Music Monday: Still: Seven Traceries

Sometimes called “The Dean of African American Composers”, William Grant Still (1895–1978) is undoubtedly most famous for his first symphony, the Afro-American Symphony from 1930. That’s a great work, and it’s definitely worth getting to know if you’re not familiar with it, but I think relying on it too heavily to give a snapshot of Still’s output runs the risk of pigeonholing him and limiting our conception of his musical breadth. Still himself was adamant about this [College Music Symposium], insisting that he “wrote as [he] chose, using whatever idiom seemed appropriate to the subject at hand” and “did not bow” to the “complete domination” of Jazz any more than he did to the modernist style he encountered when studying with Edgard Varèse.

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Music Monday: Walker: Lilacs

When John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865, the United States (or at least the northern faction of it) was thrown into a period of profound national mourning. One result of this outpouring of grief was Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain", but the poet also wrote a much longer pastoral elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", a free-form poem that draws its imagery from drooping stars and keening birds. More than a century later, this poem would become the basis for George Walker's Lilacs, the first piece by a black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize.

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Music Monday: Moore: Night Fantasy

Music Mondays are back in action! We're still hanging around in the 1970s this week, with an uncompromising clarinet feature by Dorothy Rudd Moore. Moore was born on June 4, 1940 in the town of New Castle, Delaware. Her mother was a singer and encouraged her musical activities from a very young age, including numerous trips to see the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. She began making up music for fun before she even knew that the word "composer" existed, a development her parents actively supported. She was accepted to Harvard and the Boston Conservatory, but ultimately elected to study at the historically black Howard University in Washington DC instead.

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Music Monday: Baker: Cello Concerto

Back to the land of the living! David Baker was born in Indianapolis in 1931, and spent the bulk of his early life in that state, attending the University of Indiana for both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees. Somewhat unusually, both of these degrees were in music education instead of composition or performance, and indeed, education seems to be an ongoing passion of Baker's, especially when it comes to the world of Jazz. He was an early codifier of many of Jazz's unwritten traditions, and published several seminal treatises on Jazz improvisation in the 70s and 80s. Down Beat magazine made him the third ever inductee into their Jazz Education Hall of Fame, and many other organizations have recognized him for his accomplishments in this regard. He currently teaches at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University.

As a composer, Baker has been astonishingly prolific, penning upwards of 2000 compositions to date, ranging from standard Jazz charts to thru-composed symphonic works and everything in between. (Since he studied with Gunther Schuller, the term "Third Stream" — Schuller's label for works that fuse classical and Jazz idioms — is never far off from the works in the middle. I'm not particularly interested in diving into the various cans of worms associated with that term today, but it seems important to note the connection.) Today's featured work, his cello concerto from 1975, falls decidedly more towards the classical side, at least until the final movement.

Keeping in line with traditional concerto protocol, the orchestra presents a brief introduction before the soloist's entrance.  It's a swirling mass of turbulent sounds, and the cello does little to change the mood, tumbling in with angular, disjointed motives and mutterings. There are hints of lyricism and almost-tonal harmony sprinkled about the movement, but they never quite cohere, feeling instead like fragments of inert past languages dissolved in an acidic stew of contemporary disorientation. Eventually, this phantasmagoric wandering works its way to exhaustion, and the movement ends with a ghostly whisper from the cello's upper register.

Every theme in the expansive second movement is derived, in some way, from the solo cadenza that begins it, tho these derivations are not always immediately obvious. The harmonic language is still far from familiar, but there does seem to be more genuine lyricism here; for all the unusual twists and turns, things gel around long lines, singing despite their sinuousness. There are various orchestral punctuations, but they feel less like accompaniment in their own right and more like interpolations in the solo part. Despite occasional flowerings of consonance and warmth, the movement ends much as it began, in a distant, etherial world.

Right from the start, it's clear that the finale is going to have some Jazz in it, but it's a far cry from a bland injection of a tune with swing into a piece that otherwise lives in the realm of high modernism — it's a real blending of what has come before. It's a dissected, exploded Jazz tune, one that's been put thru a blender and then carefully pinned down like some massive exotic butterfly in a surrealist taxidermy shop. Even harmonically it's a mixture of worlds, with the chord changes from "Back Home Again in Indiana" alternating with a twelve-tone row. It's a wild ride, and it ends with a fittingly irreverent tumble into silence.

Music Monday: Bonds: Songs

Before diving into the music for today's post, I want to draw attention to a quote by the poet whose texts are set in it. When faced with the question of why black authors were less prolific than their white counterparts, Langston Hughes pointed out [Google Book, p 528] that, due to racism, black authors were not afforded the same lucrative opportunities to write for mass media as white authors, and thus "[are] not in touch with the peripheral sources of literary income that enable others more fortunate to take a year off and write". He was talking specifically about writers of words, but the same considerations apply to writers of music as well. Conductors and performers have never made commissioning decisions based solely on musical quality (if that can even be determined objectively); they've always tried to work with people they like. Given the entrenchment of structural racism in our society and the oblivious self-positioning of concert music as the music of the cultural élite, it is wholly unsurprising that African-American concert composers would find many fewer opportunities to ply their craft, and that the works they produced for what opportunities they did get would languish in relative obscurity.

(Obviously, things were somewhat better financially in the world of Jazz, a rich and vibrant genre created and shaped at every turn by African-American musicians. White mainstream culture's treatment of Jazz was (and frequently still is) baldly racist, and many white composers are guilty of pilfering from it in highly questionable ways, but at least black musicians could have successful careers in it. My focus on concert composers for African-American History month is emphatically not meant to claim that concert music is in any way superior to or more legitimate than Jazz — these posts are not trying to replace the old canon with a new, equally exclusive one — I am merely focussing on the genres of music I know best. While my knowledge of concert music is far from complete, I know enough about Jazz only to be aware of the vast, yawning chasms of my ignorance.)

Now for the music! Margaret Allison Bonds was born in Chicago in 1913, and she spent the first two decades of her life there. Her mother was a practiced musician and gave Bonds her earliest training on piano, an instrument that Bonds continued playing thruout her life. While studying music at Northwestern University, she became, at the age of twenty, the first African-American soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and had earned her Master's in Music by the age of 21. She continued her studies at Juilliard, but returned to Chicago to open her own music school (where she taught, among others, a young Ned Rorem), and was also active as a performer, composer, and impresario. In 1968, she moved out to Los Angeles, where she lived until her death in 1972.

Dark, brooding chords introduce her setting of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" from 1942, a setting of the poem by Langston Hughes. (Bonds had a long and enduring friendship with Hughes, and they collaborated on several projects including a cantata and at least one musical.) As with the opening words, these chords return at various points to anchor the song, sometimes in the original, but sometimes transformed from melancholy to grandeur and even joy. The music slips easily, almost dreamily, between styles, but never loses its powerful cohesion. (According to Wikipedia, Bonds submitted this piece as part of an application to study with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger, but when Boulanger saw the song, she declared that Bonds needed no further lessons and declined to teach her. Listening, it's not hard to hear why, even if the story is apocryphal.)

Several years later, Bonds set three more poems by Hughes, resulting in the "Three Dream Portraits" (published 1953), a cycle that shows up in pretty much every biographical sketch of the composer that I've found. The first is "Minstrel Man", set to a rolling accompaniment that seems to hover right on the cusp between comfort and tragedy — fittingly, for a text that has to do with missing a black man's deep suffering because of his (forcedly) happy surface. The mood lifts in the "Dream Variations", with a whirling, expansive fantasy land that blossoms almost to the point of ecstasy before catching on a moment of poignancy and ending on a reserved note. It's back down to earth for the concluding "I too Sing America", which is at turns  sarcastic, falsely cheerful, and boldly swaggering. The swagger wears off by the end, however, and the cycle draws to a close in a somewhat gloomy mood despite the assurances of the text. Looking at the subsequent and continuing history of racism in this country, it seems a sadly prescient choice.