine

An Interview with Elena Kats-Chernin

by David Reffkin

The prospect of global peace once again drew nearer through the mutual understanding achieved by a conversation with a foreign musician. Elena Kats-Chernin represents several national cultures, being born in Russia, living in Germany and now Sydney, Australia, and visiting the United States and elsewhere. (Her composite accent is very interesting.) Though her main occupation is composer and pianist in the collective genre most generally known as "modern classical," she is interested in the form and texture of ragtime. Her contribution to the repertoire is much more than the one or two pieces that many non-rag composers have written. And her writing style is far beyond the limited bounds of the classic rag formula. She appeared in San Francisco for the Other Minds music festival, which graciously helped arrange her appearance at KUSF-FM for an interview on my program, "The Ragtime Machine." -- DR

• • •

David Reffkin: How did you come about composing rags and having them recorded?

Elena Kats-Chernin: I should go back to the very first rag I wrote. I was asked by an Australian radio program producer to write a piece for a CD full of rags. It was called "Rags to Riches," played by Donna Coleman. I struggled for a while, because at that point I was writing a lot of new music. Writing a rag was a big departure from my usual compositional technique. I first tried to write a sort of modernistic rag, and that didn't work. It wasn't what really was needed. I thought, "Why not, I'll just write a real melodic ragtime piece." I listened to a few of them, from William Bolcom and William Albright, and I must say I was very influenced by that style. It was slightly nostalgic, a little bit wistful, with beautiful harmonies and modulations. Somehow that interested me more than some kind of jaunty, fast, highly syncopated rag. I went for a slightly more melancholic type.

I wrote ten rags for this producer to choose from -- just motifs, and he chose the one that's become "Russian Rag," the very first one that I've written. Writing that one started a flood of rags. I think that was the beginning of the incredible inspiration to continue this trend in my writing. I couldn't stop, as I had all those other nine rag ideas that I really needed to finish. "Russian Rag" became very popular, I must add. I thought, well, I'd like to continue this and it just happened on the spur of the moment. On some days, if I had nothing else to write, I thought I would just write another rag. It is also a great way to use a title. Any word fits before rag - the "Door Rag," "Mushroom Rag," anything.

DR: I think one of the reasons ragtime was so popular in 1900 was that instead of titling another piece something like "Sonata in Eb, Opus 4, Number 3," you could call it "Rattlesnake Rag," and that was a lot catchier. Were you aware of the earlier "Russian Rag?"

EK: Is there another one?

DR: Ladies and gentleman, we have breaking news! Honestly, no one has said this to you?

EK: No, no one. Who wrote it?

DR: George Cobb, 1918, based on the C#-Minor Prelude of Rachmaninoff. Maybe nobody wanted to break it to you.

EK: That it would hurt my feelings? Actually, it doesn't. It's great, fun; I love those sorts of things. And the Rachmaninoff is one of my favorite pieces.

DR: He wrote a sequel called "The New Russian Rag."

EK: And do you know that I wrote "Russian Rag Two?"

DR: So, it's true, there are parallel universes, and I happen to be in both of them right now.

EK: The second one came about because I had more material. I usually write rags in rondo form [using a theme that is repeated between other themes (episodes)]. One of the episodes, somehow, the producer didn't like. So I changed it, but I kept the original, and it was used in "Russian Rag Two."

DR: What is it about the music of Bolcom and Albright that got your attention?

EK: I just love the harmony. Theirs were rags that I never heard before. It was a kind of a different look at them, that slightly melancholic feel, the sliding harmonies you don't expect. And they were playing with form, and the pieces were quite slow. I like that because it gives you time to think.

DR: Most people would say they were attracted to ragtime because of the syncopation. It wasn't that strong for you?

EK: Not so strong, and that basically is one technique that makes it a rag. It's so easy to take a piece that is in four-four meter, and add a little syncopation and it helps make it a rag. But that is only one of the devices; it's not the only one. There is also, obviously, the left-hand jumping. I take it sometimes farther, and it's not even a rag. Only part of it is a rag, so I am not very strict with the word, the style and the genre. I take a little bit of liberty, and if somebody complains, please do. For me, the beginning of the piece is usually a rag, then I change it sometimes and go more straightforward. There are held half notes, for example.

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May 2008 issue | © 2008 The Mississippi Rag

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