It’s hard to see art in the smoldering aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when White Americans destroyed a wealthy Black community in 1921, killing dozens and leaving entire city blocks in ashes. It’s hard to see triumph in the innumerable chapters of racism, bondage and hatred that have darkened our American story for hundreds of years.
But composer Adolphus Hailstork doesn’t want us to look away. He doesn’t want us to cover our ears, no matter how piercing the truth may be.
There is art in this pain. And, if you listen, there is triumph, too.
In his latest work, “Tulsa 1921: Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust” with libretto by Herbert Woodward Martin, the story of those dark days is told by a young girl, picking through the destruction and lamenting the extinguished hopes of a thriving, industrious Black community.
O, pity this dust, she sings.
This work of man
Laid low in the abstract earth.
This emotional aria — an operatic piece — will premiere on June 19 during an online musical event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, organized by the Harlem Chamber Players, Harlem Stage and Harlem School of the Arts. Along with Hailstork’s work, the event features other works from Black composers, brought to life by diverse ensembles of musicians and artists.
Together, they give voice to a truth that has long been denied in the exclusive, often hostile world of classical music: Black stories are a necessary, immortal part of the American musical tradition.
Building cathedrals of sound
Hailstork considers himself a student of two worlds. On one hand, he is a deeply accomplished denizen of the lofty European classical tradition (He once studied with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau — a detail that should send any enthusiast into fits). On the other, the Rochester, New York native feels a duty to commemorate the history of Black Americans through his music.
“The survival of African Americans in this country is a story of survival. It deserves to be honored in the arts. On stage. In music,” he says. “It’s a noble story and it needs to be told.”
His telling is not always pleasant. In “American Guernica,” composed in memory of the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, flutes and horns blare in an unrelenting churn. An almost biblical sorrow infuses Hailstork’s numerous meditations on slavery. Right now, he’s working on piece in honor of George Floyd, titled “A Knee on the Neck.”
Many of Hailstork’s works are shaped by pride, spirituality or a sense of historical import.
“And sometimes,” he says, “It’s fury.”
But even his most solemn works are balanced with a counterweight of hope. It’s there in “Pity These Ashes,” amid the tears of a child seeing the achievements of her Black neighbors burnt to the ground.
Do not allow ashes to be the end of my days.
Do not let this dust be the only memory of my work.
“While it is a lament on behalf of those who died,” he says, “It is also a proclamation, that as long as we live in this land, we will continue to strive.”
Hailstork believes that America has never properly grieved the innumerable lives that were lost to slavery. This, he says, also marks the genesis of the greatest triumph in our history: That Black culture has survived generations of bondage and oppression, and is still standing.
“Europeans built cathedrals and wrote masses about those they revered,” he says. “Don’t Black people deserve to have cathedrals, of sound or stone, put up in their name also?
Becoming the vessel
“Pity These Ashes” is written for chamber orchestra and a single mezzo-soprano voice. At the piece’s premiere, that voice will belong to J’Nai Bridges, who has been called the “Beyoncé of Opera” by BET.
Bridges was introduced to opera and classical music by a high school choir teacher who recognized her innate gift and encouraged her to pursue it.
“What drew me was the storytelling, and becoming a vessel to dive into these amazing stories,” she says. “They reflect history, they reflect the most common and universal emotions: Tragedy, death, love, joy, heartbreak, jealousy, deceit. This music is for everyone.”
Like many others, Bridges has felt the friction that comes from being a Black classical artist in a space so dominated by whiteness. Longstanding systemic issues have shut people of color out of creative industries for generations, but that hostility reverberates in even the smallest of details: A venue’s makeup artist doesn’t have a dark enough shade of foundation; an oblivious patron makes a rude comment about race.
Luckily, Bridges says, she senses that change is afoot.
“I feel very inspired by the times we’re in,” she says. “People of all ethnicities are asking what they can do about racism in our art. And I’m also seeing opera houses and institutions around the country implement initiatives for equity.”
Last summer, after the death of George Floyd, the LA Opera asked Bridges to sing something. She told them she just couldn’t — not then. What she wanted to do was talk. So instead of a concert, she led a virtual panel on race in the arts.
“I feel privileged that I have this platform to discuss these issues, and that people are actually listening,” she says.
Performing a piece like “Pity These Ashes” is a huge honor to her. It’s also a weighty responsibility. Black artists, like Black celebrities and athletes, risk being ostracized when they bring awareness to racism, injustice — anything that disrupts the comfortable cocoon of entertainment people expect them to maintain.
In answer to that, Bridges turns to a quote from Nina Simone: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
Composing the future
In 1893, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák became the first classical giant to recognize the necessity of Black music traditions in the formation of a fully American sound.
“In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he said in a New York Herald Interview.
That noble school rose in prominence with the works of Harry Burleigh, Scott Joplin, J. Rosamond Johnson, Florence Price and other composers who saw not only virtue in artistic excellence, but a chance to forge new paths of Black success others could tread.
Yet, over the years, works by people of color are seldom amplified in the great classical music halls of the US. An Institute of Composer Diversity analysis of 2019-2020 season programs found, among 120 orchestras, only 6% of performances featured works from by composers from underrepresented racial, ethnic and cultural heritages.
American orchestras also remain overwhelmingly White. Despite massive diversity increases over the last three decades, a 2016 study found only 13.1% of musicians in large orchestras were non-White. A mere 1.2% were African American.
“It’s a complex problem,” says Liz Player, the founder of the Harlem Chamber Players. To begin, it’s expensive to maintain an instrument, to get lessons and to audition. As in many other fields where Black people are underrepresented, there’s a visibility problem. (Bridges, the singer, notes her first teacher played her videos of African-American soloists. “Oh, if they can do that, I can do that,” she remembers thinking.)
“And then,” Player says, “When these artists break into large institutions, they face discrimination and microaggressions, and the kind of discomfort that comes from being the only Black person in the room.”
That’s why institutions like the Harlem Chamber Players are so important. Facing professional and creative barriers, musicians of color have long found fellowship, support and opportunities in groups created with them in mind — from choral societies and orchestras formed around the period of the Harlem Renaissance, to modern iterations like the New York City Housing Authority Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1971.
“It’s a refuge for people to come, a place where we can get together and not feel like we’re the only one,” Player says. “We need each other. We need this space so we can make music together, the way we want to.”
While classical music is often characterized as stale and inaccessible, the reality is creators like Hailstork, Jessie Montgomery, Alice Coltrane and Trevor Weston — other composers featured in the Harlem Chamber Players’ upcoming program — are evolving the genre in the same way their forebears have for hundreds of years. Even the archetypal old European men of yore weren’t always fettered by musty conventions. The best were inventing, telling new stories, causing commotions, perturbing those in power, and sometimes — sometimes — arguing for a better world through their art.
Black classical artists, and indeed, all artists of color, are rightful inheritors of this tradition. It’s time to listen to them.