Yet, anyone familiar with my music and the topics it often addresses can see that my work is in no way politically neutral. Works like Jonestown, Pralaya, Beautiful Death, and many others make strong and passionate statements about political and social issues that I myself am passionate about. While Classical music is often seen as politically neutral, scholarship shows us that is far from the case. The works of composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler are all tied up in the politics of the times, not just the times of these composers, but history since their inception, and our own. In addition, we have recently seen the consequences of being silent on the issues that matter, yet many of us are asking what can Classical music do to advocate for the change we wish to see in this world.
A recent and powerful post by musicians Sarah Swong and Jennifer Gersten argued of music making after the election of Donald Trump:
We might wish for music to be universal and transcendent on its own. But this wish can backfire, trapping us in apolitical grooves that serve the powers that be. We want to avoid using music as only a means of escapism, to go beyond catharsis and towards a way of engaging, as artists, in the discussion about where we go from here.
To begin, I will talk a little bit more about the piece that is starting it all. Dead White Man Music, a concerto for harpsichord and chamber ensemble that has been commissioned by the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra.
"...the performance and study of the canon is one of dead White men's music."
However, even today, there is perhaps no better field of study to see the Great Man theory at work than in the Classical canon. The music of long-deceased White male Europeans reigns in the concert and recital halls, and these men are credited with all of the stylistic progressions of Western art music. To put it in the blunt terms of 1999’s Music of the Heart, the performance and study of the canon is one of “dead White men’s music.”
It can be easy to see why a person of color would wonder if this music is for them. Many of us would argue that Classical music is for everyone, but to an outsider looking in, it can appear to be unwelcoming to non-Whites. As a young Black composer in this atmosphere, I find myself asking myself the following questions: 1.) Does my work propagate an art form created by and for wealthy White men? 2.) If so, how do I address this? and of course, 3.) Does any of this matter? Should I just go on being influenced by the great music that inspires me, no matter who wrote it?
This concerto for harpsichord and chamber ensemble, Dead White Man Music is a reflection on all of these questions. Employing the instruments, forms, and styles of the past to tackle a very contemporary issue. Movement I of the concerto is entitled “Fantasia on ‘Es ist genug,’” using Bach’s setting of this Lutheran hymn as a jumping-off point to explore a wide range of emotions and techniques. Contemporary renditions of "Es ist genug" or "It is enough," declare, "I am content! My Jesus ever lives, in whom my heart is pleased." Its use in Dead White Man Music asks if the accepted canon is enough, and should I be content with the influence of the greats, such as Bach. We do, after all, live in a world where the claim that there are no good non-male (and by inference, non-White) composers can be made with impunity. The movement employs Baroque-style counterpoint and pitch materials, juxtaposed with dissonance, atonality, and pulsing "grooves," all derived from the chorale melody.
This movement is followed by the slow and lamenting second movement, “Flow (My Tears),” turning the Dowland air into a jazzy ballad. "Flow" is sometimes associated with the rhyming style and talent of rappers. A rapper is thought to have good flow if they can create interesting and logical rhymes, while also conforming to the beat. The term has also been used by some jazz musicians to describe an almost mystical place of music making. I was personally inspired to combine jazz with early music by hearing saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his quartet perform Purcell's "O Solitude" several years ago while an undergrad. His quartet also included this rendition of the song in their album Braggtown. Lastly, the final “Toccata” explores virtuosity, while subverting the traditional characteristics of this form, and bringing the work to an exciting close through the use of the Baroque Folia.
I am proud to be collaborating once again with Thomas Cunningham and the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra to bring this project to life. My work Beautiful Death was the first work commissioned by Tom and UPNYC. Tom and UPNYC’s dedication to the music of living composers, especially women and people of color, is a testament to the progress toward inclusiveness in the concert hall which Classical audiences deserve.
Writing of this concerto is underway, and a new campaign on Indiegogo has been started to raise funds for the commissioning fee and performance costs to premiere this work in October of 2017. I believe that now, perhaps more than ever, the statement of Dead White Man Music is an important one. Your support can make this piece a reality. Please visit the Indiegogo campaign to read more about the project and to donate today.