Ever since I heard the Ragtime music of Scott Joplin as a child, I’ve thought of it as futuristic. Listening to Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” played on a well-tuned instrument, it takes just a little imagination to interpret the grand melodies, staccato cadences and breathtaking arpeggios that span the width of the piano keyboard as glimpses of the shape of things to come. Joplin was wildly popular at the beginning of the 20th century; his creations, the precursors to jazz, range from sentimental to feverishly manic, though Joplin himself preferred Ragtime to be played slower than many of his interpreters. When I was 12, seeing Joplin’s tunes scrolled out on player piano rolls resembling computer data cards strengthened my belief that “Maple Leaf Rag” suggested that the 20th century was going to be a wild, technological ride, so buckle up and let’s get on with it!
Stefan Oberthaler’s latest digital offering, “Robomanic,” satisfies my need to find something postmodern in Joplin’s musical articulations. Though the connection may be subconscious as Oberthaler worked in his Vienna-based studio,”Robomanic” and its delightfully quirky remixes seem to read between the lines of songs like “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” using tools that were not available to Joplin, as well as a 12 tone “dodecaphonic” scale that developed after the time of the strictly diatonic Joplin. I asked Oberthaler if he was familiar with Joplin and Ragtime:
“Interesting point of view,” he says. “I am familiar with the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, and so on, yeah, and I like this special stomp feeing of these early days, and they inspired classical composers in these days, and vice versa. Great bunch.” As to the message of his latest tune, I asked him what he sought to convey. “My basic idea with the ‘Robomanic’ original mix was to explore some relationships between a modal dodecaphonic pattern and a very strong techno beat, and play the piano part with a jazzy feel. And the techno beat drives me a bit stompy in my jazz feeling (robotic). Yes, I think the tune is in this tradition.”
The tune goes through several mood changes, incorporating stride piano, a Kraftwerkian dance section, jazz vamps, chaotic and unhinged piano improvisations using a prepared piano– all rolled up with a futuristic lack of melodic sentimentality and Oberthaler’s characteristic studio wizardy. “I tried to improvise very minimalistic,” he explains. “After a few bars the improvisation gets more melodic and at the very end rhythmical, and yes, as you mentioned, the part has a melancholic mood. Maybe you know the Fritz Lang movie ‘Metropolis.’ This kind of dark futuristic feeling is a stamp of this part and also of the title ‘Robomanic.’”
The main theme that bookends the improvised sections is built upon a solid foundation of contemporary dance music, with a melodic structure that supports and stabilizes the chaotic sections. The sum of it, is a tune which, in a sense, is a reverse engineering of Ragtime’s message: the 20th century would be an epoch of sometimes tumultuous change, and mind-blowing beauty.
The Robomanic Remixes
The release features two remixes. The “Liquid Yan” remix conveys a great deal of mystery with a near zero amount of melody. It’s a journey into the spaces between music, a musical commentary on music. Oberthaler explains: “The ‘Liquid Yan’ remix started with the idea to take only two or three piano samples from the original and play around with them, using the possibilities of Albeton live.” The tune starts out with an exotic, otherworldly drum beat, then quickly progresses into a journey of the mind into a sublime, non-melodic space, incorporating elements of progressive rock and experimental music along the way. Very little of the original tune is intact; once you’re hooked by this particular soundscape, you’ll find yourself light years away from Joplin’s United States of the 20th century. Oberthaler explains of his approach to the remix: “All was going on very organic and logical, without thinking too much. This reflects the title, ‘Liquid Yan,” one part of the yin yang symbol.”
Another nice example of the studio-as-instrument mindset is the “Blues” remix of “Robomanic, which borrows from dance music traditions from the birth of the blues up through the 80s and beyond, including euro dance influences that, when asked, Oberthaler agreeably owns up to. “New Order is a very good example, they did fantastic dance songs in the Kraftwerk style, and yes, the rhythm of the remix and the very fat kick and snare reminds (one of) and reflects this time. The blues element is based in the typical chord progression: I-IV-V-IV-I, very easy and dropping forward. And it’s all about one dominant V#9 chord, one chord you will play in every blues tune. The mood is very easygoing – a summer tune!”
For more information, visit www.killervirus-audio.com.
(Note: The above link is no longer active, but Oberthaler’s tunes can still be heard in their entirety, at Stefan Oberthaler aka Keyminator, at Soundcloud.)