“Young man, anyone can be creative,” the composer T.J. Anderson once told me. “The duty of the composer is to document the culture as he or she sees it.”
I consider Anderson, a leading contemporary composer, to be my musical father. He shared this insight with me when I was a young composer at New England Conservatory in the early 1980s and he was chair of the music department at Tufts University. I aspired to be a symphony composer whose work was commissioned and performed one day, and Anderson helped me see what it truly means to contribute to society as an artist. All these years later, his words still ring true.
In recent months, a number of Black American composers have been doing just that — documenting the culture as they see it — and it’s been a gift to us all. At the same time, it has raised important questions about programming.
I thought of my teacher after seeing Carlos Simon at Symphony Hall on Feb. 9. Simon was in town for the world premiere of his “Four Black American Dances,” commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I was excited to hear new music created by a composer I know personally.
Simon, who is composer-in-residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and an assistant professor at Georgetown University, has become something of a newfound jewel of the symphony world. At 37, he’s been performed by major symphonies around the country, and his album “Requiem for the Enslaved” received a Grammy nomination.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a book about contemporary Black composers, “Musical Landscapes in Color: Conversations With Black American Composers,” and at the time Simon was too young to be included. So when I heard the BSO would be premiering Simon’s new work at Symphony Hall, I took the opportunity to talk with him beforehand.
“When you think about Bartok, Rachmaninoff, they were using the music of their people, and putting it in the concert space, as a means of making that art respectful,” Simon told me over dinner. “I see myself fitting into that framework. This is an elevated art form — we can appreciate, understand it as legacy.”
Simon took those four dances — the ring shout, the waltz, tap dance, and the holy dance — and put them into a miniature symphonic form with striking orchestral effects and percussion to evoke cultural memory. The whole piece lasted around 15 minutes. People loved it and leapt to their feet for a standing ovation.
It was not always this way. Having gone to school here beginning in the late 1970s, first at NEC and later at Boston University, I’ve witnessed the exclusion of Black composers from the concert repertory.
“It’s inevitable, once you are identified — and you always are identified because of race — there’s a certain different expectation,” my great teacher, Anderson, noted in The New York Times in 2014. “You know that you’re not going to be commissioned by the major artistic institutions like the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.”
In the wake of 2020 and Black Lives Matter, people’s eyes are open and feet ready to walk forward for change. This month at Symphony Hall, the “Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope” festival is highlighting the work of underrepresented composers, including Black Americans and women.
On March 9, Thomas Wilkins, artistic adviser for education and community engagement at the BSO, conducted music by Margaret Bonds, Anthony Davis, and William Dawson, with Anthony McGill as clarinet soloist. The concert opened with selected movements of Bonds’s “Montgomery Variations,” a lush orchestration of southern-driven melodies culled from traditional spiritual traditions, such as “Jesus Walk With Me.” It was a fitting prelude to the evening of rich music that followed.
Davis’s clarinet concerto “You Have the Right to Remain Silent” was musically, sonically, and artistically stunning; McGill played double duty on clarinet and contrabass clarinet. Dawson’s melodically alive and spiritually triumphant “Negro Folk Symphony” is truly an orchestral masterpiece — and should be seen as essential to American musical culture as Ravel is to French, Beethoven to German, or Britten to English.
Great music speaks for itself. And yet, the BSO’s relatively recent embrace of programs featuring composers of color and women does raise in my mind important questions: What’s planned for seasons to come? And when will this music be integrated into the great orchestral repertory instead of presented as a special case?
As much progress as we’ve made, I have often wondered why it remains such a leap for so many classical organizations to program today’s artists of color, and women, on a regular basis — not just during Black History Month or Women’s History Month.
“I think we have to catch up to what has been ignored,” Wilkins said. “It’s OK to realize the need to do better, as Maya Angelou suggests, and be all the better for realizing and then doing it … I think we just have to stay at it, and this becomes the norm.”
More than just staying at it, the BSO should actively push forward by commissioning more young, contemporary composers — and audiences will expand and grow. I was taken by the excitement of two women who sat behind me during the Simon performance. “It was just soulful, it touched me,” one said. “Sometimes new music can be discordant, but this was just lovely.”
“We want to respect those who embrace the older traditions, and yet at the same time we have to include music for our audiences who are eager to hear new traditions,” BSO trustee Susan Cohen told me. “It shouldn’t be one or the other, but they need to come together.”
“It’s all about strategy,” she said. “This cannot be thought of as a ‘one off.’”
To understand more about the BSO’s programming choices, I spoke to vice president for artistic planning, Anthony Fogg. With the “Voices” festival, which ends Saturday, “There were so many themes in the programs when one thought about it; it was about musical identity as much as social identity; the sense of loss of culture, of trying to maintain culture; there were some specific things about social justice,” he said, noting Davis’s concerto. “These programs were very rich in terms of the extra-musical as well as the musical subjects that they touched upon.”
As for future programming, Fogg noted the importance of an “ongoing, more organic approach, rather than looking at repertoire in an isolated period.”
While there has been some momentum in the classical music world, it’s still difficult to detect a real shift in the landscape. But small victories should also be acknowledged. As I reflect back on Simon with his “Four Black American Dances,” it seemed, that night, I could hear above me Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Edmonia Lewis, Harry Carney, and Elma Lewis — who all had a presence in Boston — dancing a ring-shout hallelujah dance in heaven for Simon: “Do it, little brother!”
As a composer and author, I’m always trying to inform my writing with questions about what the people want, what the culture asks for, and how the artist responds. I often speak about the idea of artistic citizenship in reference to contributions from both sides of the arts, from the artists as well as from the institutions that supply the arts. Both engage the public. Both have a responsibility to document the culture, to transform, delight, and enliven the times.
That’s exactly what happens when a composer knows what to do with his or her gift and has been given the opportunity to use it.
Dr. Bill Banfield is a composer and the author of “Musical Landscapes in Color: Conversations With Black American Composers,” University of Illinois Press, 2023.