Program Notes on World Premiere Songs

by Dr. Horace J. Maxile, Jr.

As some refer to music as a temporal art, one’s inclinations may move to consider the moment at which the sounds are heard, the physical space in which the musical event occurs, or even the musical manipulations of rhythm, text, and tune as song or work unfolds in time. If we focus on classical music that springs for the heart and imagination of Black people, our inclinations need not move much more. The term “classical” has two main connotations in music circles. One involves a specific era (The Classical Era) in the history of Western music, between the mid-1700s and the 1820s, where musical frameworks and aesthetics were based in ideals of control, symmetry, and formal clarity. The other connotation, broader and apropos for the immediate context of this concert, situates classical music as music of a written tradition that is branded as high art, “serious,” or concert music. It is the music performed by symphonies orchestras, chamber groups, and opera companies, and there are class associations ascribed to this “stereotypically high brow” music that remain intact even today.

It is in this connotation that one finds the satisfaction and significance of this moment, this concert, this celebration. Designations of “high brow,” high art, serious music, superficially inhabit the higher spaces of majority culture. Thus, this moment of experiencing the sonic manifestations of Black imagination and expressive prowess within “classical” framings compels us to consider not only the dexterity, ingenuity, and power of Black musical culture but also that of Greenwood’s living legacies in the city of Tulsa and beyond. In weighing the veneration of deceased European composers that garner substantial billing on programs, this concert marks a momentous (and brilliantly adventurous) programming of music by twenty-three living Black composers, performed by nine Black concert artists.

Whereas those unfamiliar with the Black tradition in classical music might consider our featured composers and performers as rare or exceptional, we note that the Black presence in classical music dates as far back as the Classical Era. Our featured vocalists stand on the shoulders of trailblazers such as Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Shirley Verette, Leontyne Price, and George Shirley. Our versatile accompanist/pianist falls in line with pianists and collaborative artists such as Lawrence Brown and Natalie Hinderas. Furthermore, the legacy of Black compositional thought as fostered through the likes of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still, Florence Price, Fela Sowande, Ulysses Kay, Julia Perry, Olly Wilson, Undine Smith Moore, Hale Smith, and Dorothy Rudd Moore is not a monolith. It is a vibrant and diverse tradition which spans many technical approaches and aesthetic values and extends into the works of the composers programmed for this concert.

Therefore, as Greenwood Overcomes, our journey continues. The process of overcoming may present encounters with joy, confusion, tension, conflict, peace, spirituality, unrest, and resolve. Consider also, then, the task of composing or, as a noted Black composer once shared, “translating your experience in sound” and the challenge on part of the performers to interpret. Certain pieces on this program might evoke responses tied to the feelings or sentiments mentioned above, and the responses will likely vary from listener to listener. Myriad responses and reactions notwithstanding, the craft in carefully placed dissonances, or neo-tonal underpinnings, sensitive text settings, or thoughtful manipulations of texture and musical time signal both a long-standing tradition of art song and each composers’ distinctive place within it. Offering comments on each piece is well beyond the scope of these introductory notes, but the four works commissioned for this concert will be briefly highlighted here.

Nkeiru Okoye’s “Inside is what remains” features not only an original text (by the composer) but also an affecting lyricism. Brief, colorful jaunts to unexpected chords (and keys) are coupled with extraordinary episodes of vocalise that capture the essence of improvised stylings and soulful pitch inflections that signal a veritable nod to Black vernacular musical emblems. The all-embracing, quasi-tonal setting of this aspirational message and the formal return of the text, “Kindness is the answer; Kindness is the key,” at the final modulation almost invites a congregationally sung response.

Unified by an arresting two-chord motif that is both subtle and complex, James Lee’s neotonal setting of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Songs for the People” evokes the tensions and hopes of a poetic subject who is enslaved during the 19th century. Amid soft undercurrents of relatively mild harmonic dissonances, Lee’s melodic lines emerge lofty and steadfast. It is as if the subject’s desire and call for songs that “stir” and “thrill the hearts of men” persist and survive, even as solo piano interludes offer episodes of restless reflection. Lee’s well-timed statements and developments of the motif, however, afford a sense of resolve.

Stewart Goodyear’s downwardly rolled chords on the words “died,” “cried,” and at other moments in “Condolences” suggest exasperation, as Dorothy Parker’s poem hints heavily toward sarcasm. The slow pulse and unsettling chord successions of the song’s outer sections are more suggestive of caution and cynicism than lament. Furthermore, the rhythmic unrest and harmonic ambiguity of middle section comment on poetic subject’s mocking (or ambivalent) stance on the well-wisher’s talk of heaven. The inclusion of Goodyear’s incisive setting compels one to sift through musical gestures that call into question the motive of the one offering condolences and whether they come from places empathy, sympathy, or self-interest.

Anthony Davis’ piece, “There are Many Trails of Tears,” is part of a commissioned opera that is currently in development, Fire Across the Tracks: Tulsa 1921. Thulani Davis’ libretto for this piece is inspired by the accounts of a descendant of slave who witnessed the events that led up to the 1921 massacre. The title of the piece recalls the Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of thousands of Native Americans from their homelands in the 19th century. The account opens with the storyteller talking about his lineage. Davis sets this short biographical sketch in a variety of minor-based modes and asymmetric rhythmic patterns. As the scene turns toward his memories of Greenwood, the chord structures become more complex as do the halting rhythmic patterns. Intensity increases when Davis raises the vocal range, as the storyteller mentions sounds that were not “human tones, a grinding overhead.” The introductory modal setting returns when the storyteller says he knew “when to move,” he knew he “had to run.”

As Greenwood Overcomes, our journey continues with these pieces, among others, and performances in this celebration of life, resilience, culture, and tradition-bearing.

Dr. Horace J. Maxile, Jr.
Associate Professor of Music Theory
Baylor University