In his conversation with Lewis, Denk agreed that a measure of irony flows through the music, comparing it to Shostakovich, who folded episodes of triumphant marches and brass odes to victory into his symphonies, which, if you are so inclined, feel bitter embedded protests against the repressive Soviet regime.
Similarly, in a recent interview, Davis said that for all of his “superficial naivety” there is a “subversive quality” in much of Wiggins’ music, a “darker underpinning”. I asked him how aware Wiggins might have been of his audience and the implications of his music.
“It’s open to questions,” he said. “What was his idea of his condition and his position as a slave?”
Davis, who plans to record other, little-known Wiggins works, added that his composer may have had feelings that he was unable to express. His physical fluctuations at the time were viewed by racist audiences as evidence that he was primitive. Still, Davis pointed to another Georgia blind pianist, Ray Charles, who, when expressed through involuntary physical mannerisms, “was considered to be the ultimate in rock and roll hip.”
To some listeners, some of the pieces on Davis’ album appear to be mostly pastiches. However, there are subtleties and profound expression in many of these works. “Cyclone Galop” begins with a wistfully lyrical introduction that leads to a fast but restrained dance with a charming melody. It’s like an amalgam from Donizetti and New Orleans Music Hall. But even this light-looking romp has a rich emotional texture.
“The Rainstorm,” reportedly composed when Wiggins was 5 years old, is both haunting and dramatic. It starts with a swaying melody over an oompah accompaniment. Suddenly there are deep tremolos, indicating thunderous thunder, and menacing, seething chromatic riffs in the bass, like the brewing storm music towards the end of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. There are heavy octaves before the tension subsides, and parallel intervals creep into the high range of the piano. And then the dance music returns.