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.

 

 

Other Minds 20 and Why You Shouldn’t Miss It


Official Other Minds Logo

Official Other Minds Logo

The three days of concerts scheduled for March 6, 7 and 8 of this year at the beautiful SF Jazz Center will mark the 20th anniversary of Other Minds opening the ears and minds of bay area new music audiences.  Previously composers could only appear once at this festival (thought performers frequently return) but the anniversary celebration is marked by the return of several alumni.  In fact the entire program consists of composer alums.

Other Minds is an annual festival of new and unusual music curated by bay area composer, producer, broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian and his crew at Other Minds.  Along with co-founder, now president emeritus Jim Newman and a varied and sometimes changing crew of talented and dedicated archivists, fund-raisers and coordinators this festival was born in 1993.

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Every year (though the actual month has changed for various reasons related to venue availability and funding) an international group of composers is brought together first at the Djerassi Arts Center just west of Palo Alto where they share their work and ideas with each other for a week in preparation for the performances of their work to come at the concert series.  This residency is a sort of private retreat open only to the composers and the staff of the center.  And given the range of musical styles it must be a fascinating thing to witness as composers largely unfamiliar with each others’ work gather to share and wonder at each others’ strange and innovative ideas.  Who knows what seeds may have been sown?

Sadly, Dr. Carl Djerassi who founded the center passed away on January 30, 2015.  His arts advocacy will live on through his beloved Djerassi Arts Center and this OM 20 will be a testament to that legacy.

What makes this festival so significant is the fine tuned and prescient nature of the selected composers.  Just a quick look at the list of composers and performers who have participated in the past looks almost like a who’s who of new music as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  One of their commissions, Henry Brant’s (1913-2008)  won a Pulitzer Prize (Ice Field, 2001, Pulitzer Prize, 2002).  And it is programming with a uniquely west coast ethic, whatever that means.  I just know these programs are a different take on new music than that of the east coast.  Not a value judgement there, just a celebration of a different, equally important, point of view.

 

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T MISS OM 20

First you will find a generous (though hardly complete) selection of music by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ) who has been at the helm of this festival from the beginning and was for 23 years the music director of KPFA radio where his programming and interviews with composers and performers of new music spanned a wide and eclectic gamut of styles and techniques.  Perhaps most significant has been his support of northern California composers whose work would otherwise have been poorly represented.  Amirkhanian’s keen ear has introduced a great deal of new and interesting music to bay area audiences and beyond.

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his office with ASCAP award in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to his abilities as producer and interviewer Charles is also a noted composer.  Trained as a percussionist, he has written quite a bit of music which deserves recognition for its innovation.  His best known works are those with tape recording, sound poetry and the uses of language.   His music will be featured in several performances and will be a welcome and tantalizing complement to the overall diverse tone that characterizes OM programming.

Amirkhanian’s oeuvre will be represented by “Rippling the Lamp” (2007) for violin and tape, three short pieces for voice and tape, “Dumbek Bookache IV” (1988), “Ka Himeni” (1997), “Marathon” (1997) and, on the third concert, “Miatsoom” (1994-97), a piece based on sounds (vocal, ambient and musical) recorded during the only trip Charles and his father made to Armenia in 1994.  This approximately half hour work is typical of his ability to create a fascinating and meaningful sound collage.  Miatsoom is Armenian for reunion, indeed the apparent theme of OM 20.

In an uncharacteristically political expression this year’s festival is in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.  Amirkhanian is the descendant (both he and his father Benjamin were born here) of Armenian immigrants and grew up in Fresno, California.  The genocide of 1915 (also the year of Benjamin’s birth) was in fact only the most infamous and fatal of the ongoing abuses by the Ottoman Turk government in response to Armenians seeking equal rights (a familiar social issue both then and still today).  Charles has been tactfully apolitical in his programming but his music at times has paid respectful homage to his ancestry and their struggles. It seems right to pay respect to one’s ancestors and perhaps acknowledge that we still have much to do and learn in our imperfect world.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

Appropriately the esteemed Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (1939-  ) has been welcomed back and will be represented by two major works.  Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) and Canti Paralleli (2007-8) for soprano and string orchestra are both scheduled for the third concert of the festival.  I was unable to find any details about these pieces but Mansurian’s work certainly deserves to be better known and these performances are a welcome opportunity to hear this major compositional voice.

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Homage will be paid to two past masters who are no longer with us, American  composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014).  Harrison was a beloved bay area figure whose work with gamelan and other world musics led him to experimentation with alternate tuning systems.  Harrison will be represented by his “Scenes from Nek Chand” (2001-2) played on a National Steel Guitar tuned in just intonation by the wonderful guitarist David Tannenbaum who will also play Sculthorpe’s “From Kakadu” (1993) for conventionally tuned classical guitar.  Sculthorpe, born in Tasmania, was one of Australia’s best known composers who essayed widely in chamber, choral and orchestral music. His 14th string quartet (with didgeridoo played by Stephen Kent) “Quamby” (1998), played by the amazing Del Sol Quartet (who recorded all 18 of the composer’s string quartets) is scheduled to conclude the first concert.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

 

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros (1932- ) is one of the grand ladies of new music.  Her theoretical work in defining music and the act of listening as partners in the creative process and her subsequent compositions including ground breaking work with early electronics with the San Francisco Tape Music Center and later at Mills College characterize her wide range of interests and her insights.  Her principal instrument, strangely enough, is an accordion and she will be performing as well.  OM has commissioned a new work from her, “Twins Peeking at a Koto” (2015, world premiere) for two accordions and koto.  to be presented at the second concert.  Playing the koto will be Miya Masaoka (1958-  ) whose second string quartet will receive its world première on the first night by the  Del Sol Quartet.  Masaoka, Japanese/American native of Washington D.C., is a New York based composer whose work brings her to the west coast frequently where she is a founding member of the Bay Area experimental improv trio Maybe Monday.  Her work involves improvisation and frequently uses unusual sound sources like bees and even cockroaches (not to worry, no insects are slated to perform) and creates site specific multi-disciplinary works in collaboration with musicians and dancers.

Miya Masaoka

Miya Masaoka

Errolyn Wallen (1958-  ) can be said to embody the OM ethic.  Born in Belize, Wallen  left the Dance Theater of Harlem to study composition in England and says of her work, “We don’t break down barriers in music…we don’t see any.”  Her Percussion Concerto (1994)  was the first work by a black woman to have been performed at the London Proms Concerts.   Her “London’s Burning and other songs” will be played on the second night by the SOTA string quartet and Wallen voice and piano.

Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen

Don Byron (1958- ) similarly states that he strives for “a sound beyond genre”.  Steeped in classical, jazz and folk musics, Byron’s quartet (Don Byron, clarinet; Aruán Ortiz, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; John Betsch, drums) is featured at the conclusion of the second night of the festival.

Don Byron

Don Byron

Maja S.K. Ratkje (1973- ) from Norway whose work is perhaps related to Mr. Amirkhanian’s  in her exploration of the possibilities of the human voice.  Her “Traces 2” (2014-5) will receive its U.S. premiere on the first night’s concert.

Maja Ratkje

Maja Ratkje

The third concert will be unusual for two reasons.  First it will take place beginning at 3PM and, second it will feature a full orchestra.  This night will conclude with U.S. premiere of the Second Symphony (2014) by Michael Nyman (1945- ) .  Nyman is perhaps best known for his numerous wonderful film scores but is also highly accomplished in his work in the concert hall.  In the past three years Nyman has turned for the first time to the Symphony form and has completed to date no fewer than 11  symphonies.  Quite a feat.

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets still available as low as $15/night.  Quite a festival!