Scott Joplin wrote a rag called the "Maple Leaf Rag". Unlike many musicians, he had an attorney help him negotiate a royalty arrangement on the publication rights. He contracted to receive one penny for each song sold. The income made him modestly secure for life.
Joplin composed ragtime, a jaunty form with a rhythmic bent. His rags showed a new sophistication that earlier artists failed to capture. They say that Joplin did not talk about too much other than the music. He lived for music. He had numerous wives, and at the peak of his popularity enjoyed great success as a ragtime composer. His works were sold primarily in sheet music form, although player piano rolls of his songs were also sold.
Joplin wanted more than the recognition which ragtime, a popular form, could offer.
He became obsessed with the idea that his opera, Treemonisha, should be performed.
He spent much of his own money in largely abortive efforts to get the work staged.
Mr. Joplin died of tertiary syphilis on April 1, 1917, in a hospital for the mentally ill. He said in 1915: "Maybe fifty years after I'm dead my music will be appreciated".
Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1912. His father served as town mayor. Mr. Nancarrow studied at the Cincinatti Conservatory, where he determined to become a composer. His reading and experiences radicalized him, and he joined the Communist Party in 1934. He worked his way through Europe, playing jazz trumpet on a ship.
Mr. Nancarrow fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. He escaped in a ship bearing olives when the brigade collapsed before Franco's forces. His first composition was published while he was at the war. When he returned to New York, he met many famous composers, including experimentalist Henry Cowell.Fearing governmental harrassment on the basis of his politcal views, he moved to Mexico.
In 1947, he inherited money. He also wanted to find ways to apply his musical theories, which centered on complex polyrhythmic work, much influenced by the jazz and experimental music of his day. He used part of his inheritance to have a player piano made, which could play his compositions, which were too difficult for human pianists. "As long as I've been writing music I've been dreaming of getting rid of the performers," he said in an interview. In a matter of years, his work was getting notice. Merce Cunningham set a dance to them.
Mr. Nancarrow lived out his life in Mexico, becoming a citizen, passing his life with a succession of wives. He received a MacArthur genius award. He died, surrounded by family, in 1997.
Both Joplin and Nancarrow were tremendous innovators, who grew up within twenty miles of one another, at slightly different times. Joplin's music was a kind of last precursor bridge to jazz, but was and is a thing of beauty in its own way.
"Serious" musical people had a way in Joplin's day of telling him that his published art was pop and worthless. He burned his life away trying to prove that he could do something "profound". Nancarrow's music goes places that human pianists cannot go--dense, polyrhythmic, sometimes discordant places. Swarms of notes and impossible chords ring out in his pieces. Nancarrow's work is a precursor to wonders not yet explored. Neither was a profound instrumentalist. Joplin was an ordinary pianist. Nancarrow could punch the holes in player piano rolls, but could not personally play with any skill.
I think that sometimes people engage in the arts not because it is their vocation or their salvation, but simply because they feel they must do so. Nancarrow said that "When I think of music I only think of my music." He disapproved of most modern music not his own. Scott Joplin's musical statement was simpler. Scott Joplin said "It is never right to play ragtime fast." I believe in not playing one's ragtime too fast. It's a jaunty creed.
I wish I owned a player piano. I wish I could play "The Pine Apple Rag". But what trials both these artists faced--in cultures that could accept their skill but not Joplin's race or Nancarrow's creed. The creative path is necessary rather than easy.
Anytime you do something a bit different, it's treated as ragtime, not worthy of the mark. But Scott Joplin said something I like about this, too: "Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at "hateful ragtime" no longer passes for musical culture". You create what you have within you, and try to play the ragtime really slowly.