Tag: african-american

James Lee III: Don’t Miss a Chance

When we arrive at James Lee III’s home in Baltimore, sounds of the composer at the piano leak through the front door, making it difficult to ring the bell and interrupt the music. He is gracious when he greets us, however, explaining that he’s trying to get his own piano music under his fingers again in advance of an upcoming trip to Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar.
Lee was a piano performance major as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, but these days practice often slips to the bottom of his to-do list. Since shifting his attention to composition for his graduate work, he is now generally focused on writing his own music and meeting his teaching obligations at Morgan State University, where he is associate professor of composition and theory.

Yet Lee traces his current career to his early experience at the piano. The lessons his father signed him up for at 12 turned into serious interest in high school. During his first years at Michigan, he wrote a lot of things “on the side,” but when Michael Daugherty and Gabriella Lena Frank pushed him towards pursuing a master’s degree in composition at Michigan over heading to the East Coast for more piano study, he realized what a better fit that would be.
Allegro from Piano Sonata No. 2 “The Remnant”

Available on Alkebulan’s Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III (Albany Records)

“I always liked the creative aspect a little bit more than the idea of playing the same program the whole year round,” Lee explains. “As I was thinking about playing the piano—Chopin etudes and Beethoven sonatas—I always wanted to write my own etudes and my own sonatas.”

A selection of works Lee has ultimately composed for the piano have been collected on the recent Albany release Alkebulan’s Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III, performed by Rochelle Sennet. Lee’s catalog, however, also contains a number of pieces for much larger forces, and his music has been premiered by orchestras in Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Conductor Leonard Slatkin, who Lee approached with the recommendation of his Michigan teacher William Bolcom, has been a particular champion of his work.

Lee’s writing for orchestra tends to open with percussive announcements and pack in a number of colorful flourishes and dense textures. He also has a notable affection for what he terms the “more soulful” instruments of the woodwind family, such as the oboe and English horn—a propensity he has noted among a number of African-American composers—and for the emotional force of Shostakovich’s writing, which “really gets in there and just goes over the top.”

Audio and score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by James Lee III

Score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by James Lee III

Score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula. Premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Orchestra on October 15, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Subito Music Corporation. Used with permission. (click image to enlarge)

Though Lee’s music is sometimes connected to particular topics or storylines, as was the case with his 2011 Baltimore Symphony commission for a work inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman, he doesn’t tend to write in an explicitly programmatic way. After a period of reading and study when a work is meant to be about a specific topic, he’ll sketch out graphs and timelines of possible events. Particularly for large-scale works, he tends to create a kind of self-drawn map to guide him. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Lee is also influenced by his religious faith. For works with a more spiritual grounding, he’ll pray about the piece before he begins composing. Then things tend to take a more technical turn, with more abstract musical ideas taking over.

“I have a big interest in the rhythmic aspects of the music, but I’m also really interested in having these evocative colors in the orchestra like Takemitsu or Adams in My Father Knew Charles Ives,” Lee clarifies. “But I also have a very strong interest in the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, and my first piece which was ever programmed publicly, Beyond Rivers of Vision, was something that was inspired by those prophetic books. So where I was interested in the rhythmic aspects, I was also interested in giving a musical commentary on the events spoken about in those texts.”

Night Visions of Kippur – II. A Narrow Pathway Traveled

Score sample from Night Visions of Kippur – II. A Narrow Pathway Traveled by James Lee III. Copyright © 2011 Subito Music Corporation. Used with permission. (click image to enlarge)

Lee is troubled by the lack of diversity associated with concert music—particularly in the orchestral field which he feels still has “a long way to go….I think there should be a little bit more openness and acceptance of really trying to promote good music by all composers, whether they’re women, African American, Latino, or Asian.”

Though he understands that members of under-represented groups who do hold positions in the field don’t want their background to take precedence and distract from their artistic work, he urges decision makers at all levels and areas to be proactive about seeking this work out and advocating for it, while being mindful of personally held stereotypes.
“It seems to me that there are certain roles that [administrators] see certain people fulfilling,” explains Lee. “Like, if I were a jazz pianist, then it would be cool if I’m composing jazz ballads. But if I’m writing Western classical music in a contemporary language, then they might think, ‘Well, I don’t know if he is really who we want.'”

When he runs into such prejudice in his own career, he’s careful not to let it distract from his larger goals despite the frustrations it can bring. “You just have to move on and do your best and get other opportunities,” he stresses. “Usually I don’t miss a chance. If there’s a person at an orchestra or a pianist I want to meet…I don’t waste any time.”

Sounds Heard: Lawrence Brownlee and Damien Sneed—Spiritual Sketches

The spirituals that have been sung around the world are Negroid to be sure, but so full of musicians’ tricks that Negro congregations are highly entertained when they hear their old songs so changed. They never use the new style songs, and these are never heard unless perchance some daughter or son has been off to college and returns with one of the old songs with its face lifted, so to speak.

—Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934)

[There was a] famous teacher and scholar of Vienna to whom I had come to seek guidance in the mastery of Bach’s style…. I vividly remember his astonishment on hearing me sing some Aframerican folk songs; an astonishment caused by the spiritual affinity of my songs with the spirit and style of the great German master. “But you have it all there,” he assured me; “it is the same language.”

—Roland Hayes, My Songs (1948)

One of my favorite corners of the compositional world is and always has been the spiritual arrangement—and not in spite of Hurston’s complaint (and others like it), but, in a way, because of it. Maybe it’s because my own provenance (suburban, Catholic, white) is so far removed from the proper milieu, but it was always the game of masks involved in dressing up the vernacular for the concert hall that made spiritual arrangements so fascinating to me. There’s a grain of truth in what Hurston writes: spiritual arrangements are, in one sense, neither here nor there. But musically, it’s at that disconnected point—where stylistic reference becomes as much a choice as a necessity, and where authenticity is just one possible concern among many—that, for me anyway, things often start to get really interesting.

Spiritual Sketches, the new recording by tenor Lawrence Brownlee, is, in essence, a showcase for singing; and Brownlee’s singing is worth showcasing, a fiery, flexible bel canto tenor that soars without strain and burbles through ornamentation with comfortable flair. But it was the arrangements, by pianist Damien Sneed (who also performs), that really caught my ear. Written especially for this project, Sneed’s spiritual settings update the usual language—“There Is a Balm in Gilead” as contemporary R&B ballad, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” as angular funk—while still making some deft plays within the genre’s complicated weave of influence and stylization.

Some of the most fun things about the album, in fact, are those moments where Sneed acknowledges that the arranging of spirituals has acquired a history almost as long as those of the spirituals themselves: “Come By Here, Good Lord” echoes Hall Johnson’s brighter, bouncier settings; “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” channels the Romantic harmonies of Harry T. Burleigh’s Gilded Age settings; “Down by the Riverside” has a thumping swing reminiscent of the legendary Mildred Falls, Mahalia Jackson’s longtime accompanist. Even the most predictable reharmonizations—the spiritual tradition is multilayered enough that even the stylizations can be traditional—get enough of an extra flourish to freshen the standards while honoring them. And Sneed has the taste to get out of the way when the mood requires; his version of “All Day, All Night” achieves a deep, potent simplicity.

The sheer adaptability of spirituals has been viewed as either distressing (e.g. Hurston) or empowering (e.g. Hayes), but I think the repertoire’s survival is a testament in itself. We keep coming back to them; they keep coming back to us. Sneed’s résumé is a very 21st-century one, encompassing gospel, jazz, classical, pop, and art in equal measure, but, as in the 20th and even the 19th centuries, the spiritual style proves inspiringly flexible enough to pull it all in. The language changes; but, like Hayes said, it’s still the same language. You have it all there.

Sounds Heard: Florence B. Price—Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor

Since yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought it was an appropriate day to listen almost exclusively to music by African-American classical music composers—a group of composers who all too often get excluded from the pantheon of our nation’s most significant creative artists even at a time when we make extremely valiant attempts to celebrate diversity. While a handful of African-American composers alive now have the opportunity to hear their music performed by orchestras and other large-scale enterprises around the country and the past giants of jazz, blues, and other genres are rightfully revered (some even on postage stamps), pioneers like William Grant Still (1895-1978), R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), and many others have yet to enter the standard repertoire of concert halls. Probing deep into the history of American music, an intrepid musicologist will discover that long before Jerome Kern attempted to elevate the Broadway musical to the level of opera with his 1927 Show Boat (the plot of which is curiously about miscegenation) and George Gershwin attempted to bring Broadway sensibilities to opera with his 1935 Porgy and Bess (the plot of which focuses on African Americans), the African-American “king of ragtime” Scott Joplin created an opera that did both—Treemonisha—in 1911. Long before Charles Ives and Henry Cowell exploited the sonorities of tone clusters in their piano music, a blind composer-pianist raised as a slave named Thomas Wiggins (a.k.a. “Blind Tom” Bethune) was tossing out tone clusters in a tone poem about the then-occurring American Civil War Battle of Manasses as far back as 1862 (when he was 12-years old)!

And then there’s Florence Beatrice Smith Price. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, she was admitted to the New England Conservatory as a keyboardist (performing on both piano and organ) at the age of 14 and wound up studying composition with George Chadwick and Frederick Converse, two of the leading American symphonic composers at the dawn of the 20th century. She returned to Arkansas and, in 1912, married a prominent Harvard-trained African-American lawyer Thomas J. Price, who represented Black defendants arrested following the 1919 Arkansas race riots and was a founding member of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. But following a gruesome lynching, they and their two children relocated to Chicago in 1927 where she remained for the rest of her life. While this was a tragedy for the people of Arkansas, it was a mitzvah to Florence Price whose music got to the attention of, among others, the prominent Chicago composer Leo Sowerby with whom she studied and who became a staunch advocate. In Chicago, she flourished as a composer, creating four symphonies, three piano concertos, and a violin concerto, plus numerous compositions for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, and choruses. By the time of her death in 1953, she had completed over 300 pieces of music, many of which received prominent performances—her Symphony in E Minor (her first), which Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony in the premiere of in 1933, was the very first symphony by an African-American woman ever performed by a major symphony orchestra in the United States and remains one of the few to this day. Yet after her death, performances waned and, aside from a few of her spiritual arrangements being championed by Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price (no relation) who sang one at the White House in 1978, the only recording devoted exclusively to her music is a now out-of-print Women’s Philharmonic disc released in 2001 by Koch International Classics (which is now owned by E1 Entertainment and which they ought to reissue). That disc, which should have made listeners eager to hear more of her music, featured performances of three of her orchestral works—the expansive Mississippi River Suite, her formidable Symphony No. 3 in C Minor from 1940, and a mysterious shorter piece called The Oak which was discovered in the Eastman School of Music’s Sibley Music Library and might have never been performed during her lifetime.

The most recent attempt to right the wrong of the current neglect of Florence Price’s music is the latest installment in an ongoing series of CDs entitled “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora” featuring the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble and released by Albany Records under the auspices of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. Like its aforementioned Women’s Philharmonic forebear, the latest addition to the Florence Price discography is also the result of some intrepid musical archaeology. The disc opens with Price’s Concerto in One Movement, a work which premiered in Chicago in 1934 with the composer as soloist and which was subsequently performed by another early 20th century African-American female composer-pianist Margaret Bonds, who later became a close friend of and frequent collaborator with Langston Hughes. Yet the original orchestral score for this composition is lost; all that has survived are three manuscripts (all in the composer’s hand): a solo piano version, a three-piano arrangement, and a two-piano arrangement containing some marginal notes about instrumentation (although it is not known if these were written by her before or after the completion of the original orchestration). The Center for Black Music Research commissioned composer Trevor Weston to reconstruct an authoritative orchestration from the surviving materials, and this work received its premiere on February 17, 2011, with pianist Karen Walwyn and the New Black Repertory Ensemble conducted by Leslie B. Dunner; the same forces appear on the present recording. The Concerto, in its current guise, is an extremely exciting and approachable work. Although it is in one movement, as the title makes clear, the Concerto is parsed in three clearly discernible sections. The opening Moderato section echoes the sound world of spirituals which were so important to Price’s musical sensibilities. The Adagio section, in which the rest of the orchestra is mostly silent, contains some extraordinary piano writing which is the most overtly jazz-tinged music of Price’s yet to be recorded. The concluding Allegretto is inspired by the Juba, an antebellum folk dance which also inspired the third movement of Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, as well as her very first Symphony in E Minor. The performance is crystalline, with Walwyn and the NBRE often sounding like a period-instrument outfit tackling one of Mozart’s fortepiano concertos.

The rest of the disc is devoted to that historic first Symphony in E Minor, a massive nearly 40-minute work. She originally intended to subtitle the work “Negro Symphony,” which immediately begs comparison to William Grant Still’s earlier Afro American Symphony from 1930 and William Levi Dawson’s 1934 Negro Folk Symphony which postdates it. But even without the verbal acknowledgement in its title, the work’s saturation with spiritual-like melodies belies its intent. Another symphony which casts a huge shadow on Price’s work is Dvorak’s 1893 New World Symphony which also uses spirituals, so much so in the first movement of Price’s symphony that her piece occasionally feels like something of a doppelganger of that celebrated work. But considering that Dvorak was borrowing his material, it is perhaps fitting that someone from the community from which it was borrowed should reclaim it for similar symphonic ends. Of course what is somewhat problematic is that Price was reclaiming this material a full four decades later, making her music sound something like a throwback to an earlier era of American symphonic music—the era in which a generation of composers responded to Dvorak’s advice to create a viable American symphonic music using native materials. This is a claim that certainly cannot be made of Price’s Concerto in One Movement, a work whose incorporation of jazz harmonies make it as up-to-date as contemporaneous attempts to do so by composers as diverse as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, George Antheil, and James P. Johnson—a great African-American composer now principally remembered only in the jazz community for his exciting stride piano recordings. But thankfully the shadow of Dvorak that hovers over Price’s first movement is less obvious in the symphony’s remaining three movements: the second movement contains some assured brass writing (would that Price had composed for symphonic winds, maybe there’s a piece lurking somewhere in someone’s archives); and the fourth contains some exciting interplay between the strings and the woodwinds—though admittedly it too sounds like music from an earlier era. My favorite part of the piece is the Juba-inspired third movement, a rondo which includes orchestral imitations of folk fiddling and banjo picking and features a slide whistle which provides a few welcome moments of true musical weirdness. Once again the performance and sound quality of the recording are outstanding.

Now to find more of Florence Price’s music! In his keynote speech to the 2012 Chamber Music America conference on January 13, 2012, Aaron Dworkin, the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization (which advocates for a greater role for Black and Latino musicians in classical music) opined that less than one percent of music performed by American orchestras is by Black or Latino composers and that he only learned that such composers ever existed when he got to college. In the list of names he cited who became heroes to him as an adult (Still, Dawson, etc.), Price was conspicuously absent. Women composers have suffered similar neglect at the hands of orchestra music programmers. Florence Price is part of two underserved demographics in our repertoire. But if the music didn’t merit rediscovery, it would just have curiosity value. The fact that she created at least a handful of worthy repertoire candidates (and who knows what else is lying around in an archive somewhere)—I treasure the Mississippi River Suite and the Concerto in One Movement (which now, thanks to Trevor Weston’s re-orchestration, can re-enter the canon)—means that attention must be paid.