Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act


In this, the 50th anniversary year of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights act I have decided to do a survey of black composers who have come of age in the aftermath.  The push for equal rights in the way people are treated, given access to voting, education, business and financial opportunities was the spirit of that legislation.  Though many speak of a “post-racial” America it is clear from any fair analysis that we have a long way to go.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil R...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am beginning a series of articles in honor of Black History Month and in honor of this legislation which attempts to address this inequality. Each article will feature a composer or composers whose work I personally find interesting and worth promoting and which was written or premiered in or after 1964.  I will not necessarily limit myself to Americans both because that would be unnecessarily constricting and inconsistent with the spirit of Black History Month and because non-American black composers suffer similar obscurity and may have even benefited from the 1964 legislation.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether the legislation has improved the opportunities for black composers is, of course, open to debate but the quality of these artists stand alone on their own merits.  They may have had opportunities not available to their predecessors and this may be a positive result of this legislation.  But the fact that awareness of their work is limited and promoted in relatively obscure contexts such as this blog suggests that true equality in the area of recognition of artistic merit remains elusive (though the availability of recordings of the music of black composers has certainly increased) .  Curiously the United States has chosen the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History whereas England, who abolished slavery before the U.S., celebrates it in October.  Yes, it’s only 3 days, but the irony is hard to miss.

The pioneering work of musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma has done a great service in promoting the work of black composers internationally.  He was involved in the production of the landmark series for Columbia Records along with the great (now retired) conductor Paul Freeman recording a variety of music from black composers world-wide. I had discussed this set in a blog last year and it is worth mentioning that the complete set of recordings has been reissued on 9 vinyl discs as a result of a Ford Foundation grant and remains available through the College Music Society in Missoula, Montana for $35.  This beautifully produced box set deserves an honored place in any record collection.

This pioneering set has inspired similar series by Albany Records and Cedille Records which have made recordings available of some very attractive music of black composers which deserves a wider audience.  It is largely these sets and the writing of Professor de Lerma which serve as the source for the series I am doing on this blog.

The internet site africalssical blog is also a very useful resource which is updated frequently and reports the work of black musicians working in the so-called classical world.  It is difficult and perhaps superfluous to try to separate jazz and classical so I will include composers without concern for specific genre categories except, perhaps, pop composers whose work is well-represented in the mainstream.

Pioneering black musicians like Natalie Hinderas, Martina Arroyo, Marian Anderson, Dean Dixon, William Grant Still and their like paved the way for their successors such as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Paul Freeman, George Walker and others whose stars became visible to the casual onlooker.  Of course there are fine black classical artists whose talents remain too little known.  How many people know Awadagin Pratt, Mark Doss, Michael Morgan and other active black musical artists?  It takes much more work for listeners to find and appreciate their talents.

It takes even more work to find black composers, especially if they are not also performers.  Most people, even most musicians, would have difficulty naming a single black classical composer.

I contacted several prominent black musicians to pose the question of how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted black classical composers.  To date I am pleased to say that I have received two gracious replies.  The first is from Michael Morgan who currently serves as conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Festival Opera in Walnut Creek.  He has numerous recordings to his credit as well.  Maestro Morgan replied as follows:

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan (1957- )

“I don’t believe the 64 Civil Rights Act has impacted black composers directly, however, the national conversation it inspired did cause performing arts groups (and their philanthropic supporters) to look for new ways to expand their audiences into communities not traditionally as well represented in concert halls. Orchestras are still making efforts (some more sincere than others) to connect with various minority communities. Unfortunately, rather than sprinkle such efforts throughout their seasons, some have opted for the annual Martin Luther King or Black History Month (or Cinco de Mayo, or Chinese New Year, etc. etc.) concert resulting in less sustained contact than might otherwise be possible. Such concerts have, however, been something of a boon for black composers, performers and conductors who find themselves at least included on orchestra programs on those annual occasions.

There may have been a more direct impact on the integration of some concert halls in particularly segregated cities, but the performing arts have historically been somewhat ahead of society in general in terms of promoting fully integrated events, at least in communities where there was significant acceptance of such integration.”

Morgan’s practical approach to programming is evident here and the point is well-taken that consistent programming of minority composers would result in a more sustained impact than simply having focused efforts during given months or weeks.  In fact this notion has convinced me that my blogs on the subject might be more effective if I were to spread them throughout the year, something which I will now incorporate.  My previous blog post on black classical conductors which included Maestro Morgan has been one of my most frequently viewed posts and I will expand on that subject in the months to come.

Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

The second reply was from eminent composer Adolphus Hailstork who was the subject of my first blog post for black history month from last year.  He replied very thoughtfully as follows:

“Fifty Years After the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Having grown up in New York State and not experienced “legalized” segregation as practiced in the South, I had enjoyed as a youth, all the rights and privileges of American citizenship due me. There were no “colored” this and “white” that signs or classrooms, or lunch counters, etc. So the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not have a direct effect on my life at that time.

(I much later came to appreciate the value of the changes in the south when I came to live there as a working adult.)

Actually, it was the assassination of Dr. King that opened doors to my beginning my doctorate degree that same year when I got out of the army (1968).

Also, that tragic event influenced the unfolding of my career, because it led to an interest in the music of African-American classical composers for the honoring of Dr. King’s birthday celebration in January and, by extension, the heightened interest in such music during the February Black History Month observance.

I believe the history of African-Americans is tragic, heroic, triumphant, and, of course, filled with awesomely dramatic stories. It is an honor to attempt in some small way to pay tribute through music to our story.”

Clearly Dr. Hailstork notes the difference between his experiences in the north where he was born and was able to see the profound contrast he experienced working in the south at Old Dominion University in Virginia particularly during the early civil rights struggles and their aftermath.  The emotional impact of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the same year he concluded his military service  is noted as a formative issue as well.

One can easily hear the deep emotional impact of which he speaks in works like his second symphony from 1999 which reflects his feelings after having visited the slave markets of West Africa and his American Guernica (1983) which is about the Birmingham 16th Baptist Church bombing which killed 4 little girls in 1963.  Other works such as his Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed, In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr. (1979) also reflect the impact of these events on him personally and reflect what he describes as his feeling of honor in being able to pay tribute to these tragedies describing them aptly as “our story”.

I think it is important to begin to see the tragic and triumphant events of the civil rights era as our American story and not just as the story of black Americans.  Indeed these events are part of our collective history as human beings and as Americans.  These are stories that need telling and re-telling as a part of the healing process and the exorcising of the evil deeds of our collective past.

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MLK, the Classical Playlist


President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no doubt that rhythm and blues is the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement but in this, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I am issuing a programming challenge to the classical music world.  Hey there all you classical music stations, both internet based and broadcast.   Hey there Spotify and Pandora.  Have you explored the music written for and about the Civil Rights era?  Well, here’s your chance.

I begin my programming day with Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World” (“Daybreak of Freedom”), written in 1982.  Comparisons to Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” are made due to the similarity in character and the use of a narrator.  The other work on this  Oregon Symphony CD under the late great James De Preist is  a work by an older composer Nicolas Flagello.  The cantata, “The Passion of Martin Luther King” from 1968, was composed in the shadow of the assassination of Dr. King and first performed in 1969.  Both works deserve more hearings for their musical accomplishments as well as for the subject of their dedications.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: pennstatenews)

Moving on to the next segment I will move on to Adolphus Hailstork‘s 1978 “Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed”  followed by William Grant 1930 Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”.  Still is rightfully known as Dean of Afro-American composers.  A contemporary of Aaron Copland, his accomplishments established without a doubt the place in classical music for black composers.  Hailstork acknowledges his debt to the older master.  He is the next generation of black musicians contributing to the repertoire.  I will conclude this segment with Hailstork’s Symphony No. 2 which contains his impressions upon visiting the slave market areas of western Africa, places where began the shameful history of black slavery.

And on we go now to Luciano Berio’s 1968 “O King”, a chamber piece later incorporated into his masterwork, “Sinfonia” of the same year.  I program the version from Sinfonia, it’s my favorite rendering.  The vocal parts of this piece are solely comprised of the name “Martin Luther King”.  Also from 1968 there is Michael Colgrass’ “The Earth’s a Baked Apple” which is subtitled, “A Musical Celebration in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (psst, I have a bootleg of it).

We move on to afternoon programming featuring Anthony Davis’ opera, “X”, based on the life of Malcolm X.  This is  a work that deserves a new production.  Following this I will move on to Duke Ellington‘s 1943 “Black, Brown and Beige” Suite and then his “Three Black Kings” titled in French with rhyming wordplay as “Les Trois Roi Noir”.

Album cover

Album cover

The program would be incomplete without programming the wonderful Other Minds CD of Sarah Cahill’s album “A Sweeter Music” featuring a diverse collection of compositions written for her on commission by Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Kyle Gann, Carl Stone, Phil Kline, Yoko Ono and The Residents.  The title is taken from Dr. King’s Nobel Prized lecture in which he refers to peace as “a sweeter music”.

Dizzy Gillespie

Cover of Dizzy Gillespie

I will end my fantasy program with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Brother K’ and Hale Smith’s “In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  But fear not I leave you with a useful reference I have recently discovered.  “A Catalog of Music Written in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.” edited by Anthony McDonald.

Stay tuned for more on these subjects coming up during February for Black History Month.  Peace, Dr. King.

A mural painted on the side of the African Ame...

A mural painted on the side of the African American Museum depicts the Hough riots, the civil rights movement and a family looking towards a bright new future for the city and the community. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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Peace through “A Sweeter Music”


President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Album cover

Album cover

It is fitting that this CD, this music has been released in the 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington and just prior to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The series of 18 pieces in this major commissioning project by the wonderful bay area pianist, producer and new music advocate Sarah Cahill called “A Sweeter Music”, its title taken from a phrase in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Prize lecture.  Though only 8 composers are represented on this recording this is a fine document of some truly wonderful and heartfelt music.  And Cahill’s introductory note indicates that there are plans to record the other ten pieces as well.

The project was planned to include video projections by Cahill’s husband, the skillful video artist John Sanborn.  The first formal performance took place on the Berkeley campus and the video projections across three screens added a dramatic perspective on the various pieces.  I was present at the first performance in Berkeley and later at a small multi-purpose hall in Point Reyes in the north bay.  At the smaller venue the projections were limited to a single screen but the images still added to the impact.  At the time of this writing Sanborn has posted some of these videos on You Tube ( http://www.youtube.com/user/sanborn707?feature=watch).

Still from one of Sanborn's videos.

Still from one of Sanborn’s videos.

Each of the recitals contained a selection of the pieces commissioned.  Sarah Cahill kindly provided the complete list which includes: Be Kind to One Another by Terry Riley, Peace Dances by Frederic Rzewski, There is a Field by Jerome Kitzke, Dar al-Harb by Preben Antonsen, The Olive Branch Speaks by Mamoru Fujieda, The Long Winter by Phil Kiline, Two, Entwined by Paul Dresher, War is Just a Racket by Kyle Gann, B’midbar by Larry Polansky, drum no fife by The Residents, Devotion to Peace by Michael Byron, Sonamu by Carl Stone, After the Wars by Peter Garland, A New Indigo Peace by Pauline Oliveros, Movement (Deep in My Heart) by Ingram Marshall, Study War No More by Bernice Johnson Reagon, toning by Yoko Ono and excerpts from Steppe Music by Meredith Monk.

The pieces represented on this recording are a diverse set including those by Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono, The Residents, Phil Kline, Kyle Gann, and Carl Stone.  Missing from this disc, and planned for a future release, are the pieces by Jerome Kitzke, Larry Polansky, Pauline Oliveros, Preben Antonsen,  Sanborn’s images definitely enhanced the experience of the music and this writer hopes that some day this music might be released in a DVD format with those images but the pieces here stand easily on their own merits.

The disc opens with Terry Riley’s ‘Be Kind to One Another (rag)’ (2008-10).  Riley takes his title from a statement made by Alice Walker which followed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  Rather than express an anti-war stance Riley harkens to the days of his youth when he played barrel house piano music while he studied composition.  This is a jaunty and entertaining but substantial piece which expresses the wish for kindness.  It is a challenging work to play but not to hear.

‘Steppe Music’ (1997) is apparently a reworking of a 30 minute piano piece (the piece at hand lasts about 8 minutes) commissioned by Sarah Cahill for another masterful pianist, Nurit Tilles.  Meredith Monk is of course best known for her extended vocal techniques and dance/theater pieces.  Little of her piano music has been recorded and one hopes that there will be more to come.  This is a less literal contribution which, the composer says, is about “color, texture, resonance, and gesture…”.  Like her performance pieces this is music about images which evoke emotion and it is unlike any of Monk’s recorded piano music.

The seven ‘Peace Dances’ (2007/8) were written by a composer/pianist well-known for his political statements in music as well as for his virtuosic music.  Frederic Rzewski is probably best known for his massive set of variations on the protest song ‘El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido‘ (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) commissioned in 1976 for Ursula Oppens.  His catalog contains a great deal of music with explicit and implicit political references.  Rzewski’s music sounds deceptively simple but is in fact very challenging to play.  These are part of a much larger set of compositions called “Nanosonatas”.  The dances here contain a variety of musical and political references that will entertain and frustrate musicologists for years to come but present the listener with some welcome additions to the repertoire.  Cahill plays them effortlessly and repeated listenings reveal more of the rich textures.  Rzewski’s inspiration, like that which inspired this series, is rooted in the same struggles as represented by Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, gospel music and contemporary folk music.  The last of these dances was a birthday present for the 100th birthday of Elliott Carter.

Kyle Gann’s ‘War Is Just a Racket’ (2008) is written for speaking pianist.  He takes Christian Wolff’s ‘Accompaniments’, which was written for Frederic Rzewski in 1972 requiring the pianist to sing and speak as well as play.  It reminds this writer of Rzewski’s own ‘De Profundis’ of 1992 for speaking pianist using a text by Oscar Wilde.  Gann takes as his text a very interesting text by one General Smedley Butler who gave this speech in 1933.  Like Rzewski, Gann is no stranger to politics in his music.  This addition to the “speaking pianist” repertoire is spoken with feeling by Cahill as she pounds out the angry chords and melodies.  This is perhaps the most literal of the pieces on the disc and probably the least friendly to a conservative audience.

Sonamu (2010) was written by Carl Stone for piano and electronics.  It’s not the electronics your grandmother listened to either.  Stone uses a computer to perform “spectral convolution”, a process, the composer explains, which isolates various aspects of the sounds to “…shape and enclose the pitch and harmonies of separate voices…”.   The intention stated by Stone is to evoke ghosts and memories of the aftermath of war.  This most complex and abstract piece reminds me of the ghost electronics compositions by Morton Subotnick.  This piece requires repeated listenings and would no doubt be enhanced by Sanborn’s images.

Composer Phil Kline describes a process of using various musical fragments edited together to evoke images of living in a land under siege.  Kline was an eyewitness to the World Trade Center disaster and his personal experiences contained metaphorically in ‘The Long Winter’ (2009) have a memorial-like quality.  In the liner notes he describes his fantasy images leading to the realization that he (and we) do live in a land (or perhaps a world?) under siege.  The piece is in two sections ‘Crash’ and ‘Embers’.

Yoko Ono’s ‘Toning’ (2008) purports to be an effort to heal both performer and audience through sound.  As with much of her work this piece has an anti-art quality like the work she produced for the Fluxus performances.  This is perhaps the technically simplest of the pieces on this recording.  I think that reactions will vary to this music much the way that they vary to Ono’s oeuvre.  Those familiar with her work will see the threads that connect and others may simply dismiss her work entirely.

The enigmatic San Francisco based group “The Residents” aspire to anonymity as individuals in the hope that their audiences will focus on their art.  This is clearly one of their performance art pieces and is fairly explicit in its anti-war stance.  It consists of recorded voices and sounds in addition to the live piano performance and demonstrates the eclectic range involved in these commissions.

This CD was recorded at the recital hall at the University of California at Santa Cruz by Tom Lazarus.  It was released as another of the fine recordings of contemporary music on the Other Minds label with Charles Amirkhanian of ‘Other Minds’ as executive producer.  It is a major addition to the recordings of this political classical genre and a significant contribution to the solo piano repertoire as well as a snapshot of an eclectic range of contemporary music of the moment.  Highly recommended.

Black Classical Part One


Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

In honor of Black History Month I want to bring attention in this blog to black music that is not a part of popular culture. I want to highlight some of the black classical composers whose work I find most satisfying and accomplished.

I will begin with the music of Adophus Hailstork. I had been aware of some of this man’s work for some years but it was when I purchased the Naxos recording of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies that I came to appreciate the power of his work.

Hailstork was born in 1941. He studied piano, organ, voice and violin. He is another of a long line of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. As one would expect, some of his music is concerned with significant events of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s. ‘American Guernica’ of 1983 is his response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four little girls. Similarly his 1979 composition, ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’ is an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

I purchased the Naxos disc to become more familiar with this man’s music. The first work on the disc is the 3rd Symphony of the late 1990s struck me as a highly entertaining and accomplished work that deserves a place in the symphonic repertoire. It is a joyous and inventive work which, to my ears, echoed the likes of orchestral masters such as William Schuman and Vincent Persichetti as well a hint of minimalist repetitive structures. It is a lavish neo-romantic work with a depth and complexity that demands several hearings but one which has an immediate appeal. The somber 2nd Symphony is imbued with the composer’s reactions to having visited the historical slave market areas of West Africa which, I imagine, must be not unlike visiting the death camps of the former Nazi Germany.

As time and finances permit I intend to pursue more of this American composer’s works. There is precious little reference material to be found on the Internet regarding this prolific masterful composer (as is the case with all the black classical composers i have so far encountered) though, thankfully, there are more recordings.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Africlassical.com and its related blog provide some information on about 50 composers and musicians. The now retired daring black conductor Paul Freeman recorded a significant series of music by black composers issued on 9 LPs for Columbia records in the 1970s. He recorded another 3CDs of music by black composers on Chicago-based Cedille records. He founded the Chicago Sinfonietta (billed as the world’s most diverse orchestra) and was its principal conductor for 24 years and continues in its mission of diversity presenting unusual concert repertoire.

More about some of the composers on those Columbia LPs and Cedille CDs as well as others to come in future blogs during this month.