Art is color blind, or should be, according to violinist Rachel Barton Pine, whose ambitious Music by Black Composers project brings to light a treasure trove of classical works by creators of African descent.
Pine has rescued from obscurity some 900 manuscripts — retrieved from university archives and private collections — that she hopes will make household names of Ignatius Sancho, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, as well as a number of contemporary composers.
In addition to turning people on to great music, her aim is to encourage greater numbers of minority children to consider careers in classical music by helping them discover role models.
“The main idea is to inspire African American students, but this music is so great, we think kids of all backgrounds will enjoy it,” says Pine, a Chicago-based virtuoso who has released 37 albums and is in-demand as a soloist with orchestras around the world. “We want kids to know they can have career paths as Broadway pit conductors, composers or concertmasters; that people who look like them do all these things.”
Through her Rachel Barton Pine Foundation, MBC encompasses a broad range of projects, ranging from sheet music books to albums, a timeline poster of black composers, a website and even a coloring book featuring biographies of 40 of the 350 composers she’s tracking.
“I wasn’t aware of any composers who weren’t dead European guys until middle school,” says participating composer Michael Abels, who based on the strength of his orchestral works was recruited to score the blockbuster film Get Out. “It’s absolutely crucial for children to see people who look like them working in fulfilling careers because that is what causes a child to connect the dots to that possible future for themselves, and to start making those dreams reality.”
The website, www.MusicByBlackComposers.org, offers sample recordings from Music by Black Composers, Violin Vol. 1, the first in a series of sheet music books published by Ludwig Masters, out now, as well as a searchable database of black composers with contact information for licensing and commissions. The database bowed with 60 names in late 2018 and now features 180 living artists, ranging from Abels and Grammy-winner Billy Childs to U.K.-based Juwon Ogungbe and Nigeria’s Godwin Sadoh.
Pine recently released Blues Dialogues, the second of two albums featuring the music of black composers, featuring Pine on violin and Matthew Hagle on piano for 20th and 21st century works by writers of African descent. A riveting work for the breadth of styles and influences, as well as Pine’s passionate interpretations (she shreds on Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “Filter for Unaccompanied Violin”), it includes a first-time recording by late Nigerian-Jamaican composer Noel DaCosta, whose “Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin” existed only as a hand-written manuscript that Pine had professionally transcribed. “Looking at it, I could tell it was a piece with a lot of potential. I was really eager to play it, and when I finally could it was like ‘Wow!’ It was even better than I had imagined,’ she says. “Now hopefully lots of other people will play it too.”
Blues Dialogues, released through Cedille Records, also includes a powerful new piece Pine commissioned from Childs, which explores the 2016 police shooting of 32-year-old Philando Castile, who was killed in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter during a traffic stop.
Growing up, Childs says that while he was influenced by George Walker, a composer of color whose “Trombone Concerto” and “Lyric for Strings” Childs “immediately connected with,” like most classically trained composers of his generation, “I was mainly influenced by the Europeans – Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok – because they’re recognized as the masters,” he says. “The Music by Black Composers project is a statement that composers of African descent have also had profound things to say in the genre.”
Childs is among the many high-profile artists on RBP Foundation’s honorary committee, which also includes trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, violinist Joshua Bell, actor Leslie Odom, Jr., jazz bassist/composer Stanley Clarke, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, and pianist André Watts.
Pine notes that of the 40 composers featured in the coloring book — selected by a board of advisors as having significance — one-quarter are women, who as a class have been “equally neglected” in favor of white, male composers. “There are many important white European women composers who have been pushed to the side, but because all the black composers have been somewhat forgotten we thought it would be a gender-neutral place to start.” Among the talent in the coloring book is Florence Beatrice Price, the first African American woman to have her composition played by a major US orchestra when the Chicago Symphony performed her “Symphony in E Minor” in 1933.
Talking to Pine, it would be easy to mistake her for a child of privilege, but that is not the case. Like many of the composers MBC features, Pine overcame obstacles to arrive at this point in her career. A prodigy who made her concert debut with the Chicago Symphony at age 10, she grew up in a “financially challenged” household and shopped for performance outfits at thrift shops. In 1995, a then 21-year old Pine was run over by a train after being dragged nearly 400 feet when her violin case got caught in a car door. She lost one leg and suffered other severe injuries, resulting in a lengthy rehabilitation.
The passion and determination that saw her through would impress even MBC composer Thomas Greene “Blind Tom” Wiggins, born enslaved in 1849, and likely autistic, but a celebrated concert pianist by age 11 and the first African American to perform at the White House.
Pine defines classical music as “that which is written by the composer to play note for note.”
She points out that unlike jazz or blues, “there is nothing musically, to the ear, that defines black classical music.”
She cites Caribbean-born Joseph Bologne, known professionally as Chevalier de Saint-George, who became an important composer and conductor in France in the late 18th century. Listening to his work today, “he sounds like a European composer from 1700s. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, his music sounds late romantic. While there are composers who have drawn on spirituals, or jazz, even hip-hop, much of it you wouldn’t know the composer was black by listening. There’s an incredible diversity of voices.”
Ogungbe, a Nigerian-born composer currently living in London, is one of those voices: “Feeling the Pulse” is included in “Violin Music, Vol. 1. “It’s an honor to be included alongside Ignatius Sancho and Scott Joplin, whose work has inspired me, particularly in the context of what composers of African descent have done over several centuries,” he says. Ogungbe lauds the scope of the project, which includes a YouTube page with “Violin Vol. 1” works performed by the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based educational organization that fosters minority development in classical music.
Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, president and artistic director of Sphinx, feels the MBC has the potential to be “a transformative force…there is no comparable collection of contributions by amazing composers of the African diaspora. Our canon has been incomplete for centuries, and for young people and teachers this clearly illustrates the point that lack of material or merit is simply a myth.”
Pine intends to continue building on the canon, adding a sheet music edition for cello next, then volumes for the brass instruments, and eventually expanding with upper-level compositions. “There’s so much under-appreciated music out there,” Pine says, “and so much that’s being created by exciting new voices. I really think this is the next frontier.”