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‘Because we are black, we are making black music’

todaySeptember 6, 2023 2

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Out of their place. Out of their depth. Out of their minds.

Composer and researcher George Lewis has lost track of the times he’s heard those tropes lobbed, implicitly or explicitly, at Black composers of classical music. These artists, he argues, too often slip through the cracks in academic and cultural discourse: They’re shunted to the margins by historically white institutions or dismissed by skeptics of a musical tradition rooted in European aristocracy. A 1969 newsletter circulated by the Society of Black Composers—a defunct New York-based collective whose archives are housed at Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Black Music Research—offered a succinct, elegant riposte of its own: “Because we are black, we are making black music.”

The organizers of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series, outside of the old New York Times building in Midtown Manhattan in the mid-1970s. From left: Corrine Coleman, program director, with composer-coordinators Tania León, Talib Rasul Hakim, and Julius Eastman.
Credit: Marbeth via Tania León. Courtesy Tania León, Tania León Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University. 

Lewis published his own corrective earlier this year, alongside musicologist and saxophonist Harald Kisiedu. Composing While Black collates nine essays printed in English and German, with all but one centered on living composers. Among them are an analysis of music by South African composer Andile Khumalo, the subject of a 2021 portrait concert by new-music group Ensemble Dal Niente, and an account of the 1997 premiere of Anthony Davis’s Amistad at Lyric Opera, the house’s first opera by a Black composer-librettist team. (Two seasons ago, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Terence Blanchard, became the second.)

As its bountifully insightful introduction makes clear, Composing While Black has deep roots in Chicago. Eileen Southern, a Harvard professor who pushed universities to recognize Afrodiasporic music as an area of academic inquiry, grew up here and studied at the University of Chicago; the academic journal she founded, The Black Perspective in Music (1973-1990), was the first of its kind. Samuel Floyd, another pathbreaking musicologist, founded the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, which, at its apex, published the Black Music Research Journal (1980-2016) and boasted its own in-house ensembles. In the 1970s, conductor Paul Freeman made first-time recordings of dozens of pieces through his Black Composers Series (CBS Masterworks). He later added to that discography with the Chicago Sinfonietta, the ensemble he founded here in 1987. All the while, Chicago was a crucible for the Black experimentalism of the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (or AACM, of which Lewis, a towering computer music pioneer raised in Woodlawn, remains a longtime member and documentarian), and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Even so, Lewis and Kisiedu write, an “assumption of marginality” trails the contributions of Black composers and experimentalists. Such an assumption is easily challenged by the historical record: for example, Black Portuguese composer Vicente Lusitano, who lived and worked in the 16th century, and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George—a contemporary of Mozart—were hardly marginal figures in their lifetimes. In one of Composing While Black’s richest essays, composer and Harvard professor Yvette Janine Jackson notes Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh used taped sound as the basis for his work four years before musique concrète progenitor Pierre Schaeffer garnered attention for doing the same thing in Paris.

Lewis’s essay on Amistad, about the slave ship revolt of the same name, recounts a more recent case of Black composerly neglect. Despite Amistad being created “in a medium still somewhat distanced from the center of Black culture”—opera—much of Black Chicago mobilized around the production, spurred on by affiliated benefit concerts and large-scale educational initiatives. An abridged version of the opera reached an estimated 15,000 schoolchildren, and its three principal singers appeared in the Bud Billiken parade, atop the Soft Sheen float.

A black and white production photo shows a Black woman singing, her hand outstretched in front of her. The spotlight is on her face and she is dressed in a long gown as she kneels on the stage.
Florence Quivar as the Goddess of the Waters in the Lyric Opera’s Amistad
Credit: Dan Rest

Between all that buzz and its sold-out run, Amistad had the makings of a runaway hit. Instead, the opera became a parable for the gatekeeping power wielded by culture critics, particularly on beats that almost exclusively reflect white points of view. (A personal aside: Viewing a recent infographic reporting racial and gender demographics of classical music critics by the Asian Opera Alliance, I could identify exactly which of my peers had been counted, because so few of them aren’t white men.) Some 40 critics attended Amistad’s opening night, and subsequent reviews were mixed. The Chicago Defender and the Chicago Sun-Times both praised Amistad’s craft while finding its emotional impact wanting. Other reports were more excoriating. At least two major newspapers compared the opera to a “pageant,” and a glibly headlined review in the Washington Post—otherwise complimentary to the opera on a musical and dramatic level—accused Thulani Davis’s libretto of anti-whiteness, a charge which also trailed the Davises’ first opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. Lewis skewers these critics’ posturing “as autonomous, objective perceivers, unmarked by the regime of whiteness,” when their reviews demonstrated anything but.

In this black and white production photo, a Black man dressed in a suit, his hands in chains, stands center stage an sings. Behind him are people behind bars, their hands also in chains, their arms raised aloft. Other actors, standing in the dark, flank the central man.
Mark S. Doss as Cinque in Amistad
Credit: Dan Rest

Lewis’s essay is too brief to levy a comprehensive analysis of the opera and its reception. Then again, Amistad’s performance history is similarly abbreviated. It’s seen just one revival, in a revised version at the 2008 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina—not discussed in Lewis’s essay, though he includes photos from the production. Amistad has not been mounted in its entirety since. Like so many new operas that deserve repeat hearings, Amistad’s dismissive reception in Chicago likely contributed to its hiatus from stages. Meanwhile, a powerful recording of the original Lyric version, released by New World Records in 2008, offers its own endorsement.

Like many collections, Composing While Black can be uneven. The essays leading the volume—a literary survey of racial, ethnic, and gender descriptors applied to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Tania León and the analysis of Khumalo’s music—feel analytically thin compared to their successors. But don’t judge a book by its first two chapters. Hannah Kendall’s study of vocalist and movement artist Elaine Mitchener’s SWEET TOOTH, her 2018 multidisciplinary music theater piece ruminating on Britain’s bloody sugar trade, is as riveting as it is intricate, not least because Kendall brings Mitchener to the table as an interlocutor. Other essays attentively delve into works by Swiss composer Charles Uzor and Egyptian sound artist Jacqueline George—both introductions for me, and ones I’m still reeling from.

In their introduction, Kisiedu and Lewis write that Composing While Black “is perhaps the first of a kind, but it certainly need not be the last.” If current streams in musicology are any indication, it won’t be: There’s plenty of fertile ground here for a follow-up, perhaps even a series. It may not fill the research voids left by the wide-ranging Black Perspective in Music and Black Music Research Journal—what could?—but it would be a start.

Composing While Black edited by Harald Kisiedu and George E. Lewis 
Wolke Verlag, paperback, 29 Euro, 328 pp., buecher-zur-musik.de/english

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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