Arts collective Castle of our Skins’ multi-media events mix historical instruction, poetry, and music by composers of color. “Born out of the desire to foster cultural curiosity, CoOS celebrates Black artistry [primarily] through music. From classrooms to concert halls, it invites exploration into Black heritage and culture, spotlighting both unsung and celebrated figures of past and present.” CoOS presented its latest offering, “Ain’t I A Woman,” a thoughtful selection of musical and poetic works by Black women from the 19th century to the present day, at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury on Saturday, with artists and guests of the collective.
In her pre-concert lecture, historian L’Merchie Frazier furnished the historical background for the works to come. Frazier, an accomplished fiber artist, holographer, and poet, as well as a member of the Women of Color Quilters Network, has works in the permanent collections of the Museum of Art and Design, the Smithsonian Institute, and the White House. She provided a survey of the accomplishments of leading female figures among those fighting the slavery in the U.S., both from within and without, as well as striving for the civil rights of freed slaves after Abolition. In parallel with the concert’s aims, Frazier shed light on lesser-known figures Maria Stewart, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Amanda Berry Smith, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, the famous onetime slaves Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, the author of the poem “Ain’t I A Woman.”
From Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004), a composer of some renown in her day but seldom heard today, came the aptly named solo piano piece “Homage.” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt befriended the young artist, mentored her, and helped sponsor her graduate studies. Perry studied with such luminaries as R. Nathaniel Dett, William L. Dawson, and Darius Milhaud before turning to teaching and composition herself. “Homage,” an attractively melodic, harmonically conservative work contains the occasional whiff of jazz and blues. Pianist Sakura Myers expertly limned its mixture of melancholy, mysticism (especially a passage in the piano’s ethereal upper register), and optimism.
Destiny Polk delivered the event’s title piece, Sojourner Truth’s famous poem “Ain’t I A Woman.” Polk is a poet herself, as well as a professional dancer, who has presented works at Multi-Cultural Teaching Institute, Urban Bush Women’s Summer Institute, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, among others. She founded the art-activist platform Radical Black Girl, “invit[ing] her communities to self-transformation through art.” Her rendering of Truth’s poem powerfully evoked the author’s unyielding opposition to the efforts of the elite to keep freedwomen “in their place,” and she gave a subtly different color to each recurrence of the title phrase throughout.
Pianist, composer, arranger, choral conductor, and teacher Jacqueline B. Hairston (b. 1938) studied at The Juilliard School, Howard University School of Music, and Columbia University. Her works have been given by the London Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Women’s Philharmonic, soprano Kathleen Battle, and mezzo soprano Denyce Graves, et al. “On Consciousness Streams: The Season of Remembrance” used an inspirational text by Howard Thurman, Hairston’s chaplain at Howard, onetime dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, and central figure in the civil rights movement. The setting employed rhapsodic vocal writing and diatonic harmony, though its unpredictable chord progressions were akin to the “free association” school of writing; this worked well with Thurman’s text which showed similar influences. Soprano Sirgourney Cook and pianist Sarah Bob contributed technically polished, emotionally present performances.
“Love Let the Wind Cry…How I Adore Thee” (1961), by Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989), one of the too few staples of the art song repertory by African Americans, sets a poem by Sappho, “rendered by Bliss Carmen based on the prose translation of H. T. Wharton.” Moore uses a plethora of moods and colors to evoke many different sounds of nature (wind-blown mountain trees, canyon torrents, primal chaos, sea breakers, tree crickets, lark song). Every stanza features a different sound to proclaim, “How I adore thee” until at the end Sappho asserts each is less sure, serene, passionate, exultant than “the hushed whisper in thine own heart say[ing], How I adore thee.” Cook and Bob savored the variety of opportunities the song offers, encompassing extravagant proclamation, subdued reflection, and passionate declarations of love.
“Mother’s Sacrifice,” a solo piano piece by L. Viola Kinney (c. 1890-1945), is her only surviving score, though she registered copyrights for at least two others. Kinney was a native of Sedalia, Missouri (where Scott Joplin first achieved fame for his piano rags) and a composer, pianist and teacher. Of “Mother’s Sacrifice” she said, “. . . it shows the Negro in his great Musical Metamorphosis from the rag-time to the nobler, higher tones,” reflecting her society’s largely condescending attitude toward the American invention of ragtime. Her style supports her belief as the piece bears the traits of European neo-Romanticism though not avoiding occasional evocations of American folk tunes. Sakura Myers played with expressive warmth and mellow tone. The plagal cadences at the end, like a pair of Amens, were especially moving.
In the poem, “I Am A Black Woman” by Mari Evans (1919-2017), Destiny Polk portrayed a strong, resilient woman who has endured seeing loved ones lynched and killed in war but is still able at the end to say to her fellow surviving women, “Look on me and be renewed.”
Florence Price (1887-1953), like Undine Smith Moore, is one of only a handful of well-known Black female composers from the last century. In 2009, a substantial collection of her works and papers turned up in an abandoned dilapidated house on the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois. These consisted of dozens of her scores, including her two violin concertos and her fourth symphony. As Alex Ross stated in the New Yorker in February 2018, “not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.” She is particularly known for her vocal music, and “Night” is one of her most treasurable songs. Price sets up an exquisite vocal melody over an undulating piano part in her unabashedly gorgeous treatment of an imaginative poem by Louise C. Wallace. Though Price would have had little to no experience of countertenors in the first half of the 20th century, one can hardly imagine she would have been displeased by this interpretation. Countertenor Reginald Mobley and pianist Sakura Myers created ravishing sounds and sumptuous phrases, painting nocturnal images elegantly.
Then we heard a world premiere: Bear, with words and music by Jessica Mays, a rising young composer based in New York. In the past decade she has composed and arranged for soloists and forces large and small, domestically and abroad, including Nebula Ensemble, Montréal’s Ensemble Paramirabo, Cluster Music Festival, Ensemble Lunatik, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Her new piece seems to describe a baby bear becoming aware of something menacing from which it attempts to escape while confronting the daunting obstacle of a large mountain. (When I spoke with the composer, she shared her ideas about what she intended but also encouraged the individual listener to form her or his own interpretation of the text’s meaning, metaphorical or otherwise.) Mobley and Myers were joined by Javier Caballero, cello, in Mays’s innovative scoring. The listeners could sense danger at the outset from the piano’s rumbling low register and the subtly threatening cello, played both pizzicato and arco. The little bear was perhaps not as fully aware of the threat at first, as reflected in Mobley’s more liquid legato line, but perceived it soon enough. We shared the cub’s fright when facing the mountain. The deliberately disjointed use of the fairly unstructured text—projected on a screen behind the artists–kept us off-balance. The level of fear gradually increased as the text mentioned the whites of the cub’s eyes and its bared teeth (Mobley used his face here subtly but effectively), and Mays utilized brief, quick sequences of clapping by singer and pianist (in the midst of singing and playing) to inject extra rhythmic electricity. The ending more or less broke off, leaving us in suspense about the outcome. No easy, comfortable answers here! Kudos to Mays for creating this powerfully unsettling work and to Mobley, Myers, and Caballero for their skillful, evocative performance.
In the final poem “Yes, I Am an African Woman” by Nilene Omodele Adeoti Foxworth, Polk brought to life the title character as a modern woman reflecting on and drawing strength from her illustrious female ancestors. She conjures, among others, Eve, Nefertiti, and other pharaohs’ wives for their defiance, pride, and stateliness. As before, Polk’s delivery was natural, with small pauses for both reflection and emphasis, making the poem feel like a spontaneous creation.
The African American composer Nkeiru Okoye (born in the U.S. to an African-American mother and Nigerian father) has written a highly regarded opera, Harriet Tubman, from which the final group of songs (originally arias) are drawn. Large in scale and expansive in range, they make considerable physical demands on the singer. Fortunately, on this night they found powerful advocates in soprano Synthia Pullum and pianist Sarah Bob. Absent any citation, this writer assumed that the texts were writings of Harriet Tubman from girlhood through old age, but in fact, like Mays, Okoye wrote her own in convincing fashion. The first, “My Name Is Araminta,” is a slave narrative in which the little girl introduces herself, describes the work she and her family do for Master Brodess, and mentions how “kind” he is to keep them together—except for her three sisters who were sold off because the master needed some money. “Minty” is a hard worker herself so it is an unpleasant shock when we learn she’s not quite 7! Pullum, though tall and statuesque, used her face and body to become a little child too young to understand fully the cruelty of her situation though at the end there is a long, poignant melisma when she begins to realize that in spite of their hard work, the family may not always be kept together.
She is a young adult in the second song, “My Name Is Harriet Now,” Minty having “died” after being struck unconscious by the master or overseer. Pullum effectively conveyed Harriet’s anger (“Don’t call me Minty anymore”) now that she is fully acquainted with all the ugliest realities of bondage, while Bob fully engaged with the turbulent piano part—sometimes dissonant, sometimes jazzy–as it called up images of whippings of Harriet and her foremothers. Yet Harriet finds grounding at the calmer ending, thinking of herself as “guardian of the home.”
The drama reaches a peak in the third song, “I Am Harriet Tubman,” in the course of which she escapes slavery and has to learn how to support herself in the North (“I escaped…from can’t to can”). The a cappella opening features gospel-style vocalises. Pullum shifted easily from head voice to chest to belt and made a breathtaking octave leap into her highest register (“I felt like I was in heaven”) when Harriet successfully completes her escape. As the escapee describes her early days of freedom doing menial work, Okoye cleverly makes the musical style “turn white.” But Harriet soon wonders what good is freedom without her family; she firmly resolves to bring all of them to freedom at the newly victorious ending.
In the final song Harriet considers the slaves depicted in the Bible, “I Am Moses, the Liberator.” Pullum skillfully used her chest register—in collaboration with Bob’s majestic playing—to suggest the prophet’s authority as Harriet lays down the law and declares her absolute right to two things: her liberty or her death. When Harriet recalls one of her many forays back to the South to free more slaves, she dramatically displays that fearless authority, holding slave-catchers at bay with a gun. At the emphatic ending, we realize that the “family” she resolved to bring to freedom are the many hundreds of her fellow slaves she helped to escape slavery over many years.
Over a year in the making, the concert carefully mixed singing with recited poetry; the collective’s happy choice of artists became abundantly evident. The programmatic choices both complemented and reinforced each other, and the impressive performers always communicated directly and movingly with their audience. The printed leaflet, though proved incomplete. While projections of the the sung and spoken texts are helpful, they don’t allow us to revisit the poetry; ideally, the song-texts should be printed, but at the very least, the authors of the sung poems should all be credited both on the screen and in the leaflet. Also, since few of the composers are widely familiar, printed notes about them and their specific pieces would have greatly deepened our appreciation. But all in all, this large undertaking was highly successful, and I hope similar events will continue long into the future. For upcoming offerings between May 31st and June 7th (as well as two in July), consult Castle of our Skins.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.