Friday, March 17, 2017

Pianist progressiveness and background analysis

We recognize all of these funny faces. 
These are the primary studio pianists of the brown wax era. from Ed Issler to Chris Booth, they ruled the piano accompaniment on all of those recordings from 1889 to 1905. It has been well-established over the years that Edward Issler was the first studio pianist, which he certainly was, and he just happened to set the best example for what a studio pianist should be. Issler's perfect nature as a studio pianist can make him out to be the most historically interesting of the early studio pianists. He linked the old ideology of Victorian music with the new syncopated music of the 1890's. Despite Issler's age, he was able to illustrate that he not only had a perfect sense of time, but also that he understood the melodic and rhythmic structure of syncopation, better than Fred Gaisberg ever played on records(and Gaisberg was almost twenty years younger than Issler!). Issler was more progressive for his age than some of his succeeding pianists who were nearly twenty years younger than he. Issler could have(if he worked toward it) played syncopation as smoothly as Banta did, and Banta was self-taught in this style, unlike Issler who had to sit down and really figure out how to play syncopation. 

Oddly enough, Charlie Judkins threw me a fantastic idea that I had never truly considered about these pianists. He stated that the most "modern" of these pianists overall(not including Issler as an anomaly for his age), would have to be Banta and Hager. No mention of Hylands at this. Banta had a style that was very 1896-97, and Hager was similar, though he sometimes played a little more like 1898 and 1899 published pieces. Where's Hylands in all of this? Well, if you really get right down to it, Hylands played an older style overall than the others, in some ways, seeming more archaic than Issler's, which is really strange. Really think about it, Hylands was considered up-to-date in 1896-1901 or so(that's the second half of the brown wax era!), but sounded like and older pianist after 1901, the way to really learn this is to listen to a bunch of records with Hylands playing from the early Columbia disc era(1901-1905). 
Here are a few gems:
"By the Sycamore Tree" with Bob Roberts, 1903

"The Ghost that Never Walked" with Bob Roberts, 1904

"My Castle on the Nile" with Arthur Collins, 1902

"Everybody Works but Father" with Lew Dockstader, 1905

"Uncle Quit Work Too" with Lew Dockstader, 1905

All of these are prime examples of why Hylands would have been considered an outdated pianist, even by as early as 1904. That seems strange, but his style was really that of a folk pianist in the late-1880's and early 1890's. The one tradition that Hylands kept longer than Issler, and it's more obvious that he did, was the banjo imitation style. This not only kept him from seeming modern and progressive, but also kept him from moving forward to the extent that some of the other pianists did. 
Think of it this way, even as late as 1909, Hylands was being noted in papers as "[rendering] a correct imitation of the banjo" as an opening to a show at the Majestic(the name of the theater he managed since 1905 I believe). This little blurb can seem as though Hylands was behind the times, despite his management at many major theaters(which should yield a fully up-to-date mindset musically). Any Rag-Time scholar would know that the idea of banjo imitations was a 19th-century notion, regardless of what the papers say. As early as 1909, Hylands was being considered archaic musically, though his demeanor would likely have indicated otherwise. Hylands would have been 37 in 1909, still rather young for a composer and pianist, though the roots and tendencies of his playing could be similar to that of Ben Harney's from around the same time(though Harney did progressive dancing acts at this time, so he was not completely out of style yet). 
 So in summary, Hylands' playing was based on the ideals of mid-19th century folk music, played on the banjo and fiddle(both of which he probably played before he got to piano). This can be compared to Banta's, that wasn't clearly based on folk music, but was to a certain extent. The fact that Banta got started playing piano completely on his own, and likely had strange tendencies when playing(that instructors probably attempted to beat out of him), since that's what happens when you're self-taught to any degree, is what connects his style to Hylands. Just like Banta, Hylands probably picked up strange and unconventional musical and technical tendencies, and when being formally trained probably had the crap beat out of them because the instructor would not accept such weird anomalies in playing. Of course, the beatings would have done nothing for them, and they likely still played these strange things when their styles developed. We can see that Hylands kept much of these tendencies, since his playing overall was strange, and his first published pieces are odd in general, when compared to others from the same time. 

So with all of that about Hylands, his formal musical training probably went similar to what is stated above. Here's a summary: he was trained for a couple of years(not that many in this case) got all sorts of lectures and beatings for his incorrect tendencies, eventually getting to a point where he was exhausted of it, and simply quit. Probably looked something like this:
Consider his nature in dealing with commitments later, it wouldn't be too surprising if the same pattern was so with his musical training. Though in this time, he probably learned the basics of music theory and such, and after quitting the training, he took what he learned and ran with it. Certainly he was musically intelligent, in theory and in his ear(though his style indicates his ear and natural feel dominated his overall musicality). It's likely that his sister Etta received similar training, though, being a little girl(except for the fact that she was also stubborn), probably retained more of what the instructor taught and emphasized. Just as a side-note, it seems Etta was more complete as a person than Fred, though the both of them were as much of a pain to everyone else equally, recall that Etta couldn't settle her marital problems, therefore marrying several times. 

Banta was probably trained in a similar way, though he wouldn't have quit half-way through, since he seems the type who wouldn't disappoint his parents. Also, just a side-note on Banta's parents, his father was 45 years old when Frank was born, which if you know anything about that time period, that's very late in life for a son to be born. Frank was the middle child with his oldest sibling being born in 1868. It's just unusual for a parent to be over 40 when their child is born in this line of study, and in general when looking into the Victorian era. Frank's father likely allowed his son to enter in music, but certainly wouldn't want it to be his sole livelihood. 
I must have looked a little something like this:
(a cartoon I did illustrating Banta's musical upbringing)

 Eventually Frank's parents got him musical training, but it must have taken a few years before this happened. It's likely that Frank already had developed musical habits and characteristics by the time his formal training began, since as stated earlier appertaining to Hylands, Banta had characteristics that could really only have been developed from being self-taught even just a little.

 Now we know about those two pianists, since so much research has been done on them(well one of them anyway, the other has only been my digging and a few friends as well), but what about Issler and Hager? We know how strangely interesting Issler's playing was, since he is often considered the best overall musician of the early studio pianists. This is without a doubt true, his rhythm was unequalled, and his improvisation skills were especially well-established for a pianist trained in the 1860's-70's. Just to put this into perspective, let's say Issler began his musical training at age 7, well that would have been in 1863. That's two years before the end of the civil war, and he would have been old enough to have begun musical training, which would officially place him as beginning at the end of the first syncopated music era(1830's-about 1869). Who knows that he could have heard in that time from 1863-1876, since that was so early on, and such a mixed stew of music time wise. He also would have likely became a music teacher around the mid-1870's, which is(what some scholars say) likely where he was first exposed to black music, or clearly syncopated music. While a young struggling music teacher and musician, the need to understand syncopation likely came his way. He took this knowledge with him when he began his parlor orchestra around 1885, and it seemed that his piccolo and flute player also had a similar mindset when it came to playing syncopation. Their similar mindsets when it came to music in general is why they were so trusting enough of each other to record piano duets. Recall that Issler and Schweinfest were the first commercially recorded pianists in history(yes there were piano solos recorded before 1889, but they were not commercially recorded to be sold). We still have yet to know if any of these dozen or so recordings exist, and as always, there's a possibility(there's more of a possibility of these existing than those supposed Buddy Bolden cylinders). 

The most progressive of these pianists overall(chronologically) would be Hager:
Still the most handsome of the early recording stars. 
Hager was not only progressive and strange musically, but also in his mindset it seems. He appeared to have been open-minded, and not obviously prejudiced in racial terms. He had much of the liberal side that Russell Hunting had, minus the indecent humor and possible bisexuality. Hager was much more decent, and reserved it seems, though is playing is the strangest of all the early studio pianists. Hager was born in Pennsylvania, not an expected place when examining his style. His style combined the tendencies of Arthur Pryor's Missouri-Indiana style, and that of the showy style of Mike Bernard and Banta. Hager played with lots of octaves, which was characteristic of a Texas Rag style, lots of fifths, similar to the Missouri-Kansas Rag style, and jolty syncopation, which was similar to Mike Bernard and Banta from New York. Something about Hager's playing made him the most creative and technically brilliant of these pianists, and it doesn't help that his background can back this up. He was a youth violin virtuoso, given all sorts of awards like Ossman was for banjo, and these awards eventually got him into music school. He studied at the school that Dvorak helped to found in New York in 1892-ish. 

Now consider this, Dvorak was Czech, and had never come to America before 1892. When he wrote his New World Symphony in that year, he pieced together the music of the Americas, and what he wrote for the American south was a syncopated banjo imitation. He had no preconceptions of North American music, and did he write for it, syncopated folk music! This was Dvorak's mindset, he knew little about American music, and with the little exposure he got in a relatively short period of time, he took in that syncopation was popular, IN 1893. His foundations were African and Native American music. With that, it is likely that young virtuoso Hager at 19-20 was taught under these principles. 

THAT, is my explanation of Hager's musical mindset. 

Though that only explains the foundation of Hager's music and style, everything else sort of grew on him in the years that came along, from 1895-1902, since his style did vary sometimes, even from year to year somewhat. His playing in 1898 sounds rather different from how it did in 1903, though we know it's the same pianist from the basic foundations of the playin being the same. 
Such as these three recordings with Hager on piano(all Zon-O-Phones of course):

from 1900(also for St. Patrick's day!)

from 1901


and 1903.

There are certainly similarities and differences from year to year, but it's certainly the same strange pianist. 
Now compare Hager's playing to two records with Banta:
From 1900 on Berliner.

and 1901 on Edison.
They are very different, but have the same sort of progressive and ragged nature that didn't seem archaic like Hylands' playing did. Hylands' playing was much more folksy(though that Berliner has some real rough sounding playing in there!), and sloppy, as Charlie Judkins calls it, which is very true. Banta is loose at some points, but clung to a slight stiffness always. Hager was stiff for the most part(much like Banta), and it didn't help that he was almost constantly playing octaves, even when improvising. With all of this, we have a place to start when thinking over all of these fascinating pianists. Knowing all of this is very important to knowing record companies, dating records, and kinds of sorting that goes into these early records. 

Hope you enjoyed this! 

By the way! If you want to see more of my cartoons, check out my Deviant art page. Here's a link: enjoy the esoteric humor! 

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