Will Robin reporting on Eun Kim’s concert project “Sing Her Name”, a benefit for Black Lives Matter:
“Everyone knows the name Sandra Bland” — who died in police custody in Texas in July 2015 — “but most people don’t know that there are five other black women who were killed that same month,” Ms. Lee said. Proceeds from the benefit will go to the Center for Constitutional Rights, African American Policy Forum and Black Women’s Blueprint. The orchestra will perform music by African-American and female composers, including Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.
The concert will also feature the premiere of Courtney Bryan’s “Yet Unheard,” which sets a new text by the poet Sharan Strange memorializing Ms. Bland. “What I’m bringing to it is the emotional side,” Ms. Bryan said in a recent interview. “Being able to mourn what happened, but also celebrate her spirit.”
Part of me really likes the idea of classical music engaging with current events. It’s something classical music usually sucks at, in part because it’s usually made so much more slowly than pop or folk music. It’s also really great to see more non-white-male names on concert programs.
Another nagging part of my brain wonders if classical music can ever really have as much to say about current events when doing so requires text, which is not part of most of the music I write and listen to. So often, the music doesn’t add anything, as Bryan describes her music does. I hate to dump on her when she’s involved in such a cool project, and I don’t know anything about her music. She says she’s “bringing the emotional side”, “mourning”, and “celebrating” to the poetry. I would imagine that the poet might argue that the text does those things pretty well already. On the occasion that music attempts to describe this kind of situation without singing, speaking, dance, video, or extensive program notes, it comes across as a maudlin caricature of a mid–20th-century film score.
I’m not sure where that leaves us (and by “us”, I mean “me”) for classical music and politics, or stories generally. I would like to be able to engage things like this in my work, but I honestly don’t think it’s possible to do without adding things that are outside of it, like text or video. Even if I were able to solve that problem, even if I were to finish a score that spoke some truth (Truth?) to society, it would still not be a completed piece until somebody else gets involved to perform it.
Is this a thing other composers and classical musicians struggle with? I would love to be turned around on this.