Friday, July 3, 2020 Lifting the Cone of Silence From Black Composers: Listen to how artists have explored what it means — and could mean — to be American.

Yann Kebbi

By George E. Lewis

July 3, 2020

A cone of silence hangs over the work of Black composers from Africa and its diaspora. It is not that Black men and women have not written music, but too often it has been ignored — and thus assumed not to exist at all.

The work of Black composers is more often heard if they are working in forms thought to exemplify “the Black experience”: jazz, blues, rap. However, as the composer and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams once said, “We know that there are different types of Black life, and therefore we know that there are different kinds of Black music. Because Black music comes forth from Black life.”

In the late 1980s, the Caribbean writers Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant proclaimed themselves “Creoles”: “torn between several languages, several histories, caught in the torrential ambiguity of a mosaic identity.” In that light, as we contemplate an Independence Day unlike any in my memory, I want to highlight some of the ways African-American composers have explored what it means — and could mean — to be American, helping to foster a creolized, cosmopolitan new music for the 21st century.

If Black lives matter now more than ever, hearing Black liveness in classical music also matters. The alternative is an addiction to exclusion that ends, as addictions often do, in impoverishment.

The first movement of William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, “The Afro-American” (1930), develops a 12-bar blues using classical sonata form. This served Still’s avowed purpose — consistent with 1920s New Negro discourses of racial uplift — of demonstrating how the blues “could be elevated to the highest musical level.” Today, I also hear a foreshadowing of two musical cultures collaborating as equals.

One day in 1970, my freshman-year college roommate, the violist Miles Hoffman, mentioned that he was performing an unusual work with the Yale Symphony that I might like to hear. Indeed, the piece captivated me, and I was astonished to see a young African-American graduate student, Alvin Singleton — now one of America’s most distinguished composers — take the stage to accept the applause. I don’t think I had seen or even heard of a Black composer before. His “Mestizo II” is an ebullient infusion of free improvisation into the classical orchestra.

In 1999, Tania Léon created “Horizons” for orchestra, a work that is well described by the musicologist Jason Stanyek as a kind of sonic creolization: “All at once, this is music of the Americas, of the trans-Atlantic world, of the Cuban diaspora, of the European avant-garde. It is pan-Latin, local, intercultural, cosmopolitan, indigenous, global, transcendent, grounded.”

The Haitian-American composer, flutist, vocalist, and electronic artist Nathalie Joachim’s “Fanm d’Ayiti” (“Women of Haiti”) is perhaps the quintessential example of the situation of the Creole. Ms. Joachim combines traditional and modern text and song in the kreyòl language with extended string techniques and electronics that bring musical Minimalism home to the African diaspora from which it has drawn so much. Black liveness, Black women and Black spirituality arrive at the center of the classical music table.

Ms. Joachim’s project is close in spirit to “Coin Coin,” the saxophonist, composer and visual artist Matana Roberts’s series of extended works, now in its fourth volume of a projected 12. Ms. Roberts uses texts, field recordings, voice, instruments and visual elements to explore history, memory, legacy, family, sexuality and myth in the American Afrodiaspora, exemplifying the power of the creative artist to infuse history with the spiritual.

Before George Floyd, there was Sandra Bland — and far too many others. In July 2015, Ms. Bland, a 28-year-old Chicago native, was found hanged in a Texas jail cell, three days after her arrest during a traffic stop. In a Facebook video posted two months before her death, she said, “In the news that we’veseen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops, and still be killed.”

By that point, the African American Policy Forum had already coined the Twitter hashtag #SayHerName to call attention to police violence targeting Black women. Courtney Bryan’s “Yet Unheard” (2016), for soprano, chorus and orchestra, which premiered on the first anniversary of Ms. Bland’s death, was a musical response to that call. As Sharan Strange’s libretto demands: “My people, won’t you sing her name?”

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