In addressing the many challenges that confront African Americans in the world of “Western art music” or—for lack of a better term—classical music, I feel there is an obvious starting point, which is the issue of presupposition.
In a conversation under most circumstances, when a White person describes themselves as a composer it can be safely assumed that, in the minds of those present, the images of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach or—perhaps for those more progressive in their tastes—Bartók or Stravinsky (all men) come to mind. A useful and wise supposition?
Conversely, when a Black person so identifies him or herself, I would venture to guess that the images of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (an 18th-century composer/violinist), R. Nathaniel Dett (born in Canada and educated at the Oberlin Conservatory, among other institutions), Florence Price (the first Black woman to have a symphonic work performed by a major orchestra), William Grant Still (the first Black person, male or female, to have a work performed by a major symphony orchestra), or—of a more recent vintage—Olly Wilson (distinguished composer and emeritus professor at U.C. Berkeley) or George Walker (again, mostly men, the latter having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996) would not come to mind. Rather, it has been my experience on more than a few occasions that there is a strong supposition that, as a Black person, you write either jazz, R & B, or gospel music.
As a first lesson in a class I teach on the subject of Black classical composers, I played six works without identifying either the name of the composer or their race and asked if anyone in the class could identify which were written by a Black composer and why, noting that three of the examples were in fact written by Black composers. Sprinkled throughout these pieces were works with “grooves” (identifiable regular beat patterns) as well as more complex music, both tonal and atonal, including jazz and jazz-influenced works. Each time I have done this, the answers were quite revelatory. Mostly no one got it right. Upon further discussion of a work (later identified as having been written by T.J. Anderson, a noted Black classical composer who writes music with a fair degree of complexity both rhythmically and harmonically) one student said, “This music is much too complex to have been written by a Black composer.” A useful and valid supposition? The heartbreaking aspect of this last observation for me was that it was made by a Black student.
The spectrum of what we as Black composers create is vast, and I love the variety (and it is truly breathtaking). What I am dismayed by is the mistaken notion in much of the public mind (both Black and White) that the scope of what we do is as limited as it appears to be, by virtue of what is presented to us by both the popular media and what appears on concert programs. Regarding popular media, where is the curiosity? It can appear to be a somewhat cynical (as my wife would put it) attempt at image definition by manipulative means. Why do so many people across the spectrum put up with it? I look forward to the day when a course like the one I have just described is unnecessary, when the music of African Americans and other minorities is regularly taught to instrumentalists, singers, and ensembles, when the music of these composers is represented in any given symphony orchestra’s season—both composers of the past and composers who are presently creating vital new works.
We have a lot of work to do.
For instance, is there an even subconscious assumption that we as musicians who happen to be Black might not be able, as performers, to render as evocative and communicative (not to mention historically accurate) a performance of Haydn or Beethoven as a White performer, even if we love that music as much as they do? Food for thought? Clearly the remedy for this doubt is a steady stream of wonderful performers and composers with a strong, informed, and intelligent point of view.
I am encouraged that more and more Blacks are owning all of the music they want to and expressing themselves accordingly. I note with pride the accomplishments of Naumburg Award-winning pianist Awadagin Pratt, Cleveland Orchestra violist Eliesha Nelson, bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, and earlier performers such as Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson (all singers) whose efforts against great odds made it possible for Awadagin and many others to be taken seriously in a world mostly defined by White people. I, however, do feel the future is in good hands as more and more younger players and composers are establishing themselves as forces to be reckoned with, on their own terms.
I believe the artist has a responsibility to speak with a direct and passionate voice, and that the act of artistic creation is a powerful political and societal act. But there must also be perpetual vigilance, so we are not pigeonholed and predominantly programmed only during certain months of the year and often, in the case of orchestras, led in performance by guest conductors who have no real investment in the piece. Why should this be? As the great composer Hale Smith once exclaimed, “Do not call me in January or February!”
The African-American community also needs to push itself to fully embrace the wide range of our creative efforts.
Why can’t we embrace Brahms as well? A curious question perhaps, but one that I think bears expanding upon. It seems that in certain parts of our culture we have not been “given permission” to embrace what touches us despite it not coinciding with that which others may define as “Black enough.” What is that actually? What causes this disconnect?
Certainly, seeing an ensemble comprised of people who look like you (thank you Chi-chi & Chineke!) goes a long way toward providing a more inviting atmosphere. Additionally, and of course, having ensembles comprised of whomever, perform music by composers who look like you is terrifically empowering.
This said, even though I saw no Black musicians on stage during my elementary school trips to hear the National Symphony as a sixth grader in the ‘60s in Washington, D.C., I felt the music they played (one concert consisting of the 1812 Overture, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and New World Symphony) to be as much mine as anyone’s. I grew up in a house where Count Basie regularly resounded throughout, often alternating with Ray Charles’s covers of Hank Williams’s songs, but also performances from the rich tapestry of American musical theater and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, not to mention the gargantuan collaboration between the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, performing Handel’s Messiah—a far cry from my later and revelatory discovery of Christopher Hogwood!
It is quite possible that my love of lush string writing was inspired by the jazz ballads sung by the likes of Johnny Mathis and Gloria Lynne that I heard on the car radio and in my house, as well as the rich harmonies of ‘70s disco, all recorded in studios that kept many musicians solidly employed. I also credit music teachers during my childhood such as Ms. Miller in elementary school, for playing works on the record player (yes, record player!) in class, such as Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and Leontyne Price singing Carmen. These classes put me on a path. I could not know where it would lead, but I knew I had to take it nonetheless. Without putting too fine a point on this, I truly feel that classical music saved my life, that’s how much it has touched my soul, and it continues to do so to this day.
I’ve found within its ever expanding repertoire, a wealth of invention, sonic exploration, wisdom, and simple groundedness—a kind of peace that I so deeply needed, and continue to need. Whole worlds opened up to me. Accessing these worlds is not a luxury, rather it is vital to my existence.
With regard to the “tradition/canon,” I delight in the evolution of various aesthetics over time and how composers built upon, responded to, or reacted against one another, and I do feel strongly that this canon is indeed ever expanding.
One key moment in this necessary expansion was the Columbia Black Composers’ Series, issued in the 1970s, which introduced many listeners (including myself, then in college) to the likes of George Walker, David Baker (recently deceased), Olly Wilson, and Ulysses Kay, among others. There it was, on a major label no less, a catalogue of works by people who looked like me, complex works revealing a profound depth of expression in large forms.
Again, whole worlds opened up to me. I want this for anyone who is open to it. The concept of “otherness” is one with which many struggle. Other than what? White? Other than (fill in the blank). What is the point of departure? Who defines what is the “baseline” and what is the “other”? Each of us, no matter what color, is unique in our experience and what inspires us.
Who defines the “canon”? Who is assumed without question to be “part of the club” and who is “other”? Given that the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was called the “Black Mozart,” why do we not hear his work more often? Even the most conservative of radio stations could program his work alongside a seemingly endless supply of lesser-known masters of the Italian, German, and Czech Baroque and Classical eras.
A simple step toward addressing the issue of at least acknowledging our legacy in this field would be for these stations to include works from this period, as well as some repertoire from the 19th century—such as the work of José White (1836-1918)—and the early 20th century, such as William Grant Still’s 1936 Summerland for violin and piano, which has been stunningly recorded by African-American violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who is currently concertmaster of the orchestra for the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.
I regularly tell my students to notice who is not included on a concert program as much as who is, and then to ask themselves why. Our work in this field is an ever-evolving odyssey which celebrates the best in us as a culture but sadly, if you were to peruse any given season’s offerings by major symphony orchestras or chamber music series, the voices of our artists in this business—particularly composers—are, if not absent, unjustifiably quiet.
But despite the challenges faced by African-American composers and performers in the USA, there are some hopeful signs as well.
The United States Library of Congress has Carla Hayden as its new Librarian of Congress, a woman who is the child of two Black classical musicians. She oversees a vast array of programs—including the celebrated Music Division, home of a prized collection of Stradivarius instruments and a distinguished concert series, which has long had the legendary Juilliard Quartet in residence. In fact, the new cellist of the Juilliard Quartet, Astrid Schween, is of African descent herself, something I certainly never saw coming when I was young and listening to the quartet’s amazing Ravel and Bartók recordings, or their later recordings of my former teacher, Elliott Carter!
The Cleveland Orchestra now has an African American, Mark Williams, as its artistic administrator. He will hopefully help to give greater voice to our work at one of the premiere orchestras in the world. Upper level administrative positions are also held by African Americans in, among other arts organizations, the orchestras of Detroit and Akron, Ohio, and the Michigan Opera Theatre (Wayne Brown, who was formerly director of music and opera for the National Endowment for the Arts).
Of course, the Sphinx Organization (for which its founder, Aaron Dworkin, received a prestigious MacArthur Award) continues its important work giving opportunities to young African-American and Latino string players. African-American composer George Lewis was also recently awarded this distinction from the MacArthur Foundation.
Young and hungry ensembles are being formed to play the ever-expanding range of music written in our time, including the Boston-based string trio Sound Energy, founded by the outstanding African-American violist Ashleigh Gordon. Among the missions of this ensemble is to play some of the most challenging repertoire written for this configuration by African Americans and others. Soloists such as cellist Seth Parker Woods, Sphinx Laureate cellist Christine Lamprea and sopranos Julia Bullock and Nicole Cabell are also carving out their own distinctive careers, embracing a repertoire that is broad and refreshingly diverse.
The brand new (as of September 24) Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall has within in it a concert hall named for Oprah Winfrey, which will present the work of African-American composers and performers. I am personally thrilled to have been offered the opportunity to curate a concert there this coming spring. Stay tuned!
There is much to applaud, but there is still much more to do. We must remain vigilant and undeterred. Our voices must be heard and added to the greater conversation to make the mix richer and deeper in resonance. As an African-American composer, I take my position and responsibility seriously. When I teach, I encourage all of my students to speak with their own voice and not succumb to the limitations others may try to give them. I believe that for too long, African Americans (and many others) have been pigeonholed (both by their own constituency and by others) by limited assumptions of the scope of their creative activity. I want to explode this. I believe that the artist must be a citizen aware of the context in which he/she lives, both politically and culturally. Then he or she must define his or her own world with frames of reference unique to him or herself and invite people into that world at appropriate times.
In my own work I try to create an alternate reality, my own heaven, as so much of the world we live in is not enough. The opportunity to share my work with the larger community is one that I cherish.
Composer Jeffrey Mumford has received numerous fellowships, grants, awards, and commissions including the American Academy of Arts and Letters “Academy Award in Music,” a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and an ASCAP Aaron Copland Scholarship. He was also the winner of the inaugural National Black Arts Festival/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Composition Competition. Current projects include: verdant cycles of deepening spring, a violin concerto for Caroline Chin; a new string quartet for an international consortium (including ensembles from London, Berlin, Stuttgart, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Boston, and New York); of radiances blossoming in expanding air, for cello and chamber orchestra, for Deborah Pae; unfolding waves, a concerto for Italian pianist Pina Napolitano; and the ongoing set of rhapsodies for cello and strings. He is currently Distinguished Professor and curator of the “Signature Series” of concerts at Lorain County Community College in Northern Ohio.