And yet, as a fervent participant in this world, I can't help but wonder how many barriers to the art form are we willing to put up for the sake of so-called preservation.Read More
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.” 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 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.
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.”
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.
Art can make the humane out of the inhumane, and say something, when we’re at a loss for words. Experiencing other art forms, in particular, reminds me of how art captures, translates, and interprets the inexplicable complexities of the human experience.Read More
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.Read More
At some point in their careers, African American artists will be forced to grapple with the intersection between race and their art, regardless of whether this is the artist’s intention. For Langston Hughes it was, and by the 1920s, the celebration of blackness in his writings quickly earned him the title, “Poet Laureate of Harlem.”Read More
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.Read More
Last week, I attended two performances: the first, Andrew McKenna Lee and the Knells at National Sawdust, and the second, Cantata Profana’s second run of their program titled Tancredi at Symphony Space | Leonard Nimoy Thalia. The ways in which both concerts explored an astoundingly vast range of musical styles and genres made me think about crossing boundaries.Read More
Since I was a little girl, I’ve been singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “We Shall Overcome” at family and community functions, and yet, their significance was something I could only begin to understand as an adult. While I reflect proudly on the legacy of those who paved the way for major civil rights legislation to be passed, I can’t help but notice how much work still needs to be done. As phrases like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” permeate and puncture the fabric of American society, today’s soundtrack is decidedly harsh and unforgiving. This essay is about Optimism and Disillusionment in the music of modern civil rights movements.Read More
This weekend (January 9-10), I attended two performances: the first, a Pierre Boulez tribute concert at (Le) Poisson Rouge, and the second, a performance of Du Yun’s new chamber opera, Angel’s Bone. Although in very different ways, both experiences seemed to push me to my limits. What I heard this weekend in NYC made me think about thresholds, and my ongoing masochistic relationship with contemporary music.
Dressed in my downtown designer’s best, I ordered an old-fashioned at the bar in LPR and eagerly awaited the night’s festivities. Having secured a spot, I took a quick glance around the room. It was packed. For a concert that was organized in a couple of days, this response was astounding. Only in New York could such a towering figure in classical music bring together the city’s finest young musicians, and inspire them to shred on some of the most difficult music in the repertoire. This was going to be good – I could hardly wait.
The performers played with elegance and poise. Miranda Cuckson gracefully danced around the complexities of Anthèmes 1, and in Le Martineau sans maître, the swirling lines played by Emi Ferguson stood out in stark contrast to to the jagged vocal leaps sung effortlessly by Charlotte Mundy. But it was challenging to get through, and by the end of the first half, I was painfully locked in a state of total bewilderment. What is it about this music that remains so difficult for me to listen to?
Around the turn of the century, Arnold Schoenberg and his young cohorts were determined to rip apart a tonal system that had faithfully governed musical structures for hundreds of years, unleashing the unharnessed power of a twelve-tone system. Once set into motion, it can sound like complete chaos, deliberately uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Yet, it’s these very qualities that keep me drawn to this music, and only wanting more.
On Sunday evening, I went to see a performance of Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone. The work is being presented as part of this year’s Prototype Festival, and the performances are being held at the 3LD Art and Technology Center, a modern, flexible performance space perfectly suited for this production featuring adaptable sets and haunting projections.
Diving deeply into the delicate subject of human trafficking, the story is painfully dark: Mr. and Mrs. X.E. are struggling financially until two angels land on their front lawn. Mrs. X.E. takes them captive and conducts business with neighbors who pay for their services. Yet by the end of the opera, both she and her husband eventually fall victim to the violence and monstrosity they had inflicted upon the angels. As soon as it begins, you immediately lose control, relentlessly bombarded by the opera’s graphic scenes and powerfully evocative score. You’re not quite sure what’s happening, but you know it’s not good, and the more brutal it becomes, the more violent the music, the more distorted the images, the more you feel like there’s no way out. The experience was challenging, stunning, and left me simply breathless.
n the autumn of 1893, Claude Debussy composed the String Quartet in G Minor. On December 29, 1893, the string quartet was premiered by the Ysaÿe Quartet at the Société Nationale. However, it received mixed reviews. Guy Ropartz, former student of Cesar Franck, noted the “Russian influence and some unusual sonorities,” while Willy, Colette’s husband and influential reporter on the Parisian musical scene, described the quartet as “baffling, yet full of originality and charm.”Read More
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.”
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."