Speak Now: How Classical Music Got Me Woke

On Tuesday, January 10, 2017, millions of Americans tuned in to watch President Obama’s farewell speech. In many ways, it felt like the end of an era. Yet, in spite of his significant political triumphs, he reminded us that there was much to be done:

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.[1]

For the past couple of months, it seems like every day we wake up to a new issue that needs to be addressed and with a new crisis inevitably looming around the corner. Many of my colleagues have expressed that we’re living in some kind of age of anxiety and must ask ourselves: what can I do?

With citizenship comes responsibility, but what that means for each of us varies from person to person. Over the past few years, beginning with my time at Juilliard, my research and writing have focused on how 20th-century African-American artists and composers navigated a sharply segregated society through their cultural practice. In my dissertation, I examined the relationship between black female composer Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) and Langston Hughes, and it is to their artistic bravery that I look when thinking about how to use music and words as my own voice in today’s wave of social and political activism.

Cultural Citizen

In an article titled “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy,” author Renato Rosaldo defines cultural citizenship as “the right to be different and to belong in a participatory democratic sense. It claims that, in a democracy, social justice calls for equity among all citizens, even when such differences as race, religion, class, gender, or sexual orientation potentially could be used to make certain people less equal or inferior to others.”[2]

Looking more closely at this definition, it almost reads like a paradox. How can these differences—which may deny us access to full rights of citizenship—be used to assert and demand those same rights? How can we transcend those differences of race, gender, sexuality, and economic status, while recognizing that such structures exist?

Let’s take it back for just a moment, and visit Harlem, sometime during the 1920s.

Harlem Renaissance

Portrait of Langston Hughes (1927) By Winold Reiss

Portrait of Langston Hughes (1927)
By Winold Reiss

In 1925, black intellectual Alain Locke published The New Negro. A landmark publication of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negroreflected the belief among black intellectuals and artists that the creative success of a “Talented Tenth” could improve the social status of blacks in American society. Locke explained:

The great social gain in this is the releasing of our talented group … to the productive fields of creative expression. The especially cultural recognition they win should in turn prove the key to that revaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable betterment of race relationships.[3]

Rather than accept a citizenship denied by racism implicit in the American political and social arenas, black intellectuals proposed a “cultural citizenship that promised a new kind of American identity defined by culture instead of politics.”[4] These black artists were viewed as cultural ambassadors for the political advancement of African Americans, and to varying degrees, it was expected that black art itself should challenge contemporary social and political paradigms.

For the first time in American cultural history, black artists, writers, and musicians were gaining widespread recognition for their work, proving that not only could there be race in art, but that such art could be socially relevant, liberating, and beautiful. The writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and the music of William Grant Still exposed the fragility of the color line by drawing around it. The accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance artists were groundbreaking, and it was these artists who helped inspire the next generation of black cultural practitioners.

Margaret Bonds

Portrait of Margaret Bonds, 1956 By Carl Van Vechten

Portrait of Margaret Bonds, 1956
By Carl Van Vechten

Margaret Allison Bonds was born in 1913 in the city of Chicago. She quickly emerged as one of her community’s most promising prodigies as a pianist and composer by the time she entered Northwestern University in 1929. While the university gave her opportunities to study piano and vocal composition with notable professors, it was at Northwestern where she experienced her first prolonged taste of Whites Only discrimination. The school did not provide housing for its African American students, and black female students were prohibited from using its swimming pool facilities. Bonds sought refuge in black art, and it was during this period that she was first introduced to the words of Langston Hughes:

It was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…I came in contact with this wonderful poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers…” And if I had any misgivings – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.[5]

The career of Bonds spans from the 1930s through the 1960s, a period in which the nation’s cultural and political landscapes were dramatically shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, and the modern civil rights movement. From an early age, she was surrounded by the poets, artists, and musicians of the New Negro Movement, and it was from them she inherited the belief that her art could and should be used for social change. As she once shared with Hughes, it is “a great mission to tell Negroes how great they are.”[6]

Bonds and I have a lot in common. We both grew up with the support and encouragement of our communities to develop our musical talents. And yet, the further along in academia I went, the tougher it became to be so often the only one. Yet, for me, simply being the only one wasn’t enough. In the process of my own research on Bonds and the Harlem Renaissance, and looking back at those who came before me, I started to look within and ask myself: what were my responsibilities as an artist?

The Dream Unfinished

In the summer of 2015, I was asked to participate in a benefit concert presented by The Dream Unfinished, an activist orchestra which supports NYC-based civil rights and community organizations through concerts and presentations. It was held on the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death and featured works by Leonard Bernstein, William Grant Still, and a world premiere by Jessie Montgomery. I worried that I was just another token, but the concert season in New York City slows down in the summer months, and the roster of musicians was nothing short of impressive. The evening was filled with excellent performances of mostly pieces I had never heard before, interwoven with moving speeches by civil rights activists and performers. As I looked around the audience, I noticed something else—it was incredibly diverse and I could tell that they were actively engaged. When they left the concert that evening, they all took something home with them. And so did I.

I immediately wrote to the executive producer and founder, Eun Lee, told her about my research on Margaret Bonds, and by the following season, I was serving on the advisory board. As the organizational demands grew for The Dream Unfinished, I became the deputy director in the fall of 2016.

Through our annual headline event, chamber concerts, and presentations, The Dream Unfinished uses classical music as a platform to engage audiences with issues related to social and racial justice. By partnering with local civil rights organizations, and coming together for an evening of music and reflection centered around one social justice issue, we are giving space to activists to share their work through music, while introducing our classical music audience to the range of social injustices that continue to plague our society.

Our programming celebrates the works of composers from communities that have been historically marginalized in the classical music industry. By presenting works by composers who reflect the diversity of our society, we are challenging both performers and audience members to question their absence from the classical music canon, and to start thinking about the larger socioeconomic forces that led to their exclusion in the first place. It is important that we not only feature such composers of the past, but also that diverse emerging voices are heard. This is accomplished through our commissioning program, which results in a new orchestral work each year written by a composer of color.

This season, titled Raise Your Hand, focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline. More specifically, we are examining how the absence of role models and the one-size-fits all educational design has proven disadvantageous particularly in minority communities. As in our previous seasons, the social justice issue that we focus on informs not only those organizations that we partner with, but also guides our programmatic decisions for the chamber concerts and headline event.

Raise Your Hand will begin with a teaching artist residency that matches members from our diverse roster of musicians with middle and high school students from across the five boroughs. Together they will work on the repertoire for our main event, during which the students will perform alongside professional musicians. The concert will take place on Sunday, June 11 at the Great Hall, Cooper Union, and the program features works primarily by black composers ranging from the 18th century to the present day.

The Harlem Renaissance artists and Margaret Bonds understood that when direct action may fail, art can speak in the beautiful yet poignant way that art has the power to do. Through the creation of or expression through art, at least for me, it seems just a little bit easier to stand on the front lines of today’s activism, working to transcend our differences while recognizing and celebrating them. And that’s how classical music got me woke as a cultural citizen in 2017.

In Review: #Instanewmusicgram

I think all of us in the new music scene can agree that yes, the traditional processes of dissemination are unfortunately no longer relevant. But as performers, I fear that not enough of us think about what happens after the grant’s been awarded, the residency scheduled, and the premiere date locked in place. 

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Throwback Tunes: DJ Play My Favorite Song

As I looked around at the diverse audience at “Hip-Hop Live,” listeners and dancers were collectively locked into the repetitive, syncopated rhythms of the groove. But when the rappers took center stage, and lyrics were spontaneously spun out, the rhythmic energy in the room became instantaneously electrifying, and the crowd went wild.

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Travelling Without Moving: The Romantic Wanderer in Schubert's G Major String Quartet

After an unseasonably warm December in the city, the New Year ushered in a sudden, unsettling chill. On January 2, I attended a performance of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise by Chris Herbert and Will Kelley at St. Paul’s Chapel. The poetry, by Wilhelm Müller, tells a story of a young protagonist unlucky in love who wanders across the winter landscape. The performance eloquently captured the icy stillness that pervades the work, and it reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years ago about the character of the Romantic Wanderer in Schubert’s G Major String Quartet.

In a review of an all-Schubert concert on March 27, 1828, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported that the new string quartet is “full of spirit and originality.” This new quartet was Schubert’s G major string quartet (D. 887), which the composer completed by June 30, 1826.

In this piece, the Romantic Wanderer asserts itself as a persistent protagonist.  On the surface, it appears as the key of G minor, equal in strength to its parallel twin G major.  The first movement’s opening G major triad explodes into a catastrophic minor one, and from this moment forward, G minor pervades the entire work.  In the Andante second movement (my favorite one of the quartet), a melancholy theme in E minor establishes the mood of the movement.  However, after an unsatisfactory transition, the protagonist returns, for the eruption of G minor at this moment recalls the opening of the quartet.

Throughout the piece, the protagonist is also vulnerable, haunted by its distorted recollections of past events.  Through the recurrence of thematic fragments in new guises, such transformed themes or motifs represent a maturity gained by the protagonist’s slippery yet successful navigation between extreme emotional contrasts and unchartered harmonic territories. The ways in which gestures reappear represent the protagonist’s personal growth, for past experiences are reinterpreted and reevaluated at later points in one’s life, points at which the individual is more mature than before.  

In the G major string quartet, Schubert guides the listener on this journey – it is this musical depiction of a dramatic narrative that the composer so eloquently tells in the work. Robert Schumann would later write, “Apart from Schubert’s music, none exists that is so psychologically unusual in the course and connection of its ideas…While others used a diary to set down their momentary feelings, Schubert used a piece of manuscript paper.” 

Three Dream Portraits

 

For the songs in Margaret Bonds’s cycle Three Dream Portraits (1959), she selected poems from Langston Hughes’s collection The Dream Keepers and Other Poems:  “Minstrel Man,” “Dream Variation,” and “I, Too.” 

Bonds's career spans from the 1930s to the 1960s, a period in which the nation’s cultural and political landscapes were dramatically shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement.  She had set these poems in the 1950s during which the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to gain national attention. However, there remained much to be done, and for African Americans, equality was still very much a dream.

In the opening song, “Minstrel Man,” the irony of the speaker’s laughter prevents the (white) gaze from seeing the speaker’s inner agony.  The movement gradually becomes louder, as the “Minstrel Man’s” continuous laughter, singing, and dancing only mask his increasing frustration.  He finally states, “You do not know, I die.”  Bonds repeats this line, and the song ends in quiet defeat. 

The music of the second movement, “Dream Variation,” is infused with foreign harmonies and large vocal leaps.  The music is whimsical, as if to suggest the speaker’s desire for freedom of movement: “To fling my arms wide in some place in the sun/To whirl and to dance till the white day is done.” 

The music of the final movement, “I, Too” begins with a self-assured quality, more so than that of the previous two songs.  The opening declamation, “I, too, sing America/I am the darker brother,” however, soon gives way to resignation by the end of the piece.  While the vocal line soars, singing:  “They’ll see how beautiful I am,” it quickly wanes, wistfully, on the final words of the poem “ – and be ashamed.”  The piano introduction returns to close the movement, but this time, quietly.

In her works, Bonds sought to challenge negative perceptions of African American identity in favor of celebrating the beauty in blackness. As a cultural ambassador for racial uplift, she strongly believed that art should be for and of all people: "[Music] has to be human, and people have to like it; it has to move them spiritually and intellectually."