Contemporary music: ‘The African composer doesn’t exist’

Think of any composer. Chances are it’s a man – a white man, to be exact. Western classical music has for centuries been regarded as a stronghold of white men, with exceptions such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – ‘the black Mahler’ – proving the rule. But why are there so few composers of color now, while black makers do leave their mark on film, visual arts and pop music? To ask the question is to see that it is the wrong question. Of course those composers of color are there. The real question is, why don’t we know them?

To begin an answer to that question, you must go to the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam on Thursday evening, where the German new music specialists from Ensemble Modern will present the program. Afromodernism in contemporary music will perform, with works by six living composers, all Dutch premieres. The concert is also live on NPO Radio 4. Apart from roots on the African continent, the six have little in common, they come from all over the world and use very different idioms. But each and every one of them write music that matters, that excites and surprises, based on experiences that have to be represented. They are living proof that the canon of post-war modernist music, with leading figures such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Helmut Lachenmann, is an inadequate description of reality. Something is missing in our concert halls and that is a loss for everyone.

The good news: the last few years have seen a turnaround. The idiosyncratic minimal composer Julius Eastman (1940-1995) has been rescued from oblivion and recognized as an original and important voice.

Following rediscovered manuscripts by Florence Price (1887-1953), Alex Ross described in The New Yorker how a composer who does not live up to the stereotype is unceremoniously forgotten, and how wrong that is; Price is now fully played.

Yet a concert like this is unprecedented, notes the black American composer and trombonist George Lewis, who curated the program for Ensemble Modern. Reason enough to introduce six composers to you.

Alvin Singleton
Just as at home in jazz as in classical music

Alvin Singleton (1940) is the nestor on the program at 81 years old. He grew up in Brooklyn, surrounded by jazz musicians, and when he met Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic Mahlers Second Symphony conducting, he knew he wanted to be a composer. The worlds of jazz and classical enter into a completely natural alliance with Singleton, for example in the early orchestral work Mestizo IIwith clear influences from Ornette Coleman’s free jazz and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew band.

Singleton studied and worked in Europe from 1971, where he stayed until the mid-1980s. He built up a considerable reputation in the German-speaking countries, with prizes from the new music festival in Darmstadt, among others. Singelton’s work could also be heard in the Netherlands, with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Asko|Schönberg, although it was limited to incidents. In the US he is really a big name.

Hannah Kendalli
Lyrical and rhythmic with a love for dance

Hannah Kendall (1984) is a musical storyteller. She was born in London to immigrants from Guyana, a neighboring country of Suriname, and the colonial history of the Caribbean is a recurring theme in her work. She made the chamber opera about the great Guyanese poet Martin Carter (1927-1997). The knife of dawn (2016). Kendall’s work has a lyrical, singable quality, but rhythm is just as important – she has a penchant for electronic dance like UK garage.

The work that Ensemble Modern performs, verdala, is inspired by Carter’s poem ‘O human guide’. It is an instrumental tribute to those on board the warship SS Verdala, which sailed a battalion of Caribbean soldiers to Europe in 1916 to fight in the First World War. The journey was via Nova Scotia and conditions were appalling – some soldiers died of the cold along the way. Many of the soldiers fought on the British side in Egypt, but it took a long time for their efforts to be recognized.

Jessie Cox
Futuristic creator of whooshing soundscapes

Jessie Cox (1995), a Swiss with roots in Trinidad and Tobago, says she makes music “about the universe and our future in it”. He likes to describe his work in terms of time travel and space travel, with the composer as a spaceship en route to unknown solar systems. If that all sounds rather futuristic and experimental: you have a good idea of ​​the whooshing and sometimes shrill soundscapes that Cox creates.

However large or even cosmic Cox may think, he uses very limited resources. He composed the opera Breathing for one singer and some minor percussion. With that little he builds intriguing, enormously detailed soundscapes that indeed give the impression of vast spaces, as in the delicate Existence lies in between, which Ensemble Modern is performing. Cox is also a great drummer, with a background in improvisation. It is never predictable with him.

Daniel Kidane
Each instrument speaks in a different language

For an English professional musician, Daniel Kidane (1986) went through a fairly conventional trajectory as a child: recorder lessons, transition to violin, choirboy, recruited into the children’s choir of the English National Opera. But at one point he wondered: where are all the other children of color anyway?

From that experience, Kidane is committed to more diversity in contemporary music, and his mixed (Eritrean-Russian) descent almost always resonates in his music. Ensemble Modern plays the string quartet Foreign Tongues from 2015, in which each instrument speaks a different ‘language’. How do they communicate? How do they deal with confusion and misunderstanding? And how rich does their interplay sound?

In 2019 Kidane reached a large audience when his orchestral work woke premiered at the Last Night of the Proms. In any case, Kidane is played a lot in the United Kingdom by leading orchestras. You understand that: he writes attractive music with large gestures, which often has a double meaning.

Andile Khumalo
Abstract and full of fascinating perspective

South African Andile Khumalo (1978) has sometimes been criticized for sounding too much like that of the European modernist tradition. His music would not be ‘African’ enough. A curious point of criticism, which Khumalo counters by pointing out the diversity of the African experience: there is no such thing as ‘the African composer’. It is precisely the question of what it means to be African that he addresses in his work in his own unique way.

For example, why should he tell African stories? In Shades of words (2011) Khumalo combines poetry by the American poet Alexandra Zelman-Doring, recited by a narrator, with nervous, intelligent music for seven instruments. The interplay between words and sounds is highly abstract, but constantly opens up fascinating perspectives.

Tania Leon
Immersive and tantalizing Cuban

Cuban-American composer and conductor Tania León (1943) won the Pulitzer Prize last year for her orchestral work stride, written for Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic and dedicated to women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. León is now an establishment: she sits on all kinds of boards, including the New York Philharmonic. But as the motor behind initiatives to reach new audiences and founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem, she has meant a lot to American music life.

stride is characteristic of León, energetic and compelling, with influences from jazz and Cuban music that she uses in a stimulating way. She also does that in the recent ensemble piece Ritmicasin which Caribbean drum rhythms develop into a multicolored and original sound world.

Her oeuvre is mainly instrumental, but in the 1990s she composed the successful opera Scourge of Hyacinths based on a text by the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, which premiered in Munich, directed by Robert Wilson.

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