Matthew de Lacey Davidson: ‘Success Is to Be Measured’

An Interview with, and pièce de théâtre about

Matthew de Lacey Davidson

by Jeff Barnhart

(with assistance from the little garden gnome down the street from Matthew)

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Jeff Barnhart, early 50s, short, tall, average height; internationally recognized jazz pianist; has a long shock of blue and green dyed hair going down to his waist, with multiple body piercings. He has beside him a Mickey Mouse disguise which just entered the public domain and to which he makes frequent reference.

Matthew de Lacey Davidson, late 50s, approximately 7½ inches tall; composer and pianist; given to making sarcastic comments about people who make sarcastic comments. Also given to mumbling, often referring to himself in the third person as “Mr. Wonderful.” He is wearing a bright red hat which says, “This is not a hat” in Luxembourgish.

ACT ONE – SCENE ONE

Matthew de Lacey Davidson with Victor Victrola VV-XIV initially sold by Lyon & Healey in Chicago. (Photo by Shayna Davidson)

A dark, echoing room, comprised of large, black, dripping wet stones, somewhat redolent of an old castle. Dry ice mist covers the floor, mysteriously. A skeleton can be seen at the end of a hallway, covered with cobwebs which are attached to the walls. The wind frequently whistles outside, occasionally muffling the dialogue. A metal sign is evident on the wall, sideways, and attached by one rusted nail. It swings back and forth, rhythmically, upon which the words, “Syncopated Times” can barely be made out.

Lights slowly up. Jeff Barnhart sits stage left, Matthew de Lacey Davidson stage right. They sit opposite each other, talking incomprehensibly. Jeff turns and addresses the audience.

Jeff Barnhart: Hello, everyone. I’ve been lucky to have reconnected after a few decades with an old friend who, during the time of our losing touch, grew from merely being a brilliant pianist and composer to becoming a vegetable modern renaissance man!

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: …veritable…

Sorry – I mean, a veritable modern renaissance man. [coughs nervously] I first met Matthew in 1993 when we both performed at Galen Wilkes’ premier “New England Ragtime Festival” in Niantic, Connecticut. He made his mark in the 1990s with a number of ragtime recordings featuring repertoire never-before digitally recorded, and many featuring contemporary ragtime. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Matthew de Lacey Davidson!

[spoken in a monotone] Ba – DUM! Thank you very much, I’ll be here all year. A funny thing happened to me here on the way to the Syncopated Times. But seriously folks, I’ve got a million of them, my mother-in-law is so…

Please STOP it! [momentary silence] Silly Person. Thank you. So, Matthew, I have two basic questions to get us started. First, I previously knew you as “Matthew Davidson,” but you changed your name. Why?

Not so much a change as an addition. There were too many Matthew Davidsons out there, no less than three of whom were musicians. It caused no end of confusion. I was not blessed with a distinctive name like “Igor Stravinsky” or “Crankston Snord.” One online site attributes a piece called the “Blue Forest Mass” to me. I’ve never even HEARD that piece, nor know the composer! As “de Lacey” is my middle name it seemed apropos to use it. Now, I previously knew you as Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol. Why did you change your name?

Please don’t change the subject. So, why did you study music in three different countries?

Certainly not by design. My parents moved to New Zealand when I was six believing that the grass was greener, probably because my mother grew up in Timaru (on the South Island). Unfortunately, it currently has the highest rate of homelessness in the OECD, and even back then, by the time I did my bachelor’s degree the only job I could get was in the Department of Social Welfare as unemployment was the only growing industry.

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In 1986, I moved back to Toronto (then the third most expensive city in the world) where I was born. The only accommodations I could afford were in a house with a broken foundation, leaning on a sixteen-degree slant with all my possessions on the lower end of the room so they literally wouldn’t slide down. I did a master’s degree in music at the University of Toronto. To fill in gaps in my prior composition and theory coursework, I had to hire a private tutor from the Toronto Conservatory, Sasha Rappoport. He had studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna, and within two years I learned how to do Bach Chorale Harmonizations and analyze Bruckner and Mahler orchestral scores at sight. I thereafter got accepted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to do a DMA.

Which piano teachers do you feel influenced you the most?

All my piano teachers were good, but for different reasons. In New Zealand, John Powell taught me how to fix my sense of rhythm which at the time was not great. I wound up overcompensating by eventually playing all sorts of complex 20th Century works by people like Webern, Stockhausen, Sal Martirano, Frederic Rzewski, etc. Phillipa Ward taught me Bach, which helped to bring out individual voices. Everything I know about pedaling I learnt from Bruce Greenfield. Most pianists push the sustaining pedal all the way up or all the way down. That’s it. But as Bruce taught, there is a whole world of sound in between. I constantly move the sustaining pedal in various gradations catching some sounds and eliminating others.

For instance, on my first album (Space Shuffle) on Joe Lamb’s “Arctic Sunset,” you’ll hear three bare octaves towards the end. But each time they’re played, I start with the pedal mostly depressed so you can hear all the strings reverberate, then snap the pedal up quickly so you can only hear the octave and its overtones by itself, then the pedal is almost completely released again so you can hear more subdued reverberation with the other strings. That way, you can hear three different sounds with the striking of one note. But you have to be really attuned to recognize these subtleties.

Rae de Lisle (who like John, studied with Bridget Wilde who studied with Claudio Arrau who studied with Martin Krause who studied with Franz Liszt) taught me several calisthenics for the fingers to improve my articulation and control. In Toronto, Harold Heap taught how to slow down at the ends of phrases (often in the middle or end of a bar) to avoid the appearance of the music speeding up, and Lawrence Pitchko taught me a technique of “pulling” on the keys to even out the tone. And William Heiles at the University of Illinois taught me more conventional repertoire which informed my understanding of unconventional repertoire.

Wow! Quite a parade of amazing pedagogues in your past. How much do you practice and how do you feel it influences performance over time?

Hardly at all since I got rheumatism. Rae wanted me to do three hours a day minimum. Although decades ago, someone once said to me that I was sufficiently “talented” that I didn’t need to practice. But I don’t agree with that statement. I think that the whole notion of practice needs to be changed. Both in New Zealand, and when I visited the Liszt Academy in Budapest, I walked the hallways hearing students playing the same scales and “exercises” repeatedly and badly. In New Zealand, it occurred to me that it’s not WHAT you practice that makes you good, but HOW you practice. Rae hinted at this to me, by showing me to take a small phrase from a piece that you’re learning, play it slowly, backwards, forwards, with dotted rhythms, and with exaggerated finger movements until it really gets under your fingers.

What was the most memorable piano concert you attended?

Definitely hearing David Burge in New Zealand in 1984. He played all sorts of contemporary works, which required him to play inside the piano and do harmonics on the strings and other unusual effects. This was particularly evident in his performance of George Crumb’s “Gnomic Variations.” Burge also played a virtuosic contemporary rag by William Albright, which blew the audience away. Anecdotally, many years later, before going to the U of I, I applied to Eastman. The composition department did not seem impressed with me, but I did do a piano audition, the usual conservatory-type stuff, Bach, Haydn, Chopin, but I finished off with “Sweet Sixteenths” by William Albright. After everyone had played, an elderly tall gentleman with two swept-up hearing aids came up to me and said he liked my Chopin and particularly the Albright as he had played Albright’s music before. Quizically, I asked who he was. He said, sotto voce, “Oh…I’m David Burge.” I nearly crapped myself. I thought, “Oh my G-d, I just played for one of the greatest pianists in the world, and I had no idea he was in the audience.” He was a very sensitive, humble man.

Overall, how do you think your compositions and performances have been received?

Generally speaking, I’d say with confusion. I remember playing a rag for one of the composers who appeared on my original 1994 Graceful Ghost album, and a relative of the composer started bellowing at me, “How DARE you?!? How dare you change the notes? Do you go up to a painting in an art gallery and start painting over it because you don’t like it? Do you chip off pieces from a work of sculpture?” I sat there, silent and flummoxed, having no idea how to respond. I sometimes think that my concert programs and CDs should have had a parental advisory sticker saying that listening to my piano playing or music can result in childish responses…but in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t do that. Jeff, as you’ve stated to me in the past, I’m a careful, soft-spoken person. I prefer (Marx Brothers director) Norman McLeod’s self-description, to wit, I’m “quieter than a mouse pissing on blotting paper.” As you and I have discussed, music is and must be a cooperative language which benefits from reinterpretation and change. This can only be a positive thing. For instance, when viola virtuoso Rudolf Haken played and recorded my “Music for Viola and Piano,” the last note in the first movement of my score is written as a Bartok pizzicato (i.e. an accented plucked string) but he played it, without asking me, as a strong downbow. And I was absolutely delighted! I thought, wow, this person really cared about my music, and was willing to take risks and make it sound even better. My feeling is that once I’ve written the score, the music doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to the performer.

Having taken in both your classical and ragtime-based compositions, I’d have to say your music requires attention and an open ear to truly appreciate it; no-one will “get” your music from casual listening…

I guess I missed that class on how to write elevator music. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t…

however, I personally find it both challenging and beautiful…

Thank you, I appreciate that. I do get positive responses less frequently, so I always remember when they happen. When I was still in New Zealand, around the age of 17, Stephen Sondheim wrote back to me and said he liked my songs. That was very nice of him…he didn’t have to do that. And about seven years later, when a friend and I went to New York and attended the closing performance of Into The Woods, I met him by accident. I told him that he had been nice enough to write to me several years earlier, and he responded that he remembered my work. That was nice.

At the U of I, Anthony Braxton once told me that he thought my work, Deux Plaisanteries for piano and alto sax was revolutionary. Rudolf Haken is very enthusiastic about my two viola works ((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnmMgudH1Ag and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RptssEzwXY8 ). “Twin Muse” played and recorded my piano duo tangos in the style of Brahms in both Canada and France (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36GP-Q5YbMU – music starts after 60 seconds). You and Max Morath have written very complimentary and encouraging things about my playing and music. Dr. Gary Smart, whom I think is the greatest living jazz pianist and with whom I have done two concerts, has been very encouraging. Our ragtime and jazz concert in Wyoming in 1997 is one of my happiest musical experiences. My teacher, the late Sal Martirano, heard my ragtime etude, 400 Roncesavalles Avenue and made one tiny suggestion which made it a much better piece. He liked my music very much.

Matthew recording his 2023 ragtime album. Yamaha CFX Concert Grand Piano has been provided by agreement with Symphony Nova Scotia. (Matthew moved to Halifax, NS, in 2017.) (Photo by Shayna Davidson)

When two other pianists (Allisa Rhode and Charis Duke, both of whom are outstanding composer-pianists) and I played a concert of contemporary music at Northern Illinois University (in DeKalb) we were treated like royalty! And we played some way-out stuff. Charis and I played a two-piano arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cottonmill Blues.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XESbqk1kN8E ) I had heard the composer and Ursula Oppens perform it live in Toronto back in 1989 and had wanted to play it since then. So when Charis and I performed that concert, it was the only time where we played with our backs to the audience so you could get a “stereophonic” effect. And the opening of “Winnsboro” starts off with alternating chromatic chord clusters between the two pianos which gradually increase in volume, in imitation of the cotton mills. The sound is so unlike anything else in piano literature, that when Charis and I used our forearms on the keyboard, I became aware out of the corner of my eye that almost half the audience had gotten out of their seats, and ran around the sides of the pianos to see how we were making that amazing sound. It was just a regular audience for the most part, and they were enthralled! I also played Robin Frost’s “Zymurgy Rag” at that same concert. My playing at Galen’s New England Ragtime Festival was a positive audience experience, as was the North Virginia Ragtime Society concert I did in 1995. And my thesis advisor, Zack Browning, was extremely supportive of my “Ragtime Études” which became my doctoral thesis composition. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QqeCwDmemA )

Wait!! You wrote ragtime for your DOCTORAL THESIS?

Yeah…that was not universally applauded. I suspect that some faculty members thought I was being flippant. But Zack saw that I was being genuine and sincere, and that I was putting all my creative energy into giving the works as much depth as possible. But these positive responses have been the exceptions, not the rule. I sometimes wonder if I might have had more luck getting a faculty position if I had included my first book of piano études with the second book of “ragtime études.” Except the first were mostly based on transcriptions of non-western music, an area also not well-regarded in the concert or academic music world, generally speaking. Plus, I had already written a major orchestral work for my master’s degree – and for an ensemble so large that it would probably never be performed in North America. It seemed to make more sense to compose music that I could perform and record myself.

Why do you think it’s been so uphill?

John Cage took the same situation as a point of pride. When his teacher Arnold Schoenberg told him that writing music the way he did was like banging your head against a wall, he replied that he would thereafter dedicate his life to banging his head against a wall.

But seriously folks, I suspect that many people aren’t aware of the difference between the entertainment industry (wherein profit is the only signifier of success) and the Fine Arts (wherein the integrity and craftsmanship are the only key factors to consider) . For example, René Magritte created some of the most iconic images of the 20th Century, but couldn’t earn his living from his “Fine Art” paintings, so he had to do advertising illustrations just to squeak by. In addition, I grew up watching Monty Python, and since childhood have enjoyed surreal humour, and saw no problem incorporating such into my music. Sadly, there are some for whom absurdism and surrealism are not things with which they feel comfortable.

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Early on, I also made a point of talking to instrumentalists and researching the virtuosic intricacies of how their instruments worked. This resulted in idiomatic music, which was often difficult to play. I remember my father saying to me that if you write for yourself, you can always be assured of pleasing at least one person.

In my opinion, there is also a problem that is peculiar to much 20th century art in general: that is, the difference between the professed idea (the idea behind a work of art) and the expressed idea (the actual work of art itself). I believe that too many works of modern experimental or concert music have an interesting idea behind them but are not that interesting to listen to. This, in my estimation, is pretentious. I would like to believe that at least some of the music I’ve written is interesting, because I’m not that enthralled by professed ideas. This puts what I write at odds with some 20th century art, and the expectations of certain audiences.

In addition, I suspect, sadly, that some people interested in ragtime aren’t that interested in the musical styles of Mahler or Bruckner (and vice-versa), and therefore don’t appreciate the mixing of various musical styles.

By the way, may I please just state for the record that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the North American Vegetarian Society?

Sure, Matthew, if you think that’ll make you feel better, then you go on right ahead and say that.

I thought I just did.

Let’s talk about your recordings. When did you start recording?

I started playing the piano when I was 12 and finished my first rag when I was 15. Upon completion, I just picked up the phone one day and called up Radio New Zealand and asked to speak to a producer. I told him that I had written a ragtime work and wanted to come in and record it. Looking back, I can’t believe how arrogant that was. You could not get away with that today. You’d probably never get past the receptionist. However, they evinced interest and got Allan Thomas, an ethnomusicologist and producer, to produce it. I arrived at the studio at the appointed hour, and they sat me in front of a beautiful Steinway. I played a few notes and was horrified at how out of tune it was. When I mentioned this to the engineer, he said something like, “Well…it’s ragtime isn’t it? Honky-tonk out of tune piano music played by Blacks? We deliberately put it out of tune for you.” I mumbled something about how Scott Joplin took his music as seriously as Chopin and Beethoven, and the engineer reluctantly and grumblingly recorded me on an in-tune Steinway. To my surprise they broadcast it a few weeks later as part of a programme about young composers. That’s how I got my start!

[Laughs] Sorry for laughing, but that’s happened so often; some engineers think they know better what sounds should be produced than the musician creating them. And after that?

I had several compositions broadcast by Radio New Zealand, but they weren’t so keen on my piano playing. I spent 1986 to 1990 in Toronto honing my skills. When I moved to the U.S. in 1990, I got a “bee in my bonnet” about trying to release an album of contemporary ragtime. I recorded a demo tape and sent it to umpteen companies. Either no one was interested, or no one wanted to fund it.

Then I went to the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1991 and met Jack Rummel. I told him about the lack of interest, even from Bob Erdos of Stomp Off Records. Jack told me that it was sometimes necessary to approach Bob more than once and gradually modify the idea. So I contacted Bob again, who reiterated that he was not interested in contemporary ragtime, but he liked the rags of Robin Frost. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5s46uLV6k8 ).

So I came up with several ideas, like a CD of Joe Lamb and Eubie Blake, or one of Robin Frost and novelty rags. Bob said it didn’t have to be one or the other, and that I could combine all those ideas into one CD. While I really didn’t want to record the conventional ragtime repertoire (I felt, like, who needs another version of the Maple Leaf Rag?), I was realistic enough to know that I needed to get my “foot in the door.” And that’s how “Space Shuffle” came about. I wanted it to be radically different from anything that had been done before. So I recorded several Robin Frost rags (in fragments), so that it appeared to be played at a speed and with attention to detail that no human being could possibly affect; it’s kind of a “special effects” recording, rather than an emulation of a concert. And none of the other pieces on the CD had ever been digitally recorded before. I played “Hot Cinders” in much the way as Milton Kaye did on his Joe Lamb LP on Golden Crest Records; and I partially emulated Bill Bolcom’s recording of James Scott’s “Pegasus Rag,” and Max’s version of “Bird Brain Rag.” Bob was initially shocked by how slowly I played Scott’s “Troubadour”, and I explained to him that there was a belief in classical music circles that it doesn’t matter how slowly you play something as long as you slow down at the ends of phrases. He let it go and released the album. After that, we politely parted ways. Fortunately, now I had a great demo CD (and cassette tape) which I sent to producer Julian Rice in Toronto.

And that’s how the Mastersound CDs came about?

Pretty much. About a week or two after I sent the Stomp Off cassette to Julian, I got a phone call from Julian’s assistant. She told me that Julian loved the cassette, and was enthusiastic about recording a CD of contemporary ragtime. Julian even persuaded the distributor, Allegro, to pay half the printing and pressing charges. I had to come up with about $1,500, which wasn’t a small amount, but was do-able with a credit card. I think The Graceful Ghost: Contemporary Piano Rags (1994) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cBjc_5BkB0 ) was originally going to be called something else extremely verbose and long-winded, but Julian was adamant about the title, and he was completely right. It got numerous good notices and went into a second pressing, which means it probably sold close to 2,000 copies: not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but I’ve had producers brag to me about selling 200 copies of a ragtime recording.

I could have kept doing contemporary rags volumes 2, 3, 4…972, etc., but I wanted to do something different. One of the releases was “Sugar’s Nightmare” (https://www.gofundme.com/f/raise-funds-for-new-master-cd ) which presented early ragtime through to blues pianist Lemuel Fowler (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWBmNGfagWw ), Novelty pianist Arthur Schutt (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGRYVrJYvSA ) Thelonious Monk, and Dave Brubeck to show the transition in popular piano styles from 1898 to 1995. So I recorded three additional CDs and wound up footing the bill for Mastersound to release them. What I didn’t understand at the time was that because the distributor had paid nothing towards the last three, they didn’t bother advertising them as they didn’t care about recouping losses. However they did call up Julian Rice one day in 1996 and told him that the Mastersound CDs weren’t selling. Julian told them they weren’t advertising. The distributor told him, “Too bad, we’re going to delete and destroy all of them.” I asked about getting some back, but Allegro was going to charge me for them, and I had no money by that point. So I lost about $10,000 and all of my CDs. I suspect Julian lost even more, as it wasn’t just my CDs they destroyed. Julian was not able to sell my CDs to another distributor, so he sold the rights back to me for a dollar a piece. And after he sold his catalog outright to a different distributor, to the best of my knowledge, he got out of the business for good. And that’s the last I heard of him.

That’s horrific treatment from a distributor. But Julian did his best for you.

Tis true. What happened was the doing of the distributor, Allegro. Julian’s actions were always completely ethical. But I should have been emotionally prepared for it. One of the things Bob Erdos said to me when I did my first album, was that he spoke to George Buck to get advice when he was just starting his label. He called Buck a “friendly competitor.” But he confided to me that George told him he had once lost $30,000 to a distributor. So, I should have known there were no guarantees.

What did you do next?

I think to cover up the disappointment of having almost all of my work destroyed, I overworked myself and did a concert two weeks before recording my Novelty Piano album (“Whippin’ the Keys”) in 1997. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdaXL6XHZWU). The resulting recording was not my best. The following year, I produced an album of concert (aka “experimental” or “Squeaky Door”) music with some other composers (with the theme of the works being influenced by non-western music). We did a lot of research to find the best fit for the project. I approached Richard Brooks, then the producer of Capstone Records, a contemporary concert music label. He liked what we did because (a) once again our engineer, Rex Anderson, did an outstanding job recording at Northern Illinois University, and (b) the pianist (Tomoko Deguchi, who was a student of Gary Smart’s – that’s how we found her!) did an outstanding job of recording a lot of complex music in a short period of time. I wrote one of the pieces for the project and produced the album with two others. On the same weekend we recorded Tomoko’s album, I should add, I also recorded an entire album of Donald Ashwander’s music (https://www.gofundme.com/f/raise-funds-for-a-second-cd-master ), the day before we recorded Tomoko.

Sugar’s Nightmare, released in 1996 – photo in Chippewa Square Savannah GA. This album was deleted and destroyed a short time after its release. (Permission of Matthew de Lacey Davidson)

While I now regret making the second Mastersound album, had I not made it, I would not have been able to complete the Ashwander album. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vhR2iYhebU ). There were so many stressors – such as travelling a huge distance to the recording site, the piano going out of tune, being very ill in bed a few weeks before the recording, and Rex having his on-site recording equipment break down. This was not Rex’s fault, by the way. A friend who worked at NIU had a colleague who leant us some less expensive transistor mics and we were back in business. But I was so overwhelmed and exhausted by that stage that I could only record around ten of the fifteen numbers. I recycled the recordings I had made five years before in Urbana and added them on. In contrast, I think the Ashwander CD is the best thing I recorded and released after The Graceful Ghost album. I re-released The Graceful Ghost album on Capstone in 2007 with the liner notes I originally wanted but couldn’t include because of the initial expense. The next year I released a new double CD “Talencourt” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vr1As84bYk8 ) which was of my concert music, plus a bonus CD of my playing the “classical” repertoire (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8u8JyD6r43U ). After Capstone went out of business in 2009, no one asked me to record or concertize, and I got tired of asking so I just stopped doing both. Thankfully, I had it written into the Capstone contract that should the company go out of business, they would return all my CDs to me, which they did.

And how were you earning a living all this time?

I worked my way through college by working as a secretary. I knew from the start that the music I was interested in was not commercial, so I decided to become a teacher. After attaining my doctoral degree, I found that the almost non-existent openings all had around 1,000 applicants. So, I went back to being a secretary again. In 1999, I worked freelance as a piano teacher for 18 months earning marginally less than a minimal pittance. At one of my multitudinous jobs I earned the astronomical princely sum of six dollars per lesson. But that was the glamorous life I led as a freelancer.

Around that same time, I played two concerts at the Chicago Cultural Centre. The first was the Dame Myra Hess concert (which was quite prestigious); and the following month I played a concert of just my concert music. I thought that finally things were starting to go well for me. By the year 2000, the economy tanked, I got divorced, I lost most of my piano students, I lost my house, and nearly went homeless.

But then I finally started getting teaching job interviews. Regrettably, two of the most promising possibilities went bust due to nepotism and departmental infighting. My last interview was with the Chicago City Colleges during which a very nice fellow sat in front of me said he was impressed with my credentials, and that he could offer me $800 a month. I sat for a moment and said out loud, Homer-Simpson-style, “I couldn’t possibly live on that.” I then thought to myself, “Woops – did I just say that out loud?” The guy smiled and said, “I know, but that’s all I can afford to pay you.” We left it with me thinking about it, but he did say that whenever I was interested, he would hire me. But obviously, it would not have been a practical move. I needed to pay rent. I needed health insurance. So it was at that moment that I realized that the college professor thing wasn’t going to work out for me. Fortunately, I eventually got another secretarial job which kept my head above water.

Between 2002 and 2005 I completed a master’s degree in social work while working full time. I think I would rather be trapped in an iron coffin with spikes on the inside than go through that again, so the less said, the better. Indeed, during this time the most positive thing that happened was that I met my current wife, Shayna, and we made plans to move to Montreal. We met in a dance studio. We even went to Buenos Aires once to study Argentine tango some years later.

And when you were in Montreal, that’s when you started writing poetry and prose?

Most assuredly, naturally, beyond a doubt, exactly, by all means, definitely, unquestionably, surely, indubitably, precisely…

I think the word for which you are searching, is “yes.”

[Coughs nervously]…ahh…yes. Around 2014, I attended a poetry writing class at McGill University. I had no intention of becoming a poet, but I wanted to become better at writing lyrics for an opera I was composing based on short stories by New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield. I wrote about a half dozen tonal songs embedded into a pan tonal opera. Afterwards, I felt that my unique style would probably result in my songs never being sung in my lifetime. Then in 2015, I had my first flare up of rheumatism, and largely stopped playing the piano. Having some time on my hands, I started writing things which perhaps approached poetry, although that is a lofty goal. Perhaps “light verse” might be the best description. Subsequently, I published a collection of short stories, followed by an historical novel based on the experiences of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, followed by a murder mystery. (https://www.amazon.com/Barren-Stage-Collected-Essays-Stories/) All of them were received well enough except the last, at which point I saw little point in continuing down that road. I also started publishing in online zines, including my cartoons, for which B. Kliban was a primary influence. The way his cartoons laugh at the reader rather than the reader laughing at the cartoon I found to be a wonderful rebel position for a cartoonist to take.

I initially had the audacity to send my original collection to Gary Larson in 1989. He never responded, but he must have liked them because he sent them to his publisher, King Features Syndicate. In my letter I said to Larson that my cartoons were not mainstream humour and that I didn’t think King Syndicate would ever publish them. I later received a letter from King Syndicate agreeing with me that my cartoons were definitely not mainstream humour and they had no intention of ever publishing them. I had had a few cartoons published by Canadian Science Journal in Toronto, but they kept rewriting my punchlines, thereby rendering them unfunny. I also had a couple of cartoons published by the Chicago Flame in 1993 or 1994, and that was the end of that until some were recently published online by “Pickle Fork.” (https://medium.com/pickle-fork/irrelevant-perspectives)

I should add that some people have told me that I shouldn’t mention my cartoons in public for fear that my musical work wouldn’t be taken seriously. My opinion is that the general attitude towards cartoons in North America is, frankly, silly. Many years ago, I visited Marseilles in the south of France, and encountered a multi-storied department store – and all they sold there were cartoons! Cartoons are actually taken very seriously in France. Although I’m not sure that I understand all the fuss about Jerry Lewis over there.

Matthew, could you tell us about your, and your family’s, theatrical background and the affect you perceive this had on your musical work?

Well…back in the 1950s, my father studied and became a professional actor working almost non-stop for ten years in Canada at a time when it was largely impossible to do so. Some of the people he worked with, like William Shatner and Christopher Plummer moved to the U.S. and found work there, but my father stayed in Canada. By the time I was born, my father had changed careers and worked in advertising.

A production of a Molière play (possibly Tartuffe) with Matthew’s father, Lew Davidson (2nd from right) and Lew’s colleague at the time, William Shatner (3rd from right). Photo probably taken in Ottawa, Canada, probably in the early 1950s. Permission of Matthew de Lacey Davidson.

When I was 14, I played the part of Will Roper in a school production of A Man For All Seasons. At 15, I played McKyle the Scottish madman and Electric Messiah in The Ruling Class by Peter Barnes, also a secondary school production. My grandfather was born in Scotland, so maybe I was born to play the part. We were lucky to have a good drama teacher in the school I attended. I remember at one point in the latter, my character was supposed to stick their finger in the wall socket and scream, “Recharge!” The properties person was thereafter supposed to produce a small puff of smoke. On the night of the performance, however, he put too much magnesium in a plate which was ignited by an electrical wire. Instead, we got an explosion and I fell over backwards behind a sofa on stage. I got up quickly and stuck my finger in my mouth. My father said that that little bit of business was the highlight of the show and brought the house down. Unfortunately, there was so much smoke in the theatre at intermission, all the windows and doors had to be opened to stop the audience from choking and coughing!

As for theater influencing my musical studies, well…craft is craft, no matter what the discipline. As I mentioned before, Sal Martirano heard me play my piano rag, 400 Roncesvalles Avenue, and at the part when a quote from Bruckner is repeated, Sal said, “I don’t care what note you choose, but you need to insert just one note in the bass to make the repeat different.” So I did, and the piece just magically became better. Just by adding one note. The littlest things can make the most significant difference.

And changing a note should be much safer than sticking your finger in a socket!

Yeah…I don’t know about that sometimes, judging by some reactions…

However, didn’t you also write some musical theatre works while an undergrad?

Yeah…while at Victoria University in New Zealand, I wrote, directed, produced, composed and orchestrated music for two plays when I was 16 and 17. I think the fact that I was so young at the time was infinitely more impressive than the works themselves could ever pretend to be. One year later I was asked to play the part of the real inspector hound in Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Inspector Hound, also at university. I seem to recall you telling me that you played the part of the theatre critic, Birdboot in the same play?

Yes, I did with a community theater group during one summer of my college years. That play is one of the funniest ever written! Is your experience playwriting where you learned about writing dialogue?

It certainly didn’t hurt knowing the work of Stoppard and Harold Pinter to draw on as influences. I subsequently wrote better plays, for instance, a short one called “Waiting for Beckett,” which was obviously a send-up of “Waiting for Godot,” by Samuel Beckett. In the original, the characters are trying to get off the stage, but they can’t because they are “waiting for Godot.” In my version, the audience for a time is looking at an empty stage and the characters are expressing frustration off-stage because they can’t get in front of the audience since they’re waiting for Beckett. I also wrote another one about racism, sexism, and office politics which a group in New York expressed interest in. Unfortunately, then the pandemic rolled in, and I never heard back from them.

Nauck

So how does all this apply to your music making, in particular your composition and performance of ragtime?

Good question. Bruce Corlett, a violinist with whom I played some concerts in New Zealand, told me his teacher once told him that no matter what idea you have – no matter how crazy it may seem – you should try and use it: even if it doesn’t work, you’ll have learned something in trying.

Acting upon fear of failure is worse than failure itself. I wasn’t afraid to make changes to the music I played, and not just ragtime.

When I was growing up, my father had a great collection of LPs and 78s. One of those LPs was a recording of Liszt’s music by the famous “lost” pianist, Ervin Nyiregyházi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ervin_Nyiregyh). His playing absolutely blew me away. I had never heard a classical pianist deviate significantly from the score before. When I performed at my Dame Myra Hess concert, I played the Mozart Bb Sonata K. 333. It already has something resembling a cadenza in the 3rd movement, but I elongated the section, creating quite a long cadenza, as one might find in one of his piano concerti.

This all goes back to our discussion about music being a living language which constantly needs expansion. Any language that does not evolve is on its way out. But in both classical music circles and amongst those whom I deem the ”ragtime fundamentalists,” it is highly controversial to put it politely.

Why did you stop recording?

After I did the classical piano recording in Montreal in 2007, I had no access to a decent piano, and could not find one anywhere. Then in 2015, I got Rheumatism, and while I was miraculously put n remission after a short period of time, either the medication or the illness wrecked my stamina, so I focused on writing for a while.

Yet, you decided to record another contemporary ragtime album? Why?

Max Morath and I had lost touch for about 15 years. A little bit before his 95th birthday I got back in touch with him, and did an interview with him about his fabulous recordings for Vanguard in the early 1970s for The Syncopated Times. For his 96th birthday, I played his rag, One For Amelia, over the phone to him. It was the only time in my life in which I had heard him become genuinely moved. He expressed great appreciation for it and made me promise him that I would record it and create one last album of contemporary piano rags. So I did. However, around March last year, my right knuckle swelled up and I had to go back on medication. For a while beforehand, I tried to just not use my right index finger playing the piano. But as you can imagine, that was not wise. Nor practical.

However, due to my Rheumatism, I knew I had about a 50% chance of being able to play well enough on the day of recording. It was a bit of come down from 30 years previously, when I could play something mostly note perfectly the first or second time. Second takes 30 years ago were mostly to highlight musical ideas I forgot the first time through.

So what was your plan with this new recording?

Two compact discs: one from 1993 and the other from 2023. Well, clearly, I couldn’t compete with my 29-year-old self on a technical level. So, I had to come up with a different angle. My idea was to concentrate on my musical rather than my technical abilities. I remembered an interview I had heard many years ago with the head of Steinway pianos in New York, how he talked about a discussion he once had with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. The conversation turned to Martha Argerich. Michelangeli said, “Ah…Martha Argerich…I taught her everything she knows.” The head of Steinway was incensed. He said, “Oh, come on, Maestro, I know for a fact that she only ever had four lessons with you,” and Michelangeli retorted, “Yes, but before she came to me, she could not do silences. And if you can’t do silences, then you can’t do anything.” I took the opportunity to review a DVD in my possession of Michelangeli playing Chopin, and if you listen carefully, you can hear short fragmentary silences or “breaths” to break up the melody and emphasize the phrasing. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXOl7qsHIsg ) I decided to attempt to employ the same idea to contemporary ragtime.

Fortunately, those who’ve heard that recent recording have been very positive. Hal Isbitz gave his seal of approval to my version of Sweet Alyssum. Peter Lundberg listened to my rendition of his Gothenburg Rag and was happy with the changes I had made. He said to me that he felt that I was playing for myself. Not to invoke the sacred name of Michelangeli too frequently, but I remembered that was part of a phrase that Michelangeli once said, to wit: “I play for myself in the service of the composer.”

Program for Piano Puzzle: Rags to Jazz 1909-1994, a concert Matthew de Lacey Davidson presented on March 5,1995, for the Northern Viriginia Ragtime Society in Vienna, VA.

I’ve heard the “breaths” in the pieces from your new recording you shared with me and found them remarkable. It sounds like this was a huge undertaking combining music you created 30 years ago with your new interpretations!

One of the most difficult tasks was to find a recording engineer. Roderick Sneddon (who worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for many years) eventually came to my rescue, as did Gary and Grant Trenholm of the Doctor Piano piano store in Bedford, Nova Scotia. They have a new recital hall, and are the caretakers of the Nova Scotia Symphony Yamaha Grand Piano. And piano tuner James Bainbridge did the best job of putting the instrument into shape of any technician I’ve ever met.

In addition, an amazing engineer in Maryland, Doug Benson, spliced it all together, and he did an outstanding job remixing the new recordings and restoring one more CD of original recordings from 1993 and 1997. He made them sound like they were recorded yesterday.

When I first approached Doug about the project, I was quite adamant about how I wanted to do all the recordings. When Rex Anderson recorded my albums 30 odd years ago, he used what he called “hall ambience” (that is to say, “silence” recorded in a given concert hall) instead of dead digital silence between the tracks. This helped it all to sound like a live concert. Now, Doug was very patient with me and carefully explained that while he understood my point of view, there was no software 30 years ago which could intelligently separate the sound of the piano and the “hall ambience” or any other noise. Doug pointed out to me that this “hall ambience” was in fact, just an air conditioner or the sound of a heater, which, of course, is noise. And he said that while the sound itself was inoffensive, the whole effect would be better overall if we intelligently removed all the noise including the original “hall ambience.” He sent me a couple of tracks done the way I wanted, and then the same tracks done his way. His way was unbelievably better. So he was right. And I was wrong. But he is one of the best in North America at what he does, that is, audio restoration, and it only increased my faith in his abilities. The overall effect of the two CD albums is interesting, in my opinion. So interesting, in fact, that Rivermont Records has agreed to release the new “Graceful Ghost” double album. [https://rivermontrecords.com/ ]

[At this point, the slam of a door is heard, offstage. Philippe Soupault enters stage right, running and panting. He is an elderly gentleman with a French accent]

Philippe Soupault [gesticulating wildly and shouting]: I can’t STAND it anymore! This is getting too serious! Quick! Everybody! Switch drinks! [Jeff and Matthew stare at him, confused. Soupault gets very embarrassed.] Woops…Sorry – wrong planet! [He runs out, stage left].

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: I see the nine-fifteen is on time.

Jeff Barnhart: Sorry, what you were saying before?

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: Yes…Umm…I was listening to my playing and my music from 30 years ago, and I’m reminded of an interview I once saw with the director Terry Gilliam. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Gilliam ) He was shown one of his Monty Python cartoons from decades before. It had a cartoon man watching a television and a strange mechanical contraption would come out of the television, and pull his eyeballs out of their sockets and then his eyes would fly about the room and gradually go back into their sockets. This happens a few times before his wife comes in and says, “Stop watching the Telly! You KNOW its bad for your eyes!” After seeing this, Gilliam shook his head and said, “I don’t even know this person, who did this.” That’s how I feel about listening to my work from years ago. I have no idea how I came up with the idea of playing Trebor Tichenor’s Ragtime in the Hollow at such breakneck speed, with complicated syncopations in the bass. How on earth anyone could play repeated notes with one’s thumb that fast is beyond me. I certainly can’t do that now.

Can you give me a quick example of how your interpretive approach differs from others?

Alright, let’s look at your piece, Mystic Memories, which I just recorded. I only had three weeks to learn it, which is never ideal. But the first three notes are F, G, A – an upbeat to the first bar in Bb. You clearly thought of this as two chord tones in V of I with a passing tone G. Three notes over the same chord. I can’t read your mind, but I don’t have to, that’s how you harmonized it in the repeat which I didn’t play. But I chose not to see it the way you conceived it. I reinterpreted the first note F, as the 7th degree of chord V of ii, the second note as the fifth degree of V of V (where I add the E natural in my recording), and the last note the third degree of V of I with the seventh degree of the scale in the bass, which I stole from your repeat which as I said, I didn’t play. The Eb in the left hand then moved logically to D, the third degree of chord I. I then filled out the chord in the left hand and afterwards continued with what was in your original score. I know that’s probably too technical for most readers, but the point is, your conception of the first three notes was in one environment. I reconceived it as three constantly changing harmonies, with the opening note only implied that way. I don’t think that this is nihilistic, as some have accused me, and as I mentioned before. This isn’t chipping pieces off a work of sculpture. This is showing great respect for an elegant and heartfelt piece of music by reimagining it and giving a different perspective.

Similarly, Robin Frost’s Alligator Gravy should supposedly be played at breakneck speed, but my wife kept saying to me, “play it slower.” I responded that that was not the composer’s intention. She responded by saying, “Well, while I’m very happy for him, the harmonies and voices are getting lost. When you play it slower, it sounds more musical.” And she was right. So I play it under tempo, and despite what some might say, I think it works much better that way.

When Ian McKellan made his film, Richard III, the famous “Now is the Winter of our Discontent” soliloquy is in a men’s washroom. This isn’t disrespectful. It is a comical reinterpretation showing the titular character’s disrespect for everyone else. I think it’s genius.

Do you think you’ll ever record again?

Highly unlikely. I doubt that I’m physically capable of playing an hour’s worth of music anymore. But possibly you and I could share a concert some day, and I could do 30 minutes of music, and you could play the rest, if I stay in remission.

Had you ever worked with Doug Benson before?

Absolutely. I had always wanted to produce a two CD collection of 78 rpm recordings of the bands recorded by Brunswick in the early 1920s, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBpoY5MOfXI ) ever since my first musical experience: when I was 12 years old, my father played for me a 78 rpm record of Swannee Smiles played by the Oriole Terrace Orchestra on a wind-up gramophone. But I couldn’t initially find anyone to work with me on the project. So I took my personal recordings and transcribed them to .wav file format. Then I heard Doug’s work on the Rivermont New Orleans Rhythm Kings album. It was breathtaking. Like you were in the studio with the musicians in the 1920s. So I knew that he was the man to do the job. “Clever” doesn’t begin to describe Doug’s abilities; so, I was beyond pleased to have Rivermont Records agree to release the Brunswick Band two-CD project upon which Doug and I cooperated.

On his “King Oliver” album, Doug used a super-thin needle; and in doing so, he got the first clean take on the sole known copy of “Zulus Ball.” He learned a great deal from J. R. T. Davies, whose work was the gold standard of sound restoration during Davies’ lifetime. Doug told me that the main thing about JRTD’s work is that he passed away in 2003 before a lot of the current digital restoration modules were available. Doug told me that he would have loved to have heard what JRTD could have done with them.

Do you have any final words?

I think it’s important that my story gets told, so thank you very much – to quote jazz drummer Joe Morello (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Morello ), it’s nice to be remembered when you’re old and grey. Did I, by any chance, mention the North American Vegetarian Society?

[Sighing quietly, trying to patient]…yes Matthew…are we done yet?

Outside Great Village Antique Mall in Nova Scotia, around the corner from Canadian and US poet Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home. (Permission of Great Village Antiques Mall; Photo by Shayna Davidson)

Almost, I just have my final soliloquy, followed by the dénouement…in one respect, my story is relatively unusual: I sought out the best teachers in the world (or people who had studied with them), not just to excel at my craft, but because I wanted meaningful work, which is something that all human beings deserve. Before YouTube, in the 1990s, people who spent much of their lives training and then could not get university teaching jobs, were made to feel like it was their fault.

But nowadays, you’ll see any number of documentaries and testimonials on YouTube detailing how many university presidents and football coaches are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and most teachers get between two to four thousand a year (as most can only get part-time work) and need to be supported by their parents or spouses. A friend of mine knew dozens of people with doctoral degrees and only one ever got a full-time job.

However, I also try to be an engaged person and concern myself with the suffering of others. In doing so, it’s right to note that my story is, sadly, rapidly becoming the norm. Nowadays, even many younger accountants and doctors are having a hard time making ends meet and finding jobs. What typically only affected teachers 30 years ago, has reached the point where western society is becoming destabilized. The insouciant myth of merely needing to work hard and everything working out is rapidly becoming a falsehood for vast swaths of the population.

[At this point, he turns his glasses upside down and continues speaking, with a completely serious expression.]

Upsettingly, the millionaires and billionaires (and their politician friends) who promote neoliberalism and decimate economies are creating an environment where half the population has become cynical about democracy, which I find sad. I suspect this is because it doesn’t benefit them anymore. And this state of affairs most certainly doesn’t benefit education nor artistic expression, either. So, to some extent, my story is a canary in a coal mine.

[At this point, Matthew closes his eyes and adjusts his cravat, methodically. His lower lip trembles slightly, and a lone tear crawls slowly down his cheek. For some reason, it appears to be coming out of his ear. He mumbles to himself, “I don’t even know what a cravat is…” followed by “…by golly, I truly am Mr. Wonderful.” He coughs melodramatically and continues with his monologue.]

It affects me deeply when people become financially vulnerable. They then become more vulnerable to political cultism and scapegoating. But during adversity, that would probably be the best time to not take oneself too seriously. I think it was Groucho Marx who said the first thing to go when people are setting up a dictatorship is comedy and comedians. And appreciation for the arts, too, might I add.

On The Highwire album released in 2000 (original photo by Tony Holmes, 1979; Permission of the Paper Bag Players and Matthew de Lacey Davidson)

I’ve always thought it would be wonderful if at the end of any Civics or Political Science class, all the students could be required to put a cigar in their ear, much like the characters of Denny Crane and Alan Shore in the television series, “Boston Legal.”

At the risk of getting too serious, I’d like to quote Booker T. Washington, to wit, “…success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” Exclusionary language notwithstanding, abandoning the misguided belief that celebrity and wealth are somehow synonymous with virtue is ultimately liberating. It can help one to abandon self-hatred which is the source of hatred towards others. So maybe, just maybe, general happiness might begin with not taking oneself too seriously. So there.

[Both of them sit awkwardly for a moment, not saying anything.]

Jeff Barnhart: Are we finished?

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: Well…I did want to give my tedious, turgid, long-winded Sunday Lecture about the battle of Hastings, followed by an in-depth question and answer session with the audience, but then thought better of it…

Jeff Barhart: …so, shall we go?

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: Well, you can. But I’m waiting for…uh….

Jeff Barhart: …who?…

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: …um…I can’t remember now…

Jeff Barhart: Well, it can’t have been very important then, can it?…

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: What?

Jeff Barhart:[after a long pause] …what do you mean, “what”?…

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: I can’t remember what we were discussing.

Jeff Barhart: …does it even matter? It’s all completely futile and we have to go away and figure it all out for ourselves…

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: Says you, nyah, nyah…and figure what out precisely?

Jeff Barhart: …umm…not sure exactly, I think it was something Jean-Paul said…

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: Jean-Paul who?

Jeff Barhart: …umm…not sure, now…so…shall we stay?…

Matthew de Lacey Davidson: I thought we were going to go.

Jeff Barhart: Oh. Alright then.

[They stay and continue to sit awkwardly, shuffling in their chairs, twiddling their thumbs, staring at the ceiling and the floor, trying to avoid eye contact. Then they stare out at the audience. Blackout.]

INTERMISSION

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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