Blackness, Race and Music, What I Have Learned So Far


Two years ago, when I was just at the start of my blogging adventures, I decided it would be a good idea to do a few articles in honor of Black History Month. I am not black and I have no expertise in the area of black music but, in keeping with the personal perspective of this blog, I decided that my interest in these subjects is sufficient reason to express some opinions and ideas.  I chose Carl van Vechten’s portrait of William Grant Still, considered by many to the first major black composer to receive recognition in the 20th Century as my symbol for this article.  Much of his music remains unknown and little performed though there have been some significant recordings released in the last few years.

I called that first set of articles “Black Classical”. Curiously my brief article on black conductors has been one of my most read pieces (947  views as of the time I write these words).   So I continued to write on this subject in the following year. For my second set of articles I took the opportunity to look at the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by all measures a landmark piece of legislation. I asked a question, in part rhetorical because I had a basic idea of the answers I expected, but also to elicit opinions and to discuss issues of race and music.

I sent queries to a random set of composers and conductors and received a few very gracious replies. Comments ranged from carefully worded egalitarian musings on how black music and music by other racial minorities should be integrated and heard throughout the concert seasons to seemingly careful statements suggesting that this might not even be the right question or that it shouldn’t be asked. Not all comments were published but I am grateful to all who replied. And I have been able to continue this discussion in the various groups on Facebook.

I learned in a (yet to be published) interview with Anthony Davis some fascinating perspectives. Professor Davis did not address my question as I originally asked but he provided some valuable food for thought. It is worth noting that Davis is a composer whose politics are frequently very much in evidence in his music. In a discussion of the current state of music he commented regarding John Cage‘s apolitical stance by saying that, “John Cage’s silence is the silence of white privilege.” One could argue that taking an apolitical stance may have contributed to Cage’s ability to get grants and commissions.  Politically charged music generally does not fare as well.

In general I found more or less what I expected. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has had little, if any, benefit for black musicians and composers. And given the ongoing killing of unarmed black men by police one must wonder if we have been going backwards as a society. But I don’t want to do a grand social critique here. That is a subject for another blog and is a bit outside of my scope at least for now.

I found some musicians who did not want to address racial and discriminatory issues. It seems the issue is too “hot” and that one could face consequences for even asking the question. And some did not feel sufficiently well-versed in Civil Rights history to make a truly informed assessment of this issues.  Perhaps it is a form of white privilege that allows me to ask such a question. We shall see if any reactions result in verbal attacks or (not likely I think) in a reduction in my readership.

What I have learned is that black classical musicians (who are not in short supply) occupy very few prominent positions in academia, in the public sphere of conductors and performers and in the representation in recorded performances of what is a rich but virtually untapped repertoire.  The inequality remains with perhaps some progress but not enough to pronounce the issues here as resolved to a truly significant degree.  But there is a vibrant community of black musicians who are working as did their predecessors to contribute to our collective culture and the discussions are both lively and stimulating.

In 2014 there was a performance by the Cincinnati Symphony of an Oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses” (1937) by R. Nathaniel Dett. The premiere performance of the piece (a beautiful and listener friendly piece of music) was broadcast live. But that broadcast was truncated, leaving out the finale when white listeners complained about music by a black composer getting so much airtime. Happily the entire piece was broadcast uninterrupted and made available in streaming format. However there is no commercial recording of this grand biblical choral work.

I was pleased to be able to review the fully staged performance in May, 2014 of Zenobia Powell Perry‘s opera Tawawa House (1984) in the unlikely venue of Modesto, California by Townsend Opera.  It was a heartfelt and beautiful production and was reviewed here.

Another interesting event in 2014 was the first appearance of three black counter tenors in a performance of a Purcell Opera in Los Angeles.  My blog on this subject can be found here.  I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who has been very helpful in keeping me up on the latest developments with black musicians and composers and was the person who alerted me to this historic event.

Coming up in March at the Other Minds festival there will be performances by Errollyn Wallen and Don Byron.

I have been able to dialog with various black musicians on Facebook most notably through the groups Black Composers, The National Association of Negro Composers and Opera Noir.  Composer, performer and conductor Anthony R. Green is posting the name of a black composer every day for the month of February with examples of their work.

Some recent films have done much to tell the very unpretty history of black people in the United States including: 12 Years a Slave (2013), after Solomon Northrup‘s harrowing memoir,  Fruitvale Station (2013), a retelling of the execution style shooting of Oscar Grant at the hands of police in Oakland, California, Selma (2014), a dramatization of the 1965 march in support of voting rights (musical direction by Jason Moran).  And this trend, happily, seems to be on the rise providing artistic historical narratives to aid in the processing of the complex, shameful and painful histories depicted.  The lack of recognition by the motion picture industry supports my arguments for the poor representation and acknowledgement of black artists in general.

I have to mention that the wonderful set of recordings by Paul Freeman originally released on Columbia records remains available as a boxed set of 9 vinyl records with notes from the College Music Society now being offered at only $17.50 (that is not a typo either) via mail order.  I’m going to buy a couple of extra copies to give away as gifts.  It’s a really nice set.

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned is the egalitarian approach by conductor Michael Morgan who stated his desire that music by ethnic groups be integrated into programming on a regular basis rather than being highlighted in a given month.  (I am pleased to report that maestro Morgan will be receiving an award for his service to new music from the American Composers Forum.)  I am now using that approach with this blog in which I will continue to highlight the work of musicians and other artists whose work I find interesting and worth promoting.  So please stay tuned.

 

 

My 2014, a Summation and (sort of) “Best of…” List


The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

As New Music Buff heads on into its fourth year in the online realm I find that I have a steadily increasing readership averaging 18 hits per day with an international reach of about 88 countries. I say readers, not followers because the stats provided have no way to track returning visitors but you know who you are.  And I thank WordPress for their entertaining summary published earlier here.

 

Last year I provided a list of my greatest hits (i.e. my most read articles in 2013) so here is a list of 2014’s top ten:

Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)
This is a 2013 article which continues to be popular. I did an addendum called: Black Conductors, A Belated Addendum  and received a note from Tania Leon who remarked quite correctly that she is indeed a black American conductor.  Clearly I will need to expand this survey once again.

Maybe Music Remains Forever
This review of the excellent newly released Martin Bresnick CD went the equivalent of viral for my blog and I was pleased to have discovered the work of this wonderful American composer.

Primous Fountain World Tour Begins in Moldova
This relatively little known living black American composer was a child prodigy whose second symphony was commissioned by Quincy Jones had his sixth symphony premiered in Moldova in 2014.

Tawawa House in Modesto?
I was granted a comp ticket to see this really great performance of a little known 20th century opera by a black female American composer, Zenobia Powell Perry.  It was a great experience, a passionate, entertaining performance and put Modesto on the musical map for me.

Other Minds 18, Three Nights on the Leading Edge
Curiously this review was read more than the one about the 2014 Other Minds 19. More to come about the upcoming Other Minds 20.  For anyone who doesn’t know this is my favorite new music festival.

Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings
This article about a 2013 performance by this very talented multi-instrumentalist, singer and scholar/historian continues to be popular. I’m hoping to catch another of his performances in 2015.

Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act: Primous Fountain
I started in 2013 writing an occasional series of articles for Black History Month. I had no idea how popular this would become. The theme for the 2014 series is given in the title and you can rest assured that I will continue the series in 2015.

Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen, Great New Recording
A review of a crowd sourced recording project and one of my favorites of 2014.

Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act
This is the introductory article for the 2014 series. Many thanks for the comments and support on this article and its successors.  I plan to give my summation of the various responses on this received both on and off the books.

Abraham Lincoln and the Avant Garde
This is one of an ongoing series of articles on political expression in music. It was after I friended Dorothy Martirano on Facebook and mentioned this piece that the article got a few new readers. Perhaps I should have mentioned the composer in my title.  Kudos to the late great Salvatore Martirano, gone too soon and too little known even now some twenty years after his passing.

 

SOME OF MY FAVORITES FROM 2014

Now regarding my personal favorite recordings of 2014 I have to insert a disclaimer to the effect that I make no claim whatsoever to this list being comprehensive or representing anything more than a few of my personal favorite recordings encountered in this past year. My apologies in advance to those I missed. I hope to catch up some day. So, in no particular order:

Mysterienspiel 2012

Game of the Antichrist by Robert Moran (Innova 251)
I promise a more comprehensive review soon but this is a great CD by a too little known American composer.  Mr. Moran recommended the disc to me after I wrote to him praising his wonderful “Trinity Requiem”.  I plan a more comprehensive article soon.  Meanwhile here is a link to a performance on Vimeo.

AZ spread

Alcatraz/Eberbach by Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston  (Starkland S-2019)

This DVD is essentially the completion of a collaboration of photographer Jim Bengston and composer Ingram Marshall.  As such it is the most complete artistic statement superseding the audio only release (still worth having by the way) from some years ago.

 

Who Has the Biggest Sound? by Paul Dolden. (Starkland ST-220)
A difficult to categorize recording that brings two major works by this (previously unknown to me) Canadian composer to the listening audience. I reviewed this disc here.  I am still working on absorbing its subtleties.

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Prayers Remain Forever by Martin Bresnick (Starkland ST-221)
In addition to providing me with quite a few readers the opportunity to review this recording introduced me to the work of this too little known living American composer.  My review garnered quite an amazing amount of readers as well as an appreciative response from Mr. Bresnick himself.  And now I find myself buying his other recordings.  Really great music.

 

Album cover

Album cover

Notes from the Underground by Anthony Davis. (BMOP sound 1036)

I have been a fan on Anthony Davis and his music for some years now and I was pleased to be able to review this disc.   I  was later able to obtain an interview with Professor Davis which will be forthcoming later this year.

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Tom Johnson/Samuel Vriezen Chord Catalog/Within Fourths, Within Fifths. (Edition Vandelweiser)

I eagerly reviewed this crowd sourced CD in which I was proud to be one of the contributors to its production.  It is only the second recording of Johnson’s landmark of minimalism and an opportunity to hear the work of the fine composer/performer Samuel Vriezen.

basketmonk

Basket Rondo/Jukebox in the Tavern of Love by Meredith Monk/Eric Salzman. (Labor LAB 7094)

This Labor Records release would have escaped my attention were it not for my having run across it while researching another new music article.  New music aficionados might remember Eric Salzman for earlier works such as “Civilization and It’s Discontents” and his involvement with Nonesuch records or one of his many other significant involvements in the new music scene over the last 40 years or so.  This disc is the première recording of Meredith Monk’s “Basket Rondo”, one of her best realized new works as well as the première of a great new sound/music drama by Salzman.  A more thorough review is in the works.

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Something by Howard Hersh ( Snow Leopard Music 888295062350)

Mr. Hersh kindly sent me this CD for review which will be forthcoming but it easily makes it to my favorites list for 2014.

webreaknonclass

I also have to mention another crowd sourced project, “We Break Strings” by Thom Andrews and Dimitri Djuric, a book about the “alternative classical scene in London”.  The book which includes a CD sampler languishes in my “to be read” stack but my initial perusal left me with the impression of a beautifully conceived and executed volume which has much to offer the musically curious.  More about this book in a future blog.