This album of art songs seeks to center a repertoire that is often left on the margins or off the program entirely. As Cori Ellison described in a New York Times article entitled “The Black Art Song: A Forgotten Repertory,” the vast majority of art songs by significant black composers remain inaccessible to students and educators because they are “unpublished or out of print and unrecorded.” Scholarly efforts to address this need include Willis Patterson’s two anthologies of Art Songs by Black American Composers, Wagner and Simmons A New Anthology of Art Songs by African American Composers, the establishment of the African American Art song alliance, and recordings by Louise Toppin and Darryl Taylor among others. However, the majority of songs in these scores and the majority of voices on these recordings have been high voices.
The Reaction positions itself as an intervention. By exploring the range of languages and styles in the rich African American art song literature intended for the low male voice, it enhances the perception of what this genre entails. By honoring the long legacy of black basses and baritones in presenting songs that continue to represent a national and personal identity that has contributed significantly to western music, it contributes to a lineage. And by addressing the intersectionality of blackness, politics, gender, sexuality, and spirituality, The Reaction reminds listeners of the necessity of authentic storytelling by voices that would otherwise be silenced by a hegemonic narrative that has persisted into the 21st century. Significantly, this recording invites listeners to consider how the low voiced singer indexes black masculinity in the performance of songs by black composers, and makes a case for this music as relevant to the vocal studio, concert hall, and world stage.
Dolores White’s Sometimes I’m Not Myself written to the words of famed Haitian poet Félix Morisseau-Leroy opens the recital with a lilting Caribbean feel. This starkly contrasts to the sparse language of improvisatory jazz used to underscore the epic journey White writes for the eponymous Bed Bug.
Jacqueline Hairston’s The Foolish Heart, written to the text of Harlem Renaissance poet, Countee Cullen, ebbs and flows with a mixture of modes and moods. Hairston’s penchant for quodlibet makes a powerful impression in She Sat Down For Freedom as she interpolates snippets from two familiar Negro Spirituals into a philosophical recitative-like rumination on Rosa Parks’ enduring legacy.
Though born in Denison, Texas Robert Owens (b. 1925 - 2017) completed his musical studies in Paris at L’école Normal de Musique, and lived most of his professional career in Germany. So it is fitting that among his vast oeuvre is a set of hauntingly Neo-Romantic songs featuring German poet and author Herman Hesse.
A Love Cycle by Marques L.A. Garrett (b. 1984) was conceived as a group of songs about the dissolution of a relationship. Garrett weaves together poetry by several different authors and displays an acumen for both efficiency and exuberance in his writing. Compensation, set to the words of Paul Lawrence Dunbar is another example of the composer’s ability to match an economic restraint in the piano writing with achingly lyrical vocal writing to stunning effect.
Like Garrett, Carlos Simon, Jr (b. 1984) and Matthew Evan Taylor (b. 1983) and their works signify a new wave of young contemporary black composers. Nightfall is a selection from a forthcoming song cycle entitled While You Were Dreaming . . . by Carlos Simon, Jr. The text by Courtney Ware is set to recurring motivic action in the piano accompaniment and a chromatic vocal line that illustrates the encroaching darkness.
Matthew Taylor’s 2016 composition The Reaction is subtitled a new reality. This new reality is a bold reimagining of extended vocal techniques in order to illuminate the internal monologue/interview Black Americans once again found themselves having in the face sustained media attention to police brutality and the results of a presidential election.
While simultaneously looking towards the future, this programs honors the past with the composers of the Black Arts Movement, an artistic outgrowth of the Black Power Movement. Howard Swanson (1907 – 1978), Lena McLin (b. 1929), George Walker (b. 1922), and Eugene Hancock (1929 – 1993) represent important groundbreaking composers of the 20th Century, each making a compelling case for their voices being heard.
In these works we hear commemoration of historic modes of combating racist ideology and resisting the physical dangers of the black male body in public space, as well as a reaction to the everyday challenges peculiar to the post-Obama, Black Lives Matter Era. We also hear a continuation of the important scholarship of Willis Patterson, Margaret Simmons, Vivian Taylor, and Darryl Taylor in their work to canonize and institutionalize the literature. Lastly, we hear The Reaction not only as a representation of black art song historically and contemporarily, but also a guide to vocal pedagogues, singers and composers to the possibilities of a more robust low voice black art song literature, thus paving the way for a new reality.
Martile Newland and Carl DuPont