Friday, March 27, 2020

The Classical Alternative: "What I wish everyone knew about Florence Price"

The Classical Alternative

Doug Shadle

March 19, 2020

With the world coming down around us, I’m not sure how relevant this will be. But maybe it can point to a better world in the future. (~DS, 3/18)

In my last post, I highlighted some of the exciting work on Florence Price taking shape right now. I also documented the positive power of storytelling when it frames performances of her music. By this point, most organizations programming Price’s music know they have a compelling story on their hands and want to tell it.
What I wish everyone really knew is this:

How we talk about Florence Price matters. A lot.

The Problem

The basic elements of “the” Florence Price story are:
  1. Price was “America’s first significant African American woman composer” and “the most widely known African American composer from the 1930s to her death in 1953.” (Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman, 1)
  2. Something happened after 1953 that seemingly caused this “significance” and “wide knowledge” to “fade.”
  3. In 2009, two property investors found a very large collection of Price’s music manuscripts strewn about an abandoned house. They later sold this collection to the University of Arkansas Mullins Library.
  4. The classical music industry developed a surge of interest in Price after:
There’s certainly a lot of human interest here! Her prolific musical career is inspiring, and the serendipity of the manuscript discovery is the stuff of legend. Performers would be foolish not to say something about these things. But one phrase on my list sticks out: “Something happened.” I might as well have put a giant question mark.
Here’s the thing, though: Marketers, educators, and performers who don’t adequately account for this mysterious #2 in their narratives about Price are perpetuating the industry’s racist, sexist norms and therefore undermining their own attempts to be inclusive.

Who’s Responsible?

So what happened, Shadle? It’s complicated! From the intro of an unpublished article:
The relevant evidence spans nearly a century and uncovers the complex dynamics of race, gender, and class underpinning the unsettling “loss” of Price’s belongings. Over the course of that century, the women in Price’s family confronted questions that have routinely haunted African American women in a society that has unapologetically placed their very lives at risk. This article teases apart the intricate layers of generational change within Price’s family and creates a portrait of a context in which her music could face persistent existential threats.
Persistent. Existential. Threats. Not something most classical musicians think about on a daily basis. But the truth is that identifiable individuals and organizations played active roles in Price’s marginalization both during and after her lifetime—a situation so profound that it jeopardized the existence of her music despite the resistance of Price and her daughter (which is what the rest of the article is about). “Something” doesn’t “just happen.” People do things, and these actions have consequences.

Assigning responsibility is central to ethical storytelling.

“Overlooked” and “Forgotten” … By Whom?

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m far from the only person to address the issue of agency—in relation to Price or to marginalized people generally.

This tweet by Dr. Matthew Morrison of NYU gets to the heart of the matter:

Her music and reputation never really disappeared! Price scholar Kori Hill wrote an essential essay in November 2018 (just after G. Schirmer announced the acquisition of Price’s catalog) that makes similar points:
The “rediscovered” Black composer is a tired, damaging trope. It reflects an active process [emphasis mine], where certain histories and cultural memories are not considered “relevant” to the mainstream until they prove useful. Black musicians kept the name of Florence Price on their lips, in their minds, and under their fingers. She was not forgotten.

Earlier this year, James Bennett wrote another essential piece for WQXR that approaches the question from a slightly different angle:
When talking about Price, it’s easy to transform her story into a Coach Carter-esque hardscrabble narrative of overcoming obstacles and “persevering.” But this veers into territory that is, at worst, factually wrong or, at best, narratively irresponsible.
Finally, this tweet from Kenyan scholar Dr. Keguro Macharia directly addresses the underlying problem:

Read the entire thread. It could very well be about Price, because the ease with which her music has been brought into the spotlight also indicates how quickly it could fade.

The Wrong Way

These writers aren’t tilting at windmills—not at all. It’s easy to find examples of passive storytelling that hides responsibility. Take a line like this—here from Jesse Rosen, CEO of the League of American Orchestras:
“If you go back in time, this was not a viable career for a woman to become a composer,” Rosen explains. “And so, you have a canon that, by definition, does not have a lot of women composers in it.”
And so, you end up with tons of Mozart and Beethoven.
“Not a viable career…” “So you have a canon that…” “So you end up with…” Nope. Just wildly inaccurate narration that deflects responsibility from the real individuals and institutions that actively marginalized (and still marginalize) real women.
In Price’s case, I frequently run across copy like this (not linked intentionally):
Florence Price was the first female African American composer to have a symphonic work performed by a major symphony orchestra (Chicago Symphony, 1933). [True] Florence and her compositions have been historically overlooked [BY WHOM??] due to racial and gender inequity [CAUSED BY WHOM?], depriving her and the world of the legacy she deserves. Her works are often compared to Dvořák [BY WHOM??], as they both reference African American folk music and share a Romantic aesthetic. This concert will showcase the similarities in their sounds, and will explore why a white, male, European has been praised throughout history for his take on “American” music [BY WHOM??], while Florence Price has been continually forgotten and omitted [BY WHOM??].
There’s a good heart here, but the way the writer addressed item #2 is inaccurate and morally flimsy. A responsible storyteller needs to specify who did these things.

What would this paragraph look like if we inserted historical agents?
Florence Price was the first Black woman to have a symphonic work performed by a major symphony orchestra (Chicago Symphony, 1933). Whether through prejudice or ignorance, most conductors have since neglected her music, depriving her and the world of the legacy she deserves. This concert is part of our effort to redress the legacy of pervasive racial and gender inequity they left behind instead.
Here are some key features:
  1. Price’s achievement and stature are maintained.
  2. The comparison to Dvořák becomes a moot point.
  3. The active complicity of just one or two conductors in injustice (e.g., Serge Koussevitzky) is expanded to include the entire industry for decades on end.
  4. The organization is acknowledging its own role in this active complicity.
  5. The organization is openly taking an anti-racist, anti-sexist stance that could be framed in a more intersectional way if the situation warrants—e.g., “legacy of Black women’s oppression they left behind instead.”
  6. No extra research or facts, only a forthright analysis of the broader landscape.

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