Martin Spitznagel knows what many people say about the music he loves.
“Built into the structure (of ragtime) is repetition,” the pianist said. “The onus on the musician is not only to vary tempo and key, but also to find something interesting to say. … It’s not enough to play the piano well; you have to find a way to say something new.”
Anyone who moans about ragtime all sounding the same needs to block off 3:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday and make their way to the Stark Tent near the corner of Fifth Street and Ohio Avenue, because Saturday afternoon in the Stark is the unadvertised annual highlight of the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival. For years now, the final sets at the Stark have turned into a light-hearted “can you top this” challenge between Spitznagel and partner-in-crime Bryan Wright, and the duo of Brian Holland and Jeff Barnhart.
Spitznagel is an 11-time veteran of the Joplin fest. His first year here was the first year Holland and Barnhart met. Spitznagel said they would remain at the “after-hours” gatherings until, well, after hours, and discovered they had real synergy between them. Soon, they landed the closing slot at the event’s biggest tent and the pairing has become one of the Joplin fest’s institutions.
Wright’s first Joplin fest was in 2006; the Holland-Barnhart closer had already become legendary.
“By the time I came they were already an institution in Sedalia, really hamming it up and had the audience in the palms of their hands,” Wright said. “The energy was sky high – it seemed like the tent was going to explode at the end of their set.”
A few years later, friends Spitznagel and Wright landed the slot just ahead of Holland-Barnhart, and they knew they had to do something spectacular.
“Our first year we came out and said, ‘Everyone says they can play ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ blindfolded but they never do.’ So we are going to do that,’” Wright said. Spitznagel added, “That was truly one of my most terrifying experiences I have ever had performing, because you are really on the high wire.”
The performance was a hit, and Holland and Barnhart took notice.
“I remember the look on Brian’s and Jeff’s faces when we performed ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ blindfolded,” Spitznagel said. “They knew they had to step up their game – and they did. It’s been fun to push them – when they are pushed, they are limitless.”
Spitznagel said the key to making their Stark Tent ragtime riffs click with the audience is finding something that he and Wright can get excited about.
“I really would like people to experience ragtime as a living thing,” he said. “Often it is presented in an academic setting or a classical concert; no one really quite knows how to put it on. But if you come to the tent on Saturday, you get a sense of why this music moved a nation for two decades. You get a sense of why people were preaching against it. … Ragtime was dangerous, it was edgy, it was sexy, it was movement and motion and optimism – all of these things that can get lost if we are too formulaic.”
Spitznagel noted that “research shows that your perception of an event is shaped by how it ended.” His goal is to send the Joplin fest crowd home with smiles on their faces and a syncopated rhythm in their hearts.
“Why go see live music at all? You can sit at home and find us on YouTube for free,” he said. “It’s because of the surprises; it’s because of the promise of things you won’t expect, things you did not select yourself.
“I think about the 10-year-old kid who has been dragged (to the Joplin fest). … How do I get that kid to think, ‘Ragtime? This is cool.’ The dirty little secret of adulthood is that we’re all still just kids with better clothing. There is no such thing as an adult, just more experienced children.”
Wright and Spitznagel hold Holland and Barnhart in the highest esteem, seeing them as “ragtime superstars.” The goal is to set the bar higher each year so they can watch their friends clear it with their own innovation and mastery.
“What we try to do with that set is not make it the traditional Scott Joplin ragtime but really show the possibilities this style of music has, the flexibility to take ‘Star Wars’ or Disney songs – tunes that people know, but play them in a ragtime style,” Wright said. “The question is always, ‘How are they going to pull it off? Is it going to work?’”
You’ll have to come to the Stark Tent to find out.