We celebrate the music of living Black composers with 6 recommended works spanning violin and piano to the full orchestra! Go to the show notes page at classicalbreakdown.org for more information on these composers, links to recordings, and links to resources.
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keely, and we are talking about six works by living Black composers you should be listening to. It's a variety, too, with music inspired by the cosmos of the universe, American heroes and legends, music for string quartet, orchestra and more. Plus, stay with us to the end as we read your reviews from Apple Podcasts.
Because we have so many centuries of music built up, we're often talking about music written by composers who have long since passed, or even recently passed, as we had last year. But in this episode, we want to recommend to you six works by living Black composers. Let's just jump right into this. Evan, what is your first pick?
Evan Keely: My first pick is composed by Adolphus Hailstork, born in New York state in 1941. It's an orchestral work entitled An American Port of Call, and it was written for the Virginia Symphony. They first played it in 1985. Hailstork gives this summary of the piece. He says, " The concert overture, in sonata- allegro form, captures the strident and occasionally tender, and even mysterious energy of a busy American port city. The great port of Norfolk, Virginia, where I live, was the direct inspiration." One of the things I enjoy about this piece, John, and about Hailstork's music in general, there's this sense both definable and indefinable, this is very American music. It's definable, we can point to very specific things, like the ways in which Hailstork's music evokes the tradition of Black spirituals, but there's also that indefinable quality. It just sounds like America.
I like American Port of Call for many reasons. From the very first downbeat, there's this really thrilling vigor and vitality. There's a sense of, almost you have to run to keep up with this music. The music is exciting enough and complex, and challenging, but it's also inviting enough, and it makes me want to keep up with it. There's a patriotic quality to this piece, which isn't sentimental, it's not triumphalistic, and it even has an edge to it, maybe, that even makes me wonder about the very complex role of seaports in American history, and whether Hailstork has that in mind. Who arrived at these seaports over the generations? What's the relationship between human beings of African descent living on this continent and how their ancestors got here? I feel like Hailstork isn't ignoring that, but he's also not digging that deeply into it.
The performance that we're hearing right now, and of course, our listeners can find links to this and all the music on the show notes page, was recorded live at the L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center at Norfolk State University in 2011. It's the Virginia Symphony, the ensemble for which this piece was written back in the eighties. The conductor in this performance is Queens, New York native JoAnn Falletta, whose conducting is featured regularly on WETA Classical, including her interpretations of some of the works of American composer John Knowles Paine. A lot of different things coming together for me in this piece, An American Port of Call, by Adolphus Hailstork.
John Banther: Yes, Evan. Thank you so much. This is a great one. Actually, I looked up, what is this port? What's going on here? I Googled it, to see what it looks like, and they have a website, and some very flashy animation and videos. It was really funny and interesting to see how that was lining up as I was listening. I'll also put a link to that port's website on the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown. org.
The first piece I want to recommend is by Ahmed Alabaca. They were born in 1984, and this is a piece called Ascension. I think they wrote it around 2016. I had a hard time finding a date, but Alabaca is an American composer based in Chicago, and studied at Hunter College, in New York State. I found a description of this piece on YourClassical. org, and it said, " This work is dedicated to their friend Rex, who had passed away. They said that Rex left a significant impact on their life even though they fell out of contact after attending Cal State. This work shows, and allows us to reflect on the passing of friends from our past." This opens with Clarinet alone, and it sounds really distant, but close at the same time. It's like the melody is right in front of us, but also just out of reach. When the strings enter, it's not a huge shift in the sound. It's more gentle, and it's really uplifting.
This music, this piece, it really grabbed me, and I think it touches on something maybe missing in music. We have so many works dedicated to people that have died, loved ones, legends, people who lived full, long lives, but as times go on and things change, maybe we see music we didn't know that we needed. There's a lot of people in their thirties, and especially in their twenties who know at least one, most often several people who have died very young from insert crisis here, that's ongoing. Sometimes it's someone we knew well, but grew apart after high school, for example, for myself, or maybe after college, like Cal State. When you hear that this person has died, the emotions of grief, they're different. It was surprising for myself as well. You remember the times you spent together riding bikes, camping, getting into trouble.
It feels nice to remember, but it's hard to imagine that person is gone, even though you already grew apart. I really felt myself hearing this in a more personal way than I'm used to, and it's poignant, and touching. As you imagine these lines and statements, they stretch and they grow, and grow upward. It's called Ascension, but it's also, at times, like a fountain is just overflowing. The pacing is really nice here throughout. There's a moment, two thirds the way through, that you can almost expect with something like this. The orchestra swells, and then there's silence, and the clarinet enters alone. Then there's some beautiful lines in the cello. It's very well deserved, and just perfectly fitting.
After that, it seems like the clarinet starts to blend in a little bit more into the counter melodies of the orchestra. The end is beautiful. As you would guess, it really brings closure to what we just heard, and these emotions. For me, growing up on the Florida coast, it's like watching a light on the shore just go out in the darkness. It goes out, and you weren't expecting it, and it's gone forever. This is a beautiful work, Ascension, by Ahmed Alabaca.
Evan Keely: I appreciate this piece a lot, John. I didn't know this piece until you brought it to my attention. As you said, the universal experience of grief has been explored by composers and painters and poets for uncounted generations, and yet, this feels like a work for our time expressing that grief.
John Banther: Yeah. What is your next recommendation?
Evan Keely: Errollyn Wallen is the composer. She was born in 1958, and the work that I want to look at is a work from 2021, called Sojourner Truth. This is an interesting piece for violin and piano. Errollyn Wallen was born in Belize, in Central America. She grew up in the UK, in London. For a few years in the 1970s, she lived in New York. She was studying dance as a young person, but then she decided to focus more on music. She went back to the UK, got her education there. Ultimately, she got a graduate degree from King's College Cambridge, and she wrote a memoir entitled Becoming a Composer, it just came out, just published last November. For readers of our blog, Classical Score, classicalscore. org, shameless plug, I shared with our readers my New Year's resolutions for 2024, which include reading this memoir by Errollyn Wallen, which I'm sure is going to be a fascinating exploration of this really interesting composer.
Sojourner Truth, for violin and piano, is a short piece. It's about five and a half minutes long, has a fascinating song- like Quality. It's like a hymn, or like a march. There's this martial attitude that this piece brings forth. About the first half of the piece, there's this bell- like tone in the piano, like this bell is just ringing ceaselessly. Halfway through that, it just suddenly stops, and there's this sense of this terrific struggle being overcome.
Then all of a sudden, in the middle, it goes into this very meditative, ruminative phase. Then there's this sudden burst of energy, this defiance suddenly emerges. The final minute and a quarter or so of the work has that same hymn- like quality. It comes back to themes from the beginning of the piece, but at the end, it's mostly a soliloquy for the violin. The piano, just at the very end, and the violin soliloquy has many repeated notes that give this, really, an insistent quality. There's this indefatigable spirit that comes across to me, and of course, the evocation of Sojourner Truth by a Belize- born British woman gives this a global unity and solidarity which I find very powerful.
John Banther: This is a beautiful one. Thank you, Evan. The only thing I have to add is, if you were ever in Washington DC, go to the Portrait Gallery. I had not gone until a year or two ago for the first time. There is that portrait picture of Sojourner truth there. When I walked past it, it took me by surprise. I had to double take. It's very small, but it's so crisp, so lifelike. It is nothing like seeing the picture online. I can't explain it. That was one of the biggest impacts for me at that museum, seeing her picture.
Evan Keely: Her face just tells a powerful story. This music, I think, is really trying to capture that, and for me, in a way, it does.
John Banther: Yes, and after this, we'll get into my next pick.
The next work I have to recommend, actually, it's a recording of a piece that was just made and came out. This is by Carlos Simon, it's called Tales: A Folklore Symphony. Carlos Simon, American composer, born in 1986, known well to us here in Washington, DC now as the current composer in residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He was renewed through the 26/ 27 season for that. He writes a lot for the NSO, and also the Washington National Opera. This work, Tales: A Folklore Symphony, he gives detailed descriptions for each movement, but he also has described it in a sentence as, " Tales is an exploration of African- American folklore and Afro- futurist stories."
That is the foundation of this symphony, which I have now fallen in love with. I'll read you the really great descriptions he gives of these movements. The first one is called Motherboxx Connection. Carlos Simon writes, " Where are all the Black people in comics? This is a question posed by the creative duo Black Kirby, John Jennings and Stacey Robinson. Based heavily in Afrofuturism, Black Kirby's characters show Black people as heroes, using ancient customs and futurist motifs from the African and African- American diaspora. This piece is inspired by the many heroic characters found in the work of Black Kirby, but mainly, Motherboxx Connection. According to Scholar Regina N. Bradley, Motherboxx Connection is a pun on Jack Kirby's Motherboxx, a living computer connected to the world. The Motherboxx, too, is a living computer with a heightened awareness of racial and sexual discourses surrounding the Black body.
The Motherboxx is the technological equivalent of the motherland in the Black diaspora imagination. She is where Black identities merge and depart. To represent the power and intelligence of the Motherboxx, I have composed a short, fast- moving musical idea that constantly weaves in and out throughout the orchestra. A majestic, fanfare- like motif also provides the overall mood of strength and heroism. I imagine the Motherboxx as an all- knowing entity that is aware of the multifaceted aspects of blackness." This is a great description from Carlos Simon, and I love that we get these sometimes from composers. Really detailed background here, and it's really as he described. It's fast- moving, it's weaving in and out, this line, almost impossible to follow. I think of a tennis match, and people's heads move back and forth following the ball. In this movement, there are times you cannot turn your head at any particular thing, a motif or a ball. It's there and gone before you know it, on the other side of the stage. Maybe it's chaos to us, but for Motherboxx, while being all- knowing, I imagine understands it all.
Now, the second movement is called Flying Africans, and here is the description that Simon gave. " Once, all Africans could fly, but lost their ability after they crossed the Atlantic Ocean as enslaved humans. This story tells how one African maintained the ability, and secretly passed the gift to others. The Negro spiritual Steal Away is referenced in the woodwinds, as well as the cello section, while the upper strings hover effortlessly in the higher register. " Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away home, I ain't got long to stay here." This movement is one of my favorite in this symphony. It is so imaginative. There are these rustling, or flapping sounds at different times, the beginning being one of them, and it's so imaginative.
In the score, Simon writes in the percussion section, parts for leather gloves, and that's what percussionists have to do sometimes. They have to play all kinds of made or found instruments, here being leather gloves. That's what we're hearing. They're beating them, or rubbing them together in a certain way that makes this sound. We also have a good amount of music that depicts flying, I think, both in movies and the concert hall. You know it when you hear it. You feel like you're being carried along for this ride, beautifully soaring over the mountains in this bird's eye view.
This feels different. It feels more personal, it feels more intimate. It feels like me as a listener, I'm lucky to maybe see, or get a glimpse of what this person is doing or seeing. Maybe that's part of it. It is secretly passed, this gift, one to another. There's a beautiful moment halfway through where things swell, and build gently, and you can think of it as a launching off point. The violin is now soaring above on its own, with just lovely interaction with the winds. For me, I'm hearing this almost in a way, if you think of Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the ending, where it feels like you're looking at the thing very far in the distance go upward, into the sky. Here, it feels like I'm seeing this in the distance, just this figure in the sky just beautifully peaceful, I think.
Now, the third movement is called Go Down Moses, Let my people go, and here's what Simon wrote for this. He said, " The Hebrew biblical story of the plagues of Egypt resonated with the enslaved, and they created songs that related to this story of bondage. While the horrific plagues that swept across Egypt are compelling in and of themselves, the focus of this piece is recounted from the perspective of the stubborn Pharaoh who unwillingly loosens his grip on the enslaved people. The Pharaoh's hardened heart is conveyed through two sharp accented chords. The spirit of God, represented by light. Heavenly, metallic sounds from the percussion signal the beginning of each new plague. Frogs, pestilence and sickness are not enough to break the Pharaoh's will. It is only with the angel of death, which takes the life of the Pharaoh's firstborn child, represented by dark, brooding harmonies, that he relents in despair. The orchestral texture grows thinner and thinner as the Pharaoh wallows in emotional anguish. The once prideful Pharaoh is now broken down to a powerless whimper. I use the Negro spiritual Let My People, Go Down Moses as a musical framework throughout this movement."
This one is also clearly laid out in terms of how he's describing it. These two sharp accented chords of Pharaoh, the metallic light, heavenly sounds coming from the percussion. There's a couple of other interesting sounds in here. The violin has this creepy, maybe bug sound. They're sliding their finger up and down a string while not pressing it all the way down like you would with a guitar onto a fret. They're bowing this, and it creates this high- pitched sound that's creepy, and sliding. Carlos doesn't just have them play all together and then crescendo, it sounds like they're playing, and then more join in. It naturally sounds louder, and it sounds even more, I don't know, creepy, or like even more bugs are falling on you or something. That's all to say, Carlos Simon is getting really specific with the sounds that he's creating here, and there's a lot to listen for in this one. I think you can really let your imagination run.
The fourth one, the final movement, is called John Henry, and Simon wrote this. " The story of John Henry is traditionally told through work songs, each with wide- ranging and varying lyrics. The well- known narrative ballad of John Henry is essentially the battle between man versus machine. Enslaved prisoners would often sing the story more slowly and deliberately, often with a pulsating beat, suggestive of swinging a hammer. These songs usually contain the lines, " This old hammer killed the John Henry, but it won't kill me."
Simon continues, " Writer Scott Nelson explains that workers managed their labor by setting a stint, or a pace for it. Men who violated a stint were shunned. Here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast. They died ugly deaths, their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly. You guarded your life or you died." This movement is also maybe a favorite of mine from this symphony because Carlos Simon is creating an incredible sound here with this piece. The first half is dictated by the percussion section. The instruments we're hearing are the whip, which is that snapping sound you also hear in sleigh ride. It's two pieces of wood that have a hinge, and you slap them together very loud. Also, a cymbal, which you can hear, and then a more peculiar sound, which is an anvil that a percussionist is hitting, that high- pitched banging sound. Sometimes you hear composers use wheel rims or scuba tanks also for this effect.
This movement is fantastic. The timing and pacing is so strong, as it's describing man versus the machine. It feels immovable almost. This continues for half of the movement before a more pensive, maybe reflective section with the oboe. I don't want to spoil the rest of it, the end. You really need to hear it in context. I'm in love with this symphony, Tales: A Folklore Symphony, by Carlos Simon. I highly recommend this one,
Evan Keely: It's really exciting for us here in Washington that his relationship with the Kennedy Center is going to be extended at least through 2027. It's really been thrilling to see this amazing composer, and what he's been doing at the Kennedy Center. I'm really looking forward to getting to know this piece better, and to seeing what other masterpieces he will create.
John Banther: Yes, I'm wondering what's next. Actually, what's next for you, Evan, in recommending a piece?
Evan Keely: What's next for me is a work by American composer Valerie Coleman. She was born in 1970. The piece is called Tracing Visions. Speaking of full disclosure, Valerie Coleman was an undergraduate at the Boston University School of Music, which, as you know, John, is my alma mater. You and I even talked off mic about reflecting on Boston, since you went to New England Conservatory, not too far from there, another great school in Boston. Valerie Coleman and I overlapped by a year or two. I didn't know her very well when we were at BU together, but I knew enough about her that I am entirely unsurprised by her success.
The Sphinx Orchestra figures prominently in the recording that we're listening to. The Sphinx Orchestra is part of the Sphinx Organization, SphinxMusic. org, which is a social justice and arts organization focused on increasing representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music. Tracing Visions is a two movement work for string ensemble. The first movement is called Till, as in Emmett Till. It's an elegy, it remembers Emmett Till and the terrible murder of this young man. It's also dedicated to the parents of the Uvalde Massacre, and it also is in honor of the mother of Ruby Bridges, a desegregator of schools. She had to allow her child to march through these crowds of hateful people, as she was six years old.
Valerie Coleman's music in this first movement is evoking these terrible periods in American history, many of which are in our lifetimes, the Uvalde Massacre just a few years ago. This music is written to give voice to this ugliness, the apathy of violence and domestic terrorism. And yet, there's this parental love that is pulsing through this music, this battle cry, this idea that all children deserve to be loved, and to be kept safe. This music is a defiant cry in the face of violence and terror.
The second movement, which is called Amandla!, which is the word for power in the Zulu language, is this juba. You think about the music of Florence Price, she often uses the juba as the third movement in her symphonies and other works, instead of a scherzo. It's a traditional Black American dance. This juba that Valerie Coleman has written in this piece celebrates the work of the Sphinx Organization we were talking about, and it's this image of this global unity that's being evoked. Also, she uses the word Sphinx in Morse Code for the rhythm that you hear at the beginning of this movement. That's a way of saluting and appreciating the contributions of the Sphinx Organization.
John Banther: Some may know that I know and I've used Morse Code a lot in the past. Evan, this is the first time I have ever heard Morse Code in a piece and not instantly hated it. Before, my hate rate was 100%, now it's 99.9.
Evan Keely: It's so easy for that to be this trite, annoying, contrived, boring thing, and Valerie Coleman's genius takes that and makes it into something that's really exciting, and thrilling, and vital, and life- giving, which is just another testimony to her genius.
John Banther: I'll just give you a couple of clues why, really quick. Yes, most of the time the Morse Code, it's nonsense. Oftentimes, it's not even Morse Code at all. It's just like shouting nonsense into a microphone. What she does is correct, and if you know Morse Code, you will pick it up, the dit, dit, dit, dit dah dah dit, dit, dit dit, dit, dah, dit, dah, dit dit, dah.
When we hear Morse Code, 99% of the time it's what I would say loosely is sent by a computer, meaning it's perfectly spaced in everything. Back in the day, in World War II and even in the Coast Guard for decades, when they used Morse Code, using straight keys, so you're sending it manually, you developed your own fist, or accent, and you would recognize people without even them telling you who they were just by hearing how they were sending over the air. Just real quick, the X at the end, dah, dit, dit, dah, when she writes it, it's extended the last dah a little bit, and that's actually how I send my X's, the dah, dit, dit, dah. The last one's a little bit longer. I loved hearing that here, too. It was a little loose, and again, it's the only time I've heard it and liked it.
Evan Keely: Well, it had a personal resonance for you, John.
John Banther: Yes. Now, the last piece I have to recommend is by Eleanor Alberga. She has an OBE, which is the Order of British Empire. I know it's a very big deal, but don't ask me to explain anything beyond that. She was born in 1949, in Jamaica. She lives and she's based in the UK. This piece is her first string quartet, her string quartet number one. I'll read what she said about it, and also, about the first movement, and we'll get little descriptions of the others as well. She wrote, " In the case of the first quartet, I was propelled into an intense burst of creativity by a lecture on physics. The details of this lecture are now lost to memory, but what grabbed me was the realization that all matter, including our physical bodies, is made of the same stuff, stardust. The first movement might be called A Fugue Without a Subject, as particles of this stardust swirl around each other, go their separate ways, collide or merge."
Now, it might not be a big surprise, I love this piece. I love music that deals with topics like this, physics or space. The first movement, the title she gives it is perfect as well. It matches what she describes, because it's a bunch of different languages. It's detached in martellato, (foreign language) swing it, man. It's detached, it's accented, it's very lively, and swing it, man.
Evan Keely: This multilingual description of the tempo is, I think, a very deliberate evocation of this global, this international flair that she's using.
John Banther: Absolutely. The movement, it sounds chaotic. These particles and things flying around, smashing into each other, maybe creating new particles, I don't know, but it's organized. It's like when you look into the cosmos, or you see those wild pictures of particles smashing together. It looks crazy, but there's laws of physics here. Alberga does a nice job of bringing us along in this chaos, and it also naturally breathes in and out. There's moments of rest, and then moments of more movement. Is that, I don't know, the repetition of the Big Bang and cooling, or something like that?
The reason why I think people will like this, or really enjoy it, even if they think, " This isn't my sound," the reason why I think people will like this is because it has that groove. If you watch a movie, the picture is great, it's beautifully shot, but the sound is all messed up, it's garbled, you're probably not going to finish that movie. I think audiences and listeners, they're more able to tolerate, or have more adventurous harmony if the groove is still there, if there's still some footing, and you don't feel like you are on uneven footing.
She wrote about the second movement, that it might be described as stargazing from outer space. She wrote, " Espressivo, with wonder and yearning. This one does not need much context or explanation. You can really let your imagination run, stargazing from space. I've always wanted to have something like my own little spaceship to fly through space, and observe the cosmos safely from my little spaceship in the middle of nothingness, and this lets me step into that a bit more." Also, her description, " With wonder and yearning," not with wonder and awe, or something else. I'm wondering about that yearning. What is that? What is the idea here? It sounds a little bit different. I think there's more we can dig into with that.
The finale, she wrote, " Reestablishes gravity and earthbound energy." In the movement, she wrote, " Frantically driven, yet playful." This one comes out with energy from the beginning. There's lots of little episodes and ideas, sometimes at odds with each other. There's this super aggressive cello pizzicato. When I heard that, I knew, this is the piece for me. I love this. Right after, there's these violins moving in rhythmic unison on a variation, on a tail end of something earlier on in the opening melody. There's so many little bits here that you can find, again, with a groove. There's a cello groove underneath a lot. I think that groove and rhythmic accompanying parts is what helps give it that playful energy, and it pushes it forward in a cyclical way. Not every beat is emphasized.
I think we can hear this one in many different ways. Are we billions of years ago, watching the Earth form with gravity or whatever? Or, are we watching millions of years go by every second? That sounds terrifying, too. It's all here in this string quartet, the first one by Eleanor Alberga. I highly recommend it.
Those are six works by living Black composers we wanted to recommend to you. We're going to put links to performances of these on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org, and we'll include some more resources that we've used, like musicbyblackcomposers. org. Now, it's time to read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. What do we have, Evan?
Evan Keely: Survivor Fan on the Couch was the name of one of our reviewers. We got five stars from this person, and this person said, " I teach 6- 12 general, and choral music, so I'm always looking for relevant content. The hosts are knowledgeable and engaging." This is someone from the USA. Thank you so much, Survivor Fan on the Couch, for your words of encouragement. We are indeed passionate about music.
John Banther: Yes, thank you Survivor Fan. Knowledgeable and engaging, those are your words, not mine, thank you so much. Thank you Evan for joining me for all this music we're recommending.
Evan Keely: Thank you, John. So exciting to see what living Black composers are doing, and so much to discover.
John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to Classicalbreakdown@ Weta. org. If you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, from WETA Classical.