Tuesday, January 1, 2019

NPR.org: For One Violinist, Elevating Music By Black Composers Is A 20-Year Mission

Rachel Barton Pine's Blues Dialogues album and Music by Black Composers educational project are part of a mission that stretches back more than 20 years. 
(Courtesy of the artist)

Growing up in Chicago, Rachel Barton Pine took it for granted that there was a great body of classical music by black composers. She heard it on the radio. She played it in local orchestras as a student. The Center for Black Music Research is in Chicago. So, when the violinist recorded her first concerto album in 1997, she naturally included music by Afro-Caribbean and Afro-European composers.

"I wasn't thinking about any of the social justice aspect or anything like that," Pine says. "But after the record came out, I started getting a huge number of requests from students and parents and teachers about, you know, 'Where can I find repertoire like this for kids of different levels?' "

So she began a nearly 20-year quest to catalog as much of this music as she could find. She had some time on her hands: Two years earlier, she was caught in a closing Chicago train door and dragged 200 feet. She lost one leg and severely damaged the other, and had more than 40 surgeries. But during the long recovery process, she devoted some of her spare time to searching for music.

"You know, going to the Library of Congress and digging up the one copy of this and that, and going to the Haiti music archives in Montreal. Going to the attic of the composer's grandniece to sort through unsorted boxes of papers and manuscripts. I mean, there have been some amazing archaeological adventures," she says.

One of the pieces she found was a 1927 work called "Levee Dance," by the Tennessee-born composer Clarence Cameron White. It's one of the pieces that Pine has recorded for a new album called Blues Dialogues, for violin and piano.

"My parents would put on Chicago blues records when they weren't playing the classical station when I was growing up, and it's just sort of been in the air," she says. "I mean, I really consider it to be my indigenous music — of, you know, of where I live."

Another of the composers featured on that album is Billy Childs — a Grammy-winning Los Angeles-based composer and pianist. Childs got a cold dose of how the classical establishment felt about composers of color when he went to the University of Southern California to study classical composition, with a side of jazz performance.

"It seemed as though, often, I wouldn't be taken as seriously as a composer steeped in the European tradition of music because of my jazz background," Childs says. "but that also had kind of a racial overtone to it."

It's this attitude that Pine is trying to change with her Music by Black Composers project. She's working with the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Dallas Symphony's Young Strings program and Project STEP in Boston to introduce young musicians to composers and works that Billy Childs — who sits on the project's committee — says had to find on his own.

"Alvin Singleton is really great, you know?" Childs says. "I love Bill Banfield's work. Jessie Montgomery is a great composer. Valerie Coleman. Tania León. One of my favorite pieces ever written is by George Walker, and it's a trombone concerto."

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