Lifting the Cone of Silence From Black Composers

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Listen to how artists have explored what it means — and could mean — to be American.

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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’ve seen 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?”

Born a slave in Georgia, the sightless composer and virtuoso pianist Thomas Wiggins (1849-1908), popularly known as Blind Tom, was promoted by his owner as an “idiot” to enhance his marketability. Willa Cather described Tom’s performance of works by Liszt and Paderewski as “genius which has no basis in intellect,” a common view of Black humanity that characters debate in Jeffery Renard Allen’s 2014 novel about Tom, “Song of the Shank.”

In Blind Tom’s “The Battle of Manassas,” from 1863, the sounds of cannons are recalled through tone clusters that anticipate early Henry Cowell. Created by an enslaved Southern composer in ostensible tribute to the first major Civil War battle won by the Confederacy, the work can be heard today as an anticipation of that regime’s collapse — and as a soundtrack for the decommissioning of Confederate statues, those physically imposing paeans to Jim Crow that merely posture as history.

Since the end of the Great Migration in the 1960s, the African-American experience has been represented as almost exclusively urban. In “America’s National Parks” (2017), the composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, rural son of a Mississippi Delta bluesman, reclaims the Western expanses that classical music has long ceded to Aaron Copland and Roy Harris.

Sections of “America’s National Parks” refer to Yellowstone, Sequoia, Yosemite — the country’s national land trust (even if people are still harassed for hiking while Black). Another movement is named for the musicologist Eileen Southern, whose landmark 1971 book “The Music of Black Americans” is, as Mr. Smith puts it, “a literary national park.”

Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), a major figure in the emergence of the transgressive new Black music of the 1960s, became a symbol of daring artistic mobility, in genre and practice, with his 1972 orchestral work “Skies of America.” It is structured as a series of vignettes representing aspects of contemporary American life: “Holiday for Heroes,” perhaps a reference to the Fourth of July; “Sunday in America,” a possible nod to Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that “Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in Christian America”; and “The Men Who Live in the White House,” which I find reminiscent of John Williams’s Copland-esque accompaniment to Richard Nixon’s farewell speech in the Oliver Stone film “Nixon.”

The operas of Anthony Davis — the recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music for “The Central Park Five” — are sonically audacious and politically pointed. “Amistad” (1997) concerns the 1839 revolt in which captured slaves took over their ship and demanded a return to Africa. They ended up in the United States, where an attempt to legally re-enslave them failed. As astonishing as Mr. Davis’s music is Thulani Davis’s libretto, which condenses John Quincy Adams’s 130-page argument to the Supreme Court to a few potent lines that resonate this summer:

Here our laws permit bondage,

even beastly vengeance, within our shores.

But now with men taken hostage,

we seek to deny even nature’s law.

This cannot stand

This cannot stand in our land.

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