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Book of the Week — Maple Leaf Rag

Maple Leaf Rag
Ellen Banks (1938-2017)
Atlanta, GA: E. Banks, 1988
N7433.4 B36 M3 1988 oversize

Black artist Ellen Banks is known for her geometric abstract painting entirely inspired by musical notation. Her “Maple Leaf Rag” indicates how the concept works. She translates the notes on the staff to colored squares on a grid. An A note is red, an E note is blue, and a half note fills half a square, making a triangle. Here, her translation of Scott Joplin’s written piano score is a visual scaffolding onto which notes and tones are assigned specific colors and densities. Created as a series of silkscreens, this portfolio consists of one unnumbered leaf and four unnumbered leaves of plates on two joined sheets completing an accordion-fold structure. Banks transfers her understanding of Scott Joplin’s notation into color and pattern, visualizing sound in shape and embodying musical tone in hue.

Born in Boston, Banks credited the work of Piet Mondrian as one of her earliest influences. She received her bachelor’s degree from Massachusetts College of Art. Her first solo exhibition took place in 1962. Five years later, she received the Prix de Paris. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Center of Afro-American Artists, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and elsewhere.

The “rag,” blended march tempos with syncopated, or “ragged,” rhythms, an experimental style of music made popular in the 1890s by Midwestern Black musicians. Scott Joplin gave the rag its finest expression. His “Maple Leaf Rag,” named after a social club in Missouri, became the style’s greatest hit, sparking a nationwide “ragtime” craze. Hundreds of rags were published. Like most things new, there was objection: “virulent poison” raged one critic. But by 1905, the phenomenon reached the White House, at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter.

Scott Joplin, whose father had been enslaved, was born in North Texas in 1868. His musical education was informal, although he took piano lessons from a German music teacher, who almost certainly introduced Joplin to Bach and Beethoven. His early publisher advertised his sheet music as “high-class as Chopin.” White classical composers adapted rag in their works: Parisian Claude Debussy with his “Golliwog’s Cakewalk;” Eric Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and Paul Hindemith. Joplin’s influence on dance music incorporated into classical music has been likened to that of the minuets of Mozart and the waltzes of Brahms.

Joplin suffered from syphilis and died in 1917. In 1976, Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to American music.

The first extant recording of the Maple Leaf Rag was played in 1906 by the United States Marine Band.

(316) JOPLIN Maple Leaf Rag – “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band (1906) – YouTube

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