Black Women Composers in Concert

By · Photography Courtesy of The Dream Unfinished Date 07/21/2016

“Sing Her Name,” a concert presented by The Dream Unfinished, was the first time, in nearly 20 years of concert-going, that I have heard a performance of classical music composed by a black woman. It is the only concert I’ve been to that featured music solely by female composers.

The classical music world likes to say we’ve made progress in diversity, but in terms of composers concertgoers are largely left with Beethoven, Puccini and Mozart. We consider a “diverse” season program one that includes a white male composer who was actually alive in the previous two decades.

When it comes to addressing ongoing racial social issues, like the Black Lives Matter movement, we can proudly point to Lawrence Brownlee’s recording with Jason Moran and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s free concert for peace in the aftermath of the killing of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody.

But has there been much more institutional reaction? We like to say music is there to help us express emotions and make sense of difficult situations—but where has classical music in America been on this ongoing national identity movement?

That question is what led Eun Lee to found The Dream Unfinished. The organization is run by volunteers and specifically addresses Black Lives Matter. They had their first concert last summer on the anniversary of the death of Eric Garner, who was killed by a policeman in a stranglehold. Future programming will address solitary confinement and the school-to-prison pipeline.

This year, The Dream Unfinished chose to address the deaths of black women in police custody. “Sing Her Name,” referring to the phrase #SayHerName, was held on the first anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody.

The Black Lives Matter movement grew out of outrage over police killings of black men. But black women were also dying at the hands of police—they just weren’t being as loudly recognized. In the year since Bland’s death, hundreds of more people died in jail.

Kimberlé Crenshaw drove this point home during “Sing Her Name.” She asked the audience to stand. She started listing names of black people who had been killed in police custody and asked the audience to sit down when they heard a name they did not know. After saying a handful of black men’s names, most of the audience sat down as soon as she gave the name of a woman.

The audience in the Great Hall at Cooper Union on July 13 was expectedly (and refreshingly) diverse. Many people were there to support friends and family volunteering for the event, including speakers, musicians, and organizers. The audience was passionate about the issue at hand and loudly responsive during the speeches, which included a fiery introduction from Lee.

Even among people who care about this issue, black women’s lives often go forgotten. Classical music fans decry Alban Berg being left out of programming, but don’t even know the names of the black women composers being lost to time. Lee connected these idea to create “Sing Her Name.”

“We’re trying to make our point not only with what the proceeds are ultimately going towards, but then also what music we actually put on,” she said about The Dream Unfinished. Their shows feature musical selections with speakers in between to contextualize the music.

The excuse tech executives across Silicon Valley use to excuse a lack of diversity is that talent does not exist within communities of color. That’s a lazy excuse. The talent is there. You just have to look for it.

Lee called “Sing Her Name’s” programming a “gamble.” “The real issue is not whether or not these composers exist, but the fact that their works are not well preserved,” she told me.

The concert featured works by Margaret Bonds and Ethel Smyth. It featured a Piano Concerto and Symphony by Florence Price and the premiere of a new piece by Courtney Bryan, with text by poet Sharan Strange.

The Price Piano Concerto was painstakingly reconstructed by Trevor Weston using scraps of scores that were left. To do this, he told the audience before the performance, he “had to learn [Price’s] vocabulary.” He referred to a letter she had written where she asked for a chance to have her music be performed. Weston learned from that letter that Price wasn’t looking for a special chance—she was just looking for a chance to have her music heard.

This was the New York premiere of Price’s “Piano Concerto in One Movement.” It was performed by Michelle Cann. It was so beautiful I wanted to scream and cry over the injustice that I had never before had the opportunity to hear it. My anger grew as the piece went on, from pretty, pastoral sorrow to fair-like cheer. Ignoring black women’s works is a loss for all of us as we miss out on truly high quality music. We are all losing beauty when we let a black woman’s composition disappear to a lack of care.

If Lee wanted to meld the message of #SayHerName through classical music programming, this was a success. When we let a black woman’s life disappear to murky circumstances in police custody, we lose out on her potential, on what she could have brought to the world, on the way she affected those around her, on her life, on her.

“[Sandra Bland] was contributing to the world and had many things she wanted to contribute,” Bryan told me. When she was composing her piece, “Yet Unheard,” for “Sing Her Name,” Bryan was thinking about Bland’s humanity. She and Strange listened to Bland’s podcast, “Sandy Speaks,” along with works by Tania León, Shirley Caesar, John and Alice Coltrane, Louis Andriessen, Sofia Gubaidulina, Olly Wilson, and Alvin Singleton.

They collaborated to create an evocative piece. Bryan recounted that with so many tragedies to black lives, it’s easy to “numb out from what’s happening.” But Bryan wanted people to just feel with her piece. “You can get to the deeper emotions you’re feeling that maybe you don’t have a word for,” she said.

Strange then “crafted a poem based on my own urge to have Sandra Bland ‘speak’ in the text.” The text moves through Bland’s imagined experience in police custody—angry and confused, before becoming defiant and, in defiance, hopeful.

“My people, won’t you sing my name?” vocalist Helga Davis passionately demands at the end of the soaring piece.

You can question how much the classical music world is “required” to respond to Black Lives Matter. “Our society as a whole hasn’t been responsive enough, let alone the classical music world,” Strange wrote in an email. “The conversation around social justice must be altogether expanded and much more expansive.”

Ultimately, though, we have long preached that music is supposed to be a response to and representative of its time. The Dream Unfinished is serving that purpose for this hugely important moment in American social history.

Beyond that, I’m still reeling off the pure experience of watching a classical program by, for, and about women.

“All women composers—I don’t know when that will happen again,” Bryan said.

It would be a loss if it does not. ¶