The Black Composer Speaks

photos by Anna Munzesheimer

Friday, February 10, Fulcrum Point New Music Project presented their annual event The Black Composer Speaks: Exhortation! at The Promontory in Hyde Park. The evening began with a roundtable discussion “on inclusion and access in new music” led by WBEZ’s Steve Bynum including Fulcrum Point’s Artistic Director Stephen Burns, their Curator of Inclusion and Discoveries Seth Parker Woods, Eighth Blackbird flutist Nathalie Joachim, and curator, DJ, and entrepreneur Sadie Woods. The discussion was followed by six compositions by Black composers; you can find the full details here.

The panel was excellent. I normally detest a panel discussion—it’s a misnomer really, since what usually results is not a discussion at all, but rather a forced show-and-tell that does little justice to how interesting the participants actually are. Despite the fact that the panelists in The Black Composer Speaks were presented in the typical awkward line formation, they overcame their arrangement and managed to dig into the topics, accomplishing something approaching a dialogue in their answers. I attribute this in no small part to Bynum’s moderation. His questions did not rely on the fact that his panelists were interesting, but rather dared to be interesting in and of themselves. Furthermore, he showed a marked investment in the topics he brought forth—which included ideas around sanctuary, objectivity, ownership of identity, normalcy, communication across difference, and violence in creation, among others—often answering or interjecting himself. Nathalie Joachim energetically interwove personal anecdotes with scholarly insight in a way that made me wish she would write a book or start a radio series so I could hear more. You should find each of these people and have a conversation with them. I know I hope to. They left me with many questions, which is the most you can ask for in a public discussion.

Stephen Burns preceded each piece with a brief explanation, which I very much appreciated. His narrative, as well as the narrative of the panel discussion, definitely influenced my interpretation of each work. However when it comes to viewing art, I always want more information up front*. I find that if I am given a hook, I’m more likely to stay focused on the work and less likely to think about my to-do list or what I’m going to eat for dinner, etc. As a bonus, having that focus often leads me to discover new aspects of the piece that are outside of what I’ve been told.

photos by © 2016 Elliot Mandel

Alvin Singleton, Greed Machine: This was a conversation between a vibraphone and a piano, in which each instrument held its own voice. Sometimes they struck out dissonantly, and at other times the individual voices took a more melodic tone in response to one another. So strong was this feeling of conversation in this music that I felt like a witness, watching two beings communicate.

Olly Wilson, Piano Trio: The pace of this piece felt theatrical, whether or not intended as such. As a personal instinct, I tend to apply a narrative arch to most things and events in the world, so that is certainly a subjective read. At moments it sounded like several voices were desperately trying to be heard. More so than any other piece during the program, I thought about the earlier panel discussion, applying narratives of sanctuary, objectivity, normalcy, and communication to the musical narrative on stage.

Jessie Montgomery, Strum: I loved this piece. This was the first work that I could just listen without trying to analyze, perhaps because it felt familiar in some way. This sentiment made me wonder, in connection to Steve Bynum’s earlier question about sanctuary, how connected is sanctuary to familiarity? One of the panelists spoke about how the stage or the act of playing or listening to music could be a sanctuary. Though I enjoy listening to new music, I would not normally describe it as my place of sanctuary. Sanctuary embodies a certain brand of safety, and feelings of safety I think are connected to confidence in your self in relation to your surroundings. This relationship can take many forms, however at least one way of establishing confidence is to convey familiarity. This song, though I’ve never heard it before to my knowledge, felt familiar in all the right ways. In that familiarity, I didn’t have to analyze anything or figure out what my relationship was to the music. I could just settle into a pre-existing set of feelings, established long ago, probably over the course of many years and many “safe” experiences of music similar to this.

Jeffrey Mumford, still air: Burns described this piece as a crystallization of nature, similar to the experience of looking at cloud formations. I would have never come to that conclusion myself, however I do not disagree either. Another, unrelated aspect of this performance was that it heralded the first appearance of a conductor (Burns). The presence of the conductor brought my attention to the physicality of the performance, adding a visual layer to the listening experience as I became increasingly aware of the performers’ movements and facial expressions as they played.

Tomeka Reid, World Premiere, Present Awareness: Tomeka’s composition was indeed evocative of mindfulness and attention. The work was broken into three sections: Present Awareness, Divine, and Radical Hope. Most striking to me during this work was how the musicians reacted in their entire demeanor to the music being played. During the first section everyone was very engaged with one another, looking around the stage, nodding, and smiling. There was a palpable satisfaction with the music and in one another. In the second section, the music was reduced to just strings and the musicians retreated to their individual roles. No doubt there was still sense of unity, but the work became more internalized. The third section built momentum back up with a driving force, and as the music became more chaotic, the players began to exchange sidelong glances, which turned into grins. These dynamics signaled that these were a group of artists who are masters of their craft.

Kahil El’Zabar, selections with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble with Fulcrum Point New Music Project: This performance was partially scored and partially improvised by Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Fulcrum Point New Music Project. The energy continued here full force. It was a great night.

It is interesting to listen to music that has been so pointedly framed for you. It is so easy to attend concerts with little to no knowledge of the composer or their intent, to be left only with your own thoughts and associations. In the context of The Black Composer Speaks, with its straightforward title, the insightful panel discussion, and Burns’ intro to each piece, the atrocities, questions, and emotions of current events from the past few years inserted themselves seamlessly into the music. Whatever the original intent of the composers, I welcomed the direction in which Fulcrum Point New Music guided me. They are using their high caliber artistic platform to tackle large issues with complexity, grace, and nuance. This is worth seeking out on your own.

Here’s a great interview from the Chicago Maroon with Stephen Burns that preceded The Black Composer Speaks.

* As a side note, for others who are strongly in this camp, I would highly suggest a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, which has the most robust, relevant didactics of any art museum I’ve ever visited.