* Sinfonietta No. 1 for Strings (1954-55)
* Grass (1956)
* Quartet No. 1 based on "Calvary" (1956)
* Blue/s Forms for Solo Violin (1972)
* Lamentations: Black/Folk Song Suite for Solo Cello (1973)
* Louisiana Blues Strut (A Cakewalk) (2001)
* Movement for String Trio (2004)
Joseph Joubert, piano
New Black Music Repertory Ensemble Quartet
Sanford Allen, violin
Tahirah Whittington, cello
Ashley Horne, violin
Jesse Levine, viola
Carter Brey, cello
Chicago Sinfonietta/Paul Freeman
Cedille CDR 90000 087 Total time: 79:00
Summary for the Busy Executive: Strong, beautiful music.
This CD has brought home how much we in the United States view life
through the lens of race, even with those areas not normally considered
racial. Not only do we have Black Music (and, by implication, White
Music), but we tend to attach moral judgments to those artists who "cross
the line." Critics assail Gershwin's music as parasitical of Black Music.
Fletcher Henderson gets accused of, essentially, "Tom-ing" in his work
of the early Twenties. Behind all this lies a conception of Authentic
Black Music: improvisatory, syncopated, based on dance and African forms,
ecstatic rather than "intellectual," and, in some quarters at least,
created only by Blacks. Accept no substitutes. And yet ... for more
than a quarter century, I lived in New Orleans, where musicians of various
ethnicities learned from one another. Louis Prima grew up a couple of
blocks away from Louis Armstrong. New Orleans musicians never rigidly
categorized music. To hear them talk, it was all "The Music." Furthermore,
you would have insulted them by insisting that they shouldn't be playing
Bach or Ravel. It's part of the larger question of Black Identity --
not only What is Black, but Who is Black. As a weak-tea Jew, I have
some personal experience with a similar phenomenon, which I call the
Aunt Retta Syndrome. My Aunt Retta, a lovely woman who grew up early
in the twentieth century, believed not only that Jews did only great
things, but that all great things were done by Jews. It's a "circle
the wagons" mentality.
On the other hand, certain artists don't want to bother lugging around
this extra baggage. They feel the duty of artists to express themselves
in ways true to their own experience and not necessarily to others' idea
of what that experience should be. After all, it's hard enough to create
without having someone -- often without technical knowledge of your art
-- telling you that you're doing it wrong.
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) studied composition with, among
others, Vittorio Giannini. He made his living arranging and "musical
directing" for the likes of Belafonte, Lena Horne, Marvin Gaye, and Max
Roach. Indeed, he played piano in several of Roach's small groups. He
had, therefore, fairly solid jazz and soul credentials. However, his
concert works -- at least the ones here (the only ones I know) -- have
nothing specific to do with jazz, for which some Authenticists came down
on him. Perkinson wrote at least two graceful demurrals:
I cannot define black music. I could say that it is a music that
has its genesis in the black psyche or the black social life, but
it is very difficult to say what black music really is. There
are kinds of black music, just as there are kinds of other musics.
[the only black aspect of my music is inspiration. ... Only you
can decide if the life you live is significantly black; no one
can decide that for you, and I don't think it's right for anyone
to pass judgment on the nature of your involvement.
In other words, let me compose as I *have* to compose.
The musical equivalent of writers like Ralph Ellison, Robert Hayden,
and Melvin B. Tolson, Perkinson in these pieces is more High Modernist
than Vernacular Black, but his inspiration often comes from Black life,
possibly (and this is a radical notion) because he lived his own version
of that life. All of these people have occasionally been pulled over
by the Culture Police, so these shopworn ideas still circulate.
The Modernism comes out immediately in the earliest piece here, the
Sinfonietta No. 1. The composer that comes to mind most readily isn't
Giannini, Perkinson's teacher, but Hindemith -- the granitic harmonies,
the counterpoint that intensifies rhythm. Yet Hindemith lurks in the
background, because something individual goes on here as well. You don't
mistake Perkinson for Hindemith. That individuality comes out in livelier
rhythm. Think Hindemith Meets Bartok, and you'll get the idea.
The rhythms stamp even more strongly in Grass, a Konzertstuck for piano,
strings, and percussion inspired both by Sandburg's poem and by Perkinson's
military service in Korea. You see it more clearly when you say what
it's not. It neither tells a story nor mickey-mouses the poem. In A-B-A
structure, the work uses only one idea: vigorously, then with a weird
lack of affect, then even more vigorously. The free-verse poem tells
of the slaughter of war and of the eerie stillness of former battlefields,
with a refrain of the grass as healer of earth's scars. Standing sturdily
on its own, the music strongly abstracts these emotions. If you didn't
know about Sandburg or Korea, you wouldn't have guessed.
The string quartet strikes me as warmer than the preceding pieces. The
spiritual "Calvary" ("Every time I think about Jesus, Surely he died on
Calvary") clearly provides the material for the first movement. However,
the spiritual becomes more and more abstract as the movements progress.
In the second movement, we get mainly the rhythms from the opening strain.
The rondo finale uses the song, but only in the episodes. The rondo
subject's affinity with the spiritual comes out only as the movement
approaches its end. The entire quartet is beautifully made.
The three solo pieces -- Blue/s Forms and Louisiana Blues Strut for
violin and Lamentations for cello -- immediately acknowledge the Bach
solo string pieces as their ancestors. Perkinson emphasizes counterpoint
and conceives of the music in two, three, and at times even four parts.
Although the violin piece celebrates and comments on the blues, there's
no real blues in it. The second movement in particular -- slow and free
-- evokes more the blues singer than the blues. Lamentations, in the
words of the composer, "is the reflection and statement of a people's
crying out." I grant Perkinson his inspiration, but I don't really hear
it. I'm too impressed with the contrapuntal tricks. The composer
subtitled Lamentations with "Black/Folk Song Suite." Although he takes
off from folk forms ("Fuguing Tune" is the first movement, for example;
"Calvary Ostinato" is the third), the music moves so far away from the
folk that in the finale Perkinson could quote from Stravinsky's Le Sacre
without a jar. In the "Calvary Ostinato," the spiritual gets sliced and
diced even more than in the quartet and set against a repeating bass
line. Louisiana Blues Strut keeps closer to the spirit of the cakewalk,
but really bears the same relation to the folk form as a Bartok workup
of, say, a czardas. Perkinson here (as opposed to every other piece on
the CD) swings like blazes.
From Perkinson's deathbed comes the Movement for String Trio, a slow,
melancholy Bach-like aria. Even if you didn't know its circumstance of
composition, you'd sense the composer's great emotional involvement.
For me, it ends a little too soon. I wish he'd had the time to spin it
out longer, but even so it testifies to a fine musical spirit.
The performers range from acceptable to very good. Paul Freeman and
the Chicago Sinfonietta do okay, but you can easily imagine a better
performance. Pianist John Joubert provides most of the excitement in
Grass. For a first recording, the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Quartet champion the string quartet enough to allow you to see its
stature. I hope other quartets, or even the NBMREQ with more experience,
take it up. The outstanding readings come from the soloists. Sanford
Allen makes a difficult score cohere. Tahira Whittington brings excitement
to the cello suite, but I wished for tighter control. The string trio
-- Allen, Jesse Levine, Carter Brey -- imbue Perkinson's swan song with
depth and beauty. Violinist Ashley Horne comes off best with a jazzy
reading of the Louisiana Blues Strut that shows you not only the
sophistication of the piece, but the fun of it.
I contend that the music here transcends rigid categories. I recommend
it not as an appeal to specialists or as an exhibit in a narrow sociological
context, but for its own powerful sake.