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Classical Notes

Creating a spotlight for black composers

Composer Jeffrey MumfordRonald Jantz

The first thing to know about Castle of our Skins is that it’s a Roxbury-based concert and education series of classical music by black composers, past and present, and that it will kick off its fourth season on Saturday with “A Veil of Liquid Diamonds,” a program of works by the Ohio-based African-American composer Jeffrey Mumford.

The next thing is where the series gets its unusual and evocative name. Ashleigh Gordon, a violist and the series’s cofounder and codirector, said during a recent phone conversation that it comes from the opening of a poem by Nikki Giovanni: “We are all imprisoned in the castle of our skins.”


The poem, Gordon explained, makes the point that “if this is who I am, I will learn to love it, to exalt it, to feel wholly comfortable and fully embrace my skin. And that kind of unabashed appreciation of who we are is what Castle of our Skins is trying to do.”

The necessary prerequisite for appreciating this tradition of classical music by black composers, of course, is knowing that it even exists. That’s the first hurdle that Castle of our Skins seeks to overcome. “I want people to understand that it is diverse, there is this history and this culture, in this country and around the world,” Gordon said. “It’s not just spirituals, it’s not just jazz — nothing wrong with those genres, but there is a world out there and it’s already quite rich and fertile. You just have to be exposed to it.”

That’s no easy feat. When Gordon and her cofounder, composer Anthony Green, first talked about creating a platform to change that, “we could list on maybe one hand, between us, black composers that we knew of.”

Their solution was research, and lots of it. Gordon spent a week at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago and came up with stacks of music, much of it largely unknown. Castle of our Skins repertoire now stretches from composers born in the 19th century such as William Grant Still and Florence Price to current voices such as Jessie Montgomery and Renee Baker. One especially valuable discovery was the Guadalupe-born Chevalier de Saint-Georges, one of the first composers of African ancestry. (He was sometimes referred to as “the black Mozart.”) He wrote a number of string quartets, some of which are sprinkled throughout the group’s concerts this season.


Castle’s new season is a busy one. In addition to Saturday’s concert, there will be an “edu-tainment” concert of string quartets in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library that’s part of ArtWeek Boston (Oct. 1); a contribution to Franklin Park Art Grove called “A House of My Own,” exploring the concept of home through a black lens (also Oct. 1); a residency at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania (Nov. 13-15); the premiere of three pieces written in response to the group’s call for works for strings inspired by black visual art (March 24); an ambitious collaboration with Roxbury-based artist Daniel Callahan (April 29); and a performance in the group’s annual residency at the Museum of African American History (June 8).

“It’s exciting and also incredibly overwhelming at the same time,” Gordon acknowledged. “But it really feeds itself, a kind of energy that you give out and you receive at these events.”


As for Saturday’s concert, it is the first dedicated to a single composer and will feature Gordon’s string trio, Sound Energy. She met Mumford in the early 2000s, when she was a student at Baldwin Wallace University and he taught at Oberlin College. He was a student of Elliott Carter, and, she said, “you can hear a lot of that reference. I like to think of his music being like, you’re looking through a kaleidoscope and you’re seeing many variations of the same color and texture, a lot of which are overlapped on top of one another.”

Gordon’s hopes for Castle are ambitious, but they seem right for a world that more often than not seems agonizingly divided.

“I really believe, with everything we’re doing, if you explore a little bit from our lens, being African-Americans, from your own vantage point, explore a little bit your own culture, and encourage other people to do the same, hopefully it trickles down and encourages others to be more curious about each other.

“Maybe this is idealistic,” she continued, “but if you’re more curious about each other, maybe you’re more tolerant of each other and there’s just greater social harmony. Maybe that’s too lofty, but I would hope that people would come away with a greater appreciation, and then translate that into their daily interactions.”

A Veil of Liquid Diamonds

Presented by Castle of our Skins at Roxbury Community College, Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $10-15.

David Weininger can be reached at