“Out of a Lyrical Darkness;”
David Thomas Roberts Music, Art Showcase in San Francisco

By Gary Rametta

I'm reminded of a scene from the Fellini-inspired farce Stardust Memories, in which the main character, a filmmaker, tries to ascertain from alien visitors the truth about his work and the meaning of his life. “If nothing lasts,” he desperately asks, “why am I bothering making films, or doing anything for that matter?”

“We like your films,” says the leader. “Particularly the early, funny ones.”

The character Sandy Bates, who's confronting the complexities and contradictions of his middle age, has artistically moved far beyond the lightheartedness of his early work. And unlike those easily-dispatched cinematic follies of yore, his stories are now deep, dark and heavy; without the discernible beginning-middle-end structures that his audiences have come to expect, and which have made him successful and adored.

In the finite world of American ragtime music, there has always been a beginning, middle and end. Not only in the classical stylings of Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb and other John Stark-published composers, but also in the rags coming from the south, east and west. From the earliest days of ragtime, continuing through its revivals over the past 60+ years, whether blues-, dance-, novelty- or otherwise-inspired, ragtime composition has rarely strayed off the prescribed, well-worn path established over 100 years ago.

That is, up until the time David Thomas Roberts added his imprint to it.

Taking into context his entire body of ragtime-related works, it's my view that no one since the likes of Joplin and Lamb has made an equivalent contribution to the ragtime form. Yes, there have been many, many fine rags written over the past 100-plus years, but in most cases they have been recitations, revisitations or derivations of an old recipe. David's work, however, has uniquely and significantly advanced the form, infusing it with contemporary sensibilities and deeply personal stories, while remaining faithful to its traditional structural framework. In his mind and hands, and in his works, ragtime has been ennobled. The ragtime of DTR is an art form, not a slice of vintage Americana. Relevant and meaningful today and into the future.

David explores and expresses an ever-moving palette of musical language; his constructions are profoundly affecting

None of this is news to David, because his mission from a very young age has been to cultivate, express and advance his artistic prowess; in music composition, piano performance, drawing and painting, writing and poetry. The purpose: to heighten consciousness, both of himself as practitioner and those who partake of his work.

It follows, then, that an anathema to an artist like David Thomas Roberts is the state of being static or immobile. It simply doesn't jibe with his raison d'être. This isn't to imply a rejection or discounting of his past works; to the contrary, many of his romantic-centric ragtime pieces are favorites of his and, admittedly, inspired creations. But as far as his ongoing creative mission, new vistas beckon. There's only one direction to go: forward, onward—more deeply inward.

David is not only fearlessly and purposefully exploring new compositional terrain, he is eminently equipped to accomplish something special with it. He brings fluency in the various periods and schools of European classical music, and has long been an adherent and articulate proponent of the Modern, Postmodern and Minimalist movements. Combine those influences with an established voice that has echoed American rural, folk, New Orleans, pop and gospel music, and you might arrive at an accurate expectation of his musical gestalt in 2014.

The Center for New Music, a new venue in San Francisco's Tenderloin District created to support and expose the work of innovative artists, hosted a showcase for David on January 31, 2014. Its promotional announcement for the event aptly conveyed what was to come:

“Acclaimed Postmodernist composer, pianist and multimedia visual artist, David Thomas Roberts performs his most recent as well as earlier works for piano and synthesizer. With affinities for both Neo-romanticism and Minimalism, Roberts' music evinces an encompassing and overtly expressive, sensuous sound world.”

Although there were many highlights to extol, the centerpiece of the program was David's rendering of his ambitious, extended, geo-poetic suite-in-progress, Map Dreams. Currently comprised of five pieces with plans for three more, the suite is intended to suggest a literal, and metaphysical, journey from the U.S. Midwest to interior Northwest. The titles, “Of Place,” “Davisville,” “Rhame” and “Returning,” reflect geographic locations as well as psychological and purely musical titles.

According to David, “Map Dreams is essentially a Romantic Minimalist work. The listener will encounter elements reflective of Romanticism, other Minimalist composers, and nostalgic returns to 20th century Modernism, pop music, ragtime and bluegrass.”

For listeners unfamiliar with American Minimalist music, or those appreciators of David's ragtime music who may be expecting a redux of, say, something akin to his popular “Roberto Clemente,” there may be initial roadblocks to acceptance of some of these pieces. At a minimum, a challenge if you're anticipating the unfoldment and development of traditional melodic lines and harmonic ideas.

A prominent characteristic of Minimalist music is the use of repeating motifs, such as steady, pulsating rhythms, onto which the composer's overarching ideas are built and conveyed. The cumulative effect of these repeating patterns is a bit of a hypnotic effect, which is not entirely unintended.

In thinking about this, as well as David's categorization of the stylings intrinsic to Map Dreams, I might also add “New Age” to the mix—with qualifications.

A common misconception of New Age music is that it's tantamount to “elevator music,” in the sense of it being little more than musical wallpaper; a sort of floating, easy-listening, pleasing background layer. Or, ultimately, a music of dubious consequence.

While some of what's popularly considered “new age” can surely fit that description, the best of this genre—ambient music—has a higher, more serious aspiration. Neuroscientific studies have shown it can incur specific brain activity that goes beyond an eliciting of emotional response; it stimulates brain wave patterns similar to what occurs in meditative and spiritual states of consciousness.

This might be the best way I can contextualize David Thomas Robert's music to a ragtime-centric audience. It is a furtherance of the artistry that has emotionally moved so many listeners, and which now presents an opportunity for us to join him in a collaborative state. A state in which we receive as much or as little as we are willing to uncover within ourselves. Now, it's not only David impacting our hearts with stories of love, joy, longing, despair, darkness, etc., it's David the artist projecting a richly textured canvas, to which we as listeners are required to contribute meaning, leading to an experience that exceeds the sensual.

The evolution of his musical language demands a high level of non-passivity from listeners, and that might result in a winnowing of its numbers in terms of traditional, limited-scope ragtime audiences. But that possibility is not disquieting to David.

“I want listeners who are introspective,” he emphasized to me. “Ambitiously introspective.”

* * * * *

For me, the details of elevated states of awareness or insight, such as what I experienced at “Out of a Lyrical Darkness,” are best left to private journals or intimate discussions. The reason: words are insufficient to express the depth of disclosure and the nature of understanding gained.

What I can say is that, throughout this venturesome 13-piece journey, some of the works resonated with me more than others. In particular, the hyper-chromatic (David's words) “Early Memory,” “Davisville” and “Rhame” from Map Dreams, and “DeBorgia to Thompson Falls” shivered my spirit in ways few compositions have. Also, though I've enjoyed his previous piano performances of “Chorale-Prelude” and “Chorale No. 1,” their essence was realized at a higher level in David's synthesizer performance.

Greetings with the artist outside the venue after the show

In terms of quantity and quality, a program this ambitious was, for me, almost too much to take in in one sitting. Fortunately, David recorded and released the entire concert, piece by piece, on YouTube. It is a rich terrain and highly recommended for ongoing study. Click below to view the concert on YouTube:

>>>Complete Concert Featuring David Thomas Roberts at Center for New Music, 1/31/14

Click for old review of David's 2000 Concert at Old Town Music Hall.