In January of this year, Smithsonian Magazine named Tulsa composer and pianist Barron Ryan one of its “Ten Innovators to Watch in 2021.” In the article running under that headline, writer Rasha Aridi concentrated on Ryan’s being commissioned by Chamber Music Tulsa to write a piece in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and how he approached the assignment.
As noteworthy and important as that composition was, it turns out to be one of many facets of Ryan’s career that could rightfully carry the “innovator” tag. Take, for instance, his propensity for, as he puts it in an introduction to one of his sheet-music collections, “mixing classical structure with American rhythms” – it’s an approach that’s informed his work for years. Then, give a listen to its latest manifestation, the new solo-piano CD First of Its Kind.
Finally, check out his marketing strategy, which may be the most innovative part of it all. While those who want physical copies of his disc or its sheet music can purchase them at his website, barronryan.com, people who want to download them from the same site won’t be charged a cent.
That’s right. Nothing. Zero. Ryan has purposely not retained any rights to his compositions, which means they are in the public domain, free for anyone to use. In addition, he recently announced the availability of what he terms a “rights-free concert program” called No Rights Reserved, in which he can be booked to play concerts of all-public-domain pieces – written by himself and others – with no need for anyone to be concerned with having to pay for the performing rights.
In a press release accompanying his No Rights Reserved announcement, Ryan notes: “No one had to pay Bach or Beethoven for the rights to use their music, and their careers turned out all right.”
It’s a good line, but it’s also more than that. It reflects an approach to art and creativity that, unusual as it might be, has a good deal of reasoning behind it.
“I have three thoughts about that,” he says. “The first is that I know what it’s like to be a struggling musician, a struggling artist, trying to make a name for yourself. The easiest way to do that as a musician is to play music that people already know. They don’t know who you are, so you play music that’s familiar to connect with them.
“With other people owning the rights to music that was written in, say, the last 100 years, I couldn’t necessarily play it in all venues. So I wanted to make it easier for other musicians to get started – assuming my music gets to a level that anyone knows what it is.” He laughs. “But you’ve got to plan for the future.
“Number two, I think it’s of benefit to me, too, because the more the music is played, the more people will start to recognize it and think, ‘Well, I wonder who wrote this? I hear it everywhere.’”
He mentions the holiday movie It’s A Wonderful Life, released in 1946 and not particularly well-received until it fell into the public domain 28 years later. Because its original copyright expired and was not renewed, any little TV station in the world could suddenly show it without having to pay for the privilege. The result was millions of new viewers and a groundswell of appreciation for the film, which is now recognized as one of a handful of classic Christmas features. Ryan’s point is that being in the public domain had a lot to do with It’s A Wonderful Life finally finding its audience.
And then there’s his final thought about rights-free music.
“I don’t feel that it’s mine to keep,” he says. “In a sense, instead of creating the music myself, I’ve discovered it. My idea is that I’ve returned from an adventure to bring it back to people, and I want them to be able to use it without having to ask permission.
“All three of these points,” concludes Barron, “are related to the fact that for hundreds of years, musicians and artists didn’t have copyrights, and they used each other’s music with enthusiasm. They were honored if someone else used their theme and sometimes put it in a variation. Musicians wanted that to happen.”
He feels the same way, noting that “for both selfish and altruistic reasons, I thought it [not copyrighting his compositions] was the right thing to do.”
Which brings us to the disc itself. First of Its Kind offers a crystal-clear reflection of Ryan’s propensity for combining classic and popular styles, the latter including jazz, pop, funk, soul and country. In that way, his work echoes the likes of George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Duke Ellington.
“I admire those composers, particularly Gershwin, but the ones I thought of [when writing the music for the disc] were [Russian composer] Nikolai Kapustin and [American composer] William Bolcom, who are both [represented] on my first record, Classical with Attitude, as well,” he says. “And Johann Sebastian Bach. He’s actually one of the main influences for the dance suite; he wrote a number of dance suites that included popular dances of his time.
“All of these composers used music that people already knew, and then added a level of thoughtfulness and wrote it all out to make it into classical music,” he adds. “So I looked at people like Gershwin and Kapustin, and I thought, ‘Okay, this has already been done for jazz music – but jazz is now 100 years old. What about the other music that’s happened since then? Who’s writing classical music that’s inspired and influenced by funk and soul?’ I didn’t really see that music being written. It probably has been, but I wasn’t aware of it. And I thought, ‘Well, if nobody else is going to do it, I will.’”
The dance suite Ryan refers to is “Suite Thing,” with four different movements whose influences range from Vince Guaraldi to Sam Cooke to Floyd Cramer, with a nod toward the steel-drum music of Trinidad and Tobago, birthplace of Ryan’s father, the noted pianist Donald Ryan.
“The idea with all four of those was to sound like piano-solo versions of popular songs you’ve just never heard before,” he says. “To have someone say, ‘Oh, I should know the words to this song.’ But there are no words. I just made them up.”
The same for “Magic City,” the four-movement sonata that makes up the rest of the CD.
“The Jackson Five is definitely the influence for the primary theme in the first movement,” he notes. “The slower, more melodious them of the first movement is Rachmaninoff-inspired, and so is the second movement. For the third, I think of a funky Irish jig, with a Dave Grusin-type blues romp in the middle. And for the fourth, I think of James Brown for most of it, with 1950s piano jazz – Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum – in the middle. A lot of people have heard my dad’s influence in that part, too. It’s not slower in tempo, but it’s calmer,” he adds with another laugh.
For all of that, First of Its Kind emerges as a wonderfully listenable and accessible piece of work, even to those of us who lack a formal knowledge of classical music or a trained ear for its nuances. It shapes up as another impressive innovation from Barron Ryan, that musical innovator to watch, and listen to, in 2021 – and, it seems certain, well beyond.