Tradition & Legacy in African-American Composers, part II

Welcome back, I hope you’ve enjoyed your break. Let’s jump into Part II, and discuss the playing of African-American composers in our time. Last time we spoke, we were talking about the Great American Melting Pot in terms of culture. I want to clarify here that there are wonderful composers that aren’t “black” or “white1 who exist and should also be researched, but are being glossed over for the same bad reasons, which we will discuss. We are focusing on black composers because I want to discuss a problem within context.2 Again, I want to be clear that underrepresentation is not a black vs. white issue, or a man vs. woman issue. But first, a little story about my childhood and my upbringing in classical music:

In the suburban-like bubble of a town where I grew up, I heard many of my friends and classmates tell me that “racism is dead” and that “we should only be listening to artists who write great music regardless of race.” I started wondering why that second quote was often paired with the first quote,3 and became terrified that what they were trying to say was that white composers are writing better music. I find this to be a ridiculous, prejudiced claim and I hope that this is not what they meant. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, they probably were not actively attempting to be racist, but instead trying to say there’s nothing wrong with the status quo of concert programming. My problem, as I stated in Part I, is that the status quo is very white and male. There is a resurgence on the horizon, however, of playing and recognizing black composers, so I want to remind everyone of some things to keep in mind as we explore their music. And now:

Part II: Mind the Gap

In Part I, I briefly mentioned how treating black composers as a niche genre can be harmful. By using the label “black,” we open up the opportunity to create a divide: composers and black composers. Very slyly, this label creates a division between composers, and insinuates that there is a difference between a composer and a black composer. Through this division, blanket statements will come and start to do even more damage by exoticizing black composers: ex. “I’ve never been a fan of black composers,” “I’m so excited to hear this piece by this black composer,” or the dreaded, “she’s great for a black composer.” Ideally, this division should be instead a distinction, rather: “Did you know Harry Lawrence Freeman was the first black composer to have an opera staged in the USA?” or “Did you know Florence B. Price was the first female black composer to have a piece performed by a major US orchestra?” Here we use a label to highlight an accomplishment within a societal context, instead of dividing the composer from the tradition and legacy of all composers. By focusing on the achievement, we can bring the composer into the tradition rather than ostracize her from it. So let’s explore the ways we can exoticize black composers and why it is damaging.

Probably the most common way we exocitize black composers is by assuming they are solely a product of the black experience. Here, we reduce extremely complex artists and creative thinkers into a one-dimensional analysis of their racial identity. Surely their experience of being black in America holds a strong influence on their personal identity, but we must understand that composers are more than just their skin tone. They exist on a multi-dimensional level, and as discussed earlier, billing them as a black composer erases so many other important aspects of each person’s human experience. To be African-American is to be American. To be a black composer is to be a composer. This small quirk in how we talk about composers may not always be used in a demeaning manner, but by changing how we use our language, we can eradicate the possibility of a negative comprehension.

Similarly, we exoticize black composers by assuming they can only write “black” music, such as spirituals or jazz. African-American spirituals are importantly American folk music, not just black music. This means that anyone is free to use this music and draw from it from inspiration, that not every black composer needs to feel connected or compelled to draw from this material. Just like jazz, hip-hop, rap, or soul, non-black artists are able (and encouraged) to explore these genres and draw from these genres as inspiration. But of course, we must also be aware of the historical context from which this music comes. Looking at African-American spirituals, this music comes from a time of great pain in American History. Using this music in a disrespectful4 way can cause a stronger division between people rather than create great art. And again, we want to be recognizing those who write great art; we want to perform great art.

On the other side of the spectrum of exoticizing black composers is ignoring them, an equally damaging problem. In the American canon, there are quite a few great composers that wrote music that will stand the test of time. When we play exclusively Ives and Copland and Bernstein and Reich, we start to forget that perhaps there are other American composers writing great works of art that deserve to be performed alongside these American greats. By only playing and lauding white composers, we reinforce the misinformed view that only white composers are writing great music. By playing exclusively white composers, we turn non-white composers into some exotic5 dish whose sole purpose is to push the audience’s boundaries on what is allowed in the concert hall when/if they are ever performed. By playing exclusively white composers, we neglect the influence that non-white composers had on the realm of art music.

So why aren’t black composers being performed? I have a few ideas why, but I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the classical music world just isn’t educated about the history of non-white composers and their music.6 Perhaps there was a history of racism that made decision makers of the 20th century weary to promote black composers for fear of being blacklisted.7 Perhaps the classical music world feels that black composers exist in a purely black tradition/legacy and therefore should only be played by black performers and musicians and since black classical performers, musicians, and composers make up a minority in the classical music world, black composers never really have a chance to make it in the mainstream.  Perhaps black composers were/are just writing bad music and racism doesn’t exist and everything in the world is perfect. I have varying degrees of faith in each of these suggestions, but I doubt the actual reason is a singular reason. At the end of the day, however, we must not pretend these composers do not exist. They have existed for nearly 150 years, and there are even more black composers writing today. By recognizing this influence and allowing more representation8 into the concert hall, the future of western art music will improve, not diminish, and will lead to better music, ideas, and a better world.

There is a very thin line that I have been trying to walk while writing this essay, and that is to not fall prey to the very thing I’m arguing against – exoticizing composers. Writing an essay about black composers is, by its nature, essentializing the blackness of these composers. I went ahead and wrote this essay because I believe it does more good to educate people about these underrepresented artists, and to educate people on how we undermine their work so in the future we can give these composers the proper respect and attention they deserve. We should be talking about black composers, and African-American composers should be included in conversations about American art. Some people, like my friends in music school, would argue there is no problem; that we should turn a blind eye to the composers’ non-musical personality traits and identity, and that their art will eventually bring the recognition it deserves. To sit back and try to let the problem of underrepresentation solve itself, however, would ignore that there is a system in place that makes it harder for minority composers to get played and performed. So we must become aware, we must continually ask ourselves, “Is there a problem?” If yes, “What exactly is the problem? How do we approach this problem?” Check back for Part III to see the thrilling conclusion of my discussion of tradition and legacy in African-American composers.

———

Derek Carter

February 2nd, 2017

Written for the Fulcrum Point New Music Project blog

 

“White” is a terrible term to lump a group of people in, and I’m so sorry because I’m about to do it a bunch, but we’re talking about minority representation.

Feel free to substitute another underrepresented group anytime “black” is written… well most of the time.

It also confounded me that only my white friends believed that racism was dead, but of course that is a conversation for a different day. A very necessary conversation, I might add.

Here I mean disrespectful to the music. Music is a reflection of the people, time, and culture it comes from, and disrespecting music is disrespecting the artists who created it. This is very much related to the conversations of appropriation we’ve all been hearing about in recent years.

Foreign, unnatural, doesn’t belong

See Part I

Literally. Black-listed. Blacklisted. Do you get the joke? I made a joke!

I feel I should add that I’m not advocating the throwing out of great composers that happen to be white males at all.

Tradition and Legacy in African American Composers, part I

Looking at media in the modern age, our mainstream eyes have started to pick up on identity representation, and it’s time to come clean:

The western canon of art music is very white.

Very male. And very white. And understandably so, since the tradition of western art music is deeply rooted in Europe and supported by the various churches of Christianity. The world is much more globalized and diverse now, and music historians have proven that other people besides white men were writing music, but there still seems to be a problem with ensembles only programming white men. Since moving to Chicago last year, I’ve noticed the new music scene actively try to combat this, and it makes me so happy. So with a cup of coffee in my hand, and the memory of MLK Jr. propelling me forward, I decided to do my part and write about, uncover, and delve into African-American composers.

I feel compelled to do this not only because these composers should not be forgotten, but also because their musical triumphs have largely been ignored and lost under the applause of other great American composers like Ives, Bernstein, Copland, Reich, Adams, etc. These big names in music became hailed as American music, while black composers got stuffed into a niche genre. By exploring this niche, we can see how much damage is done by treating it like a niche. In Part 1, we’re going to look at trailblazing African-American composers and in Part 2, we’ll talk about the problem of labels.

 

 

Part 1: Lost, but not forgotten.

We’ll start our exploration in the late 19th century, right after the abolition of slavery. Of course there was music being written by African-Americans before then, but most was not being notated or recorded, because, you know, slavery. Even when black composers started publishing their music and making it readily available for performance, there was still resistance.

There are a few reasons why African American composers were left off concert programs in the early 20th century, including the discomfort with  jazz music by the white bourgeois (widely considered a low art form) and extreme tension in racial relations during Reconstruction Era America, but this is not an indication that black composers were not writing; of course they were, and they were writing truly great work. Composers struggled left and right to make a living from their music in this environment, often having to perform in brothels and bars to get by. Fortunately, there was a haven for black art in Harlem in the 1930s and here some gems of music were being crafted by ambitious minds. Today we’ll meet some of the players. If you’ve got the time, take a little listen to some of their music.

 

Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866 – 1949)

Burleigh__HarryH.T. Burleigh is usually cited as the first African-American composer to have an impact on the American style of composition with his art songs. He has an amazing story though, starting in Erie, Pennsylvania. At age 26, Burleigh was awarded a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York where he met and developed friendships with prominent and preeminent composers and performers, including Antonín Dvořák. Burleigh would make a name for himself as a gifted baritone singer, but after securing a job at Ricordi Publishing, was able to publish his art songs and spiritual arrangements. After his death, his music fell out of popularity and into obscurity.

 

Derek’s recommendations for further investigation:

Deep River (traditional, arr. H.T. Burleigh) – you can listen to a version here

You ask me if I love you (1907) – listen here

 

Scott Joplin (c.1868 – 1917)scotty j

Scott Joplin is usually the first name people throw out when pressed for a black composer, but he was also known as The King of Ragtime. Joplin was a talented piano improviser but notated his works so that his art would be taken more seriously than the minstrel/vaudeville acts of the early 20th century. He wrote extremely colorful, lively music and his rags influenced composers such as Satie, Debussy, and Stravinsky. Joplin spent the later portions of his life trying to stage his opera Treemonisha with no success. Many of his pieces are lost and went unpublished including his Symphony No. 1 (1916?) and his first opera A Guest of Honor (1903). In 1972, Treemonisha was finally staged and in 1976, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

 

Derek’s recommendations for further investigation:

Treemonisha (1913) – the Houston Grand Opera 1982 staging be found here. It’s really good, I promise.

Maple Leaf Rag (1899) – you’ve probably definitely heard this piece before. Come on. Okay, fine I’ll link it here.

 

Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954)

Harry_Lawrence_FreemanH.L. Freeman was unofficially dubbed “the colored Wagner” because of his devotion to opera; he wrote over 20 operas and many of them are still unperformed. His music has a jazz flair with a taste of folk, and Freeman  was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He was inspired to start writing after attending Wagner’s Tannhäuser at age 18, and by age 22, he had founded his own opera company, The Freeman Opera Company, in Denver. With his opera company, he was able to stage the first opera written by a black composer and staged by an all-black cast: his Epithalia in 1891. In Harlem, he befriended Scott Joplin and other artists, and in the 1920s he founded the Salem School of Music and the Negro Grand Opera Company.

 

Derek’s recommendation for further investigation:

Voodoo (1913) – first staged in New York, 1928. Excerpts here and here.

Zululand (1941-1944) – 4-opera cycle, never staged

 

Florence B. Price (1887-1953)florence b price

Florence B. Price was born to a well-respected family in Arkansas, and quickly learned to play piano from her mother, a piano teacher. She eventually made it to the New England Conservatory when she was 14 years old, and graduated in 1906 with honors, a teaching certificate, and a performer’s certificate in organ. Price had her Symphony in E Minor performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 after winning the Wanamaker Prize in 1932. Her music is very romantic in feel, and there is a clear influence from Dvořák and African-American spirituals/hymns in her work.

 

DRFFI:

Symphony in E Minor (1932) – first movement here.

Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint – listen to movement five here

 

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

william grant stillWilliam Grant Still is widely known for his Afro-American Symphony (1930) which was premiered by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra making him the first African-American to be performed by a major symphony orchestra. He also became the first African-American to lead a major orchestra when he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936 at the Hollywood Bowl. Grant Still rejected spirituals for inspiration, instead choosing drawing from the blues. He studied at Oberlin and briefly at the New England Conservatory, but one of his most influential teachers was who encouraged his musical freedom.

 

DRFFI:

Troubled Island (1949) – libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey

Afro-American Symphony (1931) – listen in full here

 

Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977)shirley

Born Lola Shirley Graham, Jr., she later married writer W. E. B. Du Bois and was able to see much of the world. Before ever meeting him though, she moved to France to study at Sorbonne where she was introduced to many African and Afro-Caribbean people, furthering her exposure to black culture. While in Paris, she was also able to study with Nadia Boulanger, and upon returning to the United States, finally settled at Oberlin. It was at Oberlin she was able to compose her opera Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and of the Negro (1931). Throughout her life, she joined the American Communist Party, was the head of the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago, and joined the Sojourners of Truth and Justice, an African-American group advocating for global women’s liberation. She spent the later portion of her life focused on writing literature.

 

DRFFI:

Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and of the Negro (1931)

Deep Rivers (1939) – a musical

 

Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989)

undineUndine wrote very tonal music inspired by African-American spirituals and hymns, and her choral works are deeply rooted in the Christian liturgy. She taught at Virginia State University from 1927-89, where she co-founded the university’s Black Music Center. Her music is steeped in the black experience and has a very soulful tone, and conservative considering the other works that were coming out during 50s-80s. Moore’s oratorio based on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Scenes from the Life of a Martyr was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

 

DRFFI:

Scenes from the Life of a Martyr (1981)

Afro-American Suite (1969) – listen to the Andante movement here.

 

howard swansonHoward Swanson (1907-1978)

Howard Swanson was born in Atlanta and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music starting in 1930, and with Nadia Boulanger in France in 1938. He returned to the United States during the German occupation of Paris in 1941, where he found a job at the IRS. He eventually quit to compose a major work however, and completed his first symphony in 1943.  His music is very neoclassical in nature, but draws on the intimacy of spirituals and black culture.

 

DRFFI:

The Negro Speaks of River – text by Langston Hughes. Listen here.

Symphony No. 2 (1948) – “Short Symphony” premiered by the New York Philharmonic, led by Mitropoulos in 1950. Listen to movement three here.

 

Ulysses Kay (1917-1995)

UlyssesKayHeadCloseLargeUlysses Kay was a composer born in Tucson, AZ and began studying music at a young age. He completed his masters at Eastman and studied with Hindemith at Yale. Kay taught at UCLA briefly and then Herbert H. Lehman College, CUNY in 1968. He has received six honorary doctorates, the Prix de Rome, a Fulbright Scholarship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters in 1979. His music has been described as neoclassical and tonal, but highly chromatic.

 

DRFFI:

Frederick Douglass (1985) – opera in 3 acts

Six American Dances for String Orchestra (1954) – Listen to movement three here.

 

Hale Smith (1925-2009)Hale_Smith_web

Hale Smith is another composer who studied at Cleveland Institute of Music. His music is heavily influenced by his upbringing as a jazz pianist and but also trips to the Cleveland Orchestra. Smith was not influenced by traditional black folk music like everyone on this list, but rather fell in with the serialists and modernists of the ‘50s. He taught at C.W. Post College of Long Island and University of Connecticut, Storrs, and received an honorary doctorate from the Cleveland Institute in 1988.

 

DRFFI:

Innerflexions (1977) – for orchestra

Ritual and Incantations (1974) – for orchestra

 

First, I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know some of these familiar and not so familiar faces. But PLEASE don’t think this is the master list of African-American composers, or master list of dead black composers. You’d be embarrassingly wrong and I will laugh at you (okay I probably won’t laugh at you, but maybe in my head). These are ten composers that wrote powerful music but were given less attention than they deserve (and some of them did received major recognition in their time). Secondly, please go and look more into their lives if they piqued your interest, I tried to keep the list on the shorter side and didn’t go into depth in their careers and often tumultuous lives. They don’t really fall in with the white male composers America kept pumping out, but that’s kinda the point… but also, not the point at all. Let me explain: we see here that clearly there were composers writing music, and if you give them a listen, there’ll most likely be something on the list you’ll enjoy. These composers represent a different slice of American culture, and it’s important that we recognize that. The United States prides itself on its diversity of cultures from pretty much every country, so when studying a specific sub-genre of American culture – such as western art music – we must remember that diversity is not only our friend, but in our D.N.A. Again similar to American culture, it is not always a great idea to label the diversity – ex. African-American composers, women composers – because of the unnecessary division it creates. We should be recognizing composers that write moving music, music that stands the test of time, but it is ridiculous to assume that only white men can write this music. We’ll dive more into this conversation in Part II, and I hope to see you there.

*Sources are from Grove Music Online, program notes from the American Symphony Orchestra, blackpast.org, and Patricia Nixon’s dissertation, “Harry T. Burleigh’s Art Songs: A Forgotten Repertory”

 

** I can’t back up the claim that Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky were directly influenced by Joplin, but Joplin was the most famous and successful rag composer of his time and these composers had a clear influence from the rag genre. So I feel it’s safe to assume that Scott “the Rag King” Joplin’s influence made it into these composers work (like Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk from Children’s Corner, Satie’s Ragtime Parade from his ballet Parade, and Stravinsky’s Ragtime for 11 Instruments).

 

*** I also couldn’t find any recordings of Hale Smith’s music to link, but you can find it on Spotify!

 

——————————-

 

Derek Carter

Jan. 31, 2017

Chicago, IL

The World Premiere of “becoming…” by Jeffrey Mumford

This world premiere was performed at Fulcrum Point New Music Project’s concert, Proclamation! The Black Composer Speaks. The Black Composer Speaks Series celebrates music by African American artists utilizing styles from neoclassical to free improvisation, concerto to collaborative, Afrocentric to abstract. Based on the award-winning treatise by David Baker, the program features three generations of brilliant African American musicians. Look forward to more concerts celebrating black composers in 2017!

“becoming…” was written by award-winning composer Jeffrey Mumford. It is an abstract expression of the beauty of light and clouds, commissioned for piano virtuoso Winston Choi. Mumford’s music has been performed all over the world. In his career, he has received numerous fellowships, grants, awards, and commissions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. 
 

THE NEWS Pop Opera by Jacob TV

Fulcrum Point New Music Project presents
THE NEWS Pop Opera by JacobTV
Starring Nora Fisher and Loire

THE NEWS is a reality opera in which live music is synchronized with non-fiction footage from the international media, based on speech grooves. Singing anchors present news items about politics, economy, religion, war and peace, showbiz and trivialities. The avant pop music by brilliant Dutch composer JacobTV is a blend of classical, world, blues, jazz, rock, and pop.

“Stinging political parody, calculated to offend liberals and conservatives alike…The News made me want to laugh and cry and get angry, sometimes at the same time. That’s quite an accomplishment for any work of contemporary art.”
– John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

The following video is an excerpt from The News, featuring the song “Small Pop Finale.” 

Make Music; Not War

So much sturm and drang about the death of Classical and Jazz music has led to absurd battles over the value of art music and its superiority to other forms. With the rest of the world at war over dogma and materialism we music lovers need to focus on the spirit of humanity and the expression of its profundity and transcendence.

Make music; not war.

In Maya Liberman’s blog https://mayamusicalgenius.wordpress.com/author/mayaliberman1/ she asks the rhetorical question ‘Is Classical Music Dying Already?”

The concept of Classical music is a canard. Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and the rest didn’t call it Classical nor did they play concerts comprised of music from their ancestors 2-300 years earlier; they studied it, but concerts were never retrospective. They were both a celebration and a provocation in the present moment. The evolution and value of this art form come from the tradition of creating new work that evolves, varies, changes and makes startling new discoveries of timbre, harmony, form, and expression.

The same is true for Jazz; Buddy Bolden and King Oliver were creating new music evolving out of Ragtime and other forms; and not necessarily art music. Jazz was a derogatory word; like scat–meaning shit– that was co-opted as a matter of pride—like we say, really good shit! It continued to evolve to include compositional forms with rhythmic and harmonic devices that far exceeded the comfort zone of early greats like Armstrong and Waller. Now that Jazz has decided to create a canon in the mode of Classical music, discrediting and squelching new forms, the rumors of its demise are widely touted, but in the words of Twain “the report of my (its) death is an exaggeration.”

Society has always preferred comfort to challenge, safety to risk, and a marketable commodity rather than an unknown one. The great music of the past was not always appreciated by the general public of its time, but great musicians championed great composers and their superlative works resulting in a tremendous legacy of art music.

So this is what we must do: Strive for the highest artistic standards in music and drag the rest of the public along, kicking and screaming–or cheering and hollering–that choice is up to us. What music do we choose to program and in what manner are we going to present it? Loft concerts and clubs (check out http://www.constellation-chicago.com & http://lepoissonrouge.com) are clearly attracting audiences because people want to be social and festive, as well as inspired. When Wagner and Toscanini created temples to deify ‘Classical Music’ they sucked some of the humanity out of the music, entombing it in a mausoleum of righteousness and rigidity.

What should we call this music that has evolved from religious, court, folk, Roma, Klezmer, and indigenous music to include electronic, computerized, trance, and chance elements? That is for future historians to decide. For now we call it new art music.

Essentially we must educate ourselves to be open to, and appreciative of creativity. Most importantly, however, we must fearlessly proclaim the richness of human spirit through the experience of music, both traditional and experimental. In this fashion we will inspire and enrich the hearts and minds of those around us bringing our world peace, joy, solace, mystery, and adventure through music. Isn’t that what musicians have always done?