Getting the Music Out There: Recording Music by Black Composers
Featuring alumni of the Sphinx Competition, the Catalyst Quartet is a group that “combines a serious commitment to diversity and education with a passion for contemporary works.” This is reflected in their discography, recording canonical and contemporary works from J. S. Bach to their quartet member, Jessie Montgomery. Their latest planned album, Uncovered, will feature music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and Florence Price with guest performers Anthony McGill and Stewart Goodyear. Currently fundraising via a Kickstarter Campaign, Uncovered will only be completed and released if the quartet meets their financial goal.
“Unfortunately, there is no support for these kinds of projects in our field and we can only bring this music to light with your help.” While not the first time this group has utilized a campaign to address recording expenses, this statement made me think: what does the world of recorded music by Black composers look like? Which labels release their music? How are they marketed? Are they recorded by international stars, regional, or local groups? This essay is not a comprehensive study of every recording featuring Black composers’ music; it is a look at albums that feature Black composers’ works and known methods of financial support to get those albums to the public. Listeners eager for more music by Black composers can’t attend every concert; the performance may be too far away or the tickets too expensive. Albums, even in the age of YouTube, still help spread music further, quicker, and through less expensive means than live performances. And for this musician, recordings were often my initial exposure to music by Black composers, and remains an important element in my experience as a musician and a scholar.
In 1917, Roland Hayes was frustrated. “Deep River,” a concert spiritual by his mentor, Harry T. Burleigh, had become all the rage of the 1916–1917 concert season, and record companies made sure they got a piece of the pie. But some performers were left out; more specifically, most Black vocalists were being left out, and Hayes was not about to let it slide. With his own funds, he recorded Burleigh’s “Bye an’ Bye,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and sold the records from his Boston home (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Bye an’ Bye” would later be released under the Columbia label).
In 2017, violinist Er-Gene Kahng and composer Ryan Cockerham were raising funds to support the world-premiere recording of Florence Price’s two violin concertos. The Kickstarter campaign laid out what supporters would be covering, such as: “orchestra and musician fees, digitizing the handwritten, manuscript music into performable scores…hiring a producer, recording engineer...” The campaign was successful, and the album was released in 2018.
Though separated by one hundred years, the actions of Hayes, Kahng, and Cockerham reveal the organizational and financial actions people have used to get Black classical performers and Black classical repertoire recorded. Recordings of Black classical music have been produced sporadically for over one hundred years, either aided by internationally recognized performers like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, recorded by independent labels, or funded by the performers themselves.
Some of the more recent albums featuring the music of Harry T. Burleigh were released via self-established or independent labels: Art Songs of Harry T. Burleigh (1995) recorded by Regina McConnell and Michael Cordovana, was released under Centaur Records, one of the U.S.’s largest independent record labels of classical music. Nobody Knows: Songs of Harry T. Burleigh (2007) features vocalist-pedagogue Karen Parks, who released the album under her own label, Ottimavoce, Inc. The Apollo Chamber Players recorded Burleigh’s Plantation Melodies, Old & New: 1. “Negro Lullaby,” II. “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” in 2016. Their album was released via Navona Records, part of the PARMA recording company, who details their recording and collaboration process for potential clients on their website. And between 2010 and 2013, Albany Records partnered with the Center for Black Music Research for three albums - Recorded Music of the African Diaspora (2010), Legacy: Violin Music by African-American Composers (2011), and Florence B. Price: Concerto/Symphony in E Minor (2011). The recordings span the chronological gamut of Black American classical music, from Francis Johnson’s Bingham’s Cotillion to Mary Watkins’ Five Movements in Color. They also feature the premiere recording of Price’s first symphony and piano concerto. And we haven’t even touched on Naxos, whose catalogue features orchestral and vocal music by Margaret Bonds, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Florence Price, and William Grant Still; the recent re-release of Sony’s the Black Composers Series: The Complete Album Collection; the work of groups like Videmus, solo performers like Samantha Ege, and ensembles like the Catalyst Quartet.
What this cursory look shows is that systemic marginalization of Black composers from the classical music recording industry did not stop performers, scholars, and composers from getting this music recorded and distributed. It led to the establishment of other modes of technical and financial support, whether from individual, community, or institutional means. Rather than focus on getting this music recorded in spaces with more cultural capital, which does not guarantee institutional stability, we must consider strategies and support systems that will strengthen the work that is being done. It may not be an ideal system, but it’s one that has been and continues to get this music out to the people who want to hear it.