Recording offers new and nuanced readings of Black composers’ works
There’s a magical kind of counterpoint to rubbing two stones together – strike them against each other in just the right way, and a spark flies out.
Sparks fly in a new recording that sets works by two undercelebrated African American composers in counterpoint and, in the process, brings to light a long-obscured musical masterpiece.
American Counterpoints (Bright Shiny Things) features the world-premiere recording of the Violin Concerto by 20th-century American composer Julia Perry, along with other works by Perry and her younger contemporary Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Violinist Curtis Stewart performs as soloist in Perry’s concerto with the Experiential Orchestra under the baton of its founder and music director, James Blachly.
The release of American Counterpoints comes during the year marking the 100th anniversary of Perry’s birth and anticipates the Experiential Orchestra’s Julia Perry Centenary Celebration, March 13-16, 2024, in New York City.
A trailblazing musician devoted to blurring the lines between musical genres and styles, Stewart says the music on American Counterpoints illustrates just some of the stylistic variety among works by Black composers.
“I do a lot of work just bringing the music of Black and blues-oriented composers to the world of classical music. And so I love framing Black composers with other Black composers, just because there is no monolith,” Stewart said in our recent video interview.
“I think some people think Black creatives are put into a certain space. There’s a certain space (where) they can make money, there’s a certain space that they’re supposed to occupy. And putting these two composers on this album, I hope, makes an argument against that type of thinking. Both Julia Perry and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson are counterpoints to making this argument, de-monolith-icizing Black composers in America,” he said.
Perry’s music, in particular her Violin Concerto, holds special interest for Blachly.
“(Perry’s Violin Concerto) was completely unknown, and there’s something very fascinating about a piece that’s clearly masterful in its compositional integrity and yet has never been heard,” Blachly said. “It is just a tour de force of brilliance and her skill as a composer,” Blachly said.
In addition, Perry’s work composing the concerto over an initial five-year period between 1963 and 1968, before returning to it in 1977 to continue revising it, suggests something of the work’s importance to Perry.
“There’s evidence that this is a piece that mattered to her,” Blachly said.
In devising what would become American Counterpoints, Blachly and Stewart, who had worked together before, had discussed collaborating on another project but hadn’t decided what shape it would take. Blachly suggested to Stewart that they perform and record Perry’s Violin Concerto.
“When he mentioned that there was a (Julia) Perry concerto, I was like, ‘Yes!’ Before he finished (saying) the second syllable of “concerto,” I was like, ‘Yes!’ So we were just of the same mind,” Stewart said.
Rubbing shoulders with Perry’s Violin Concerto on American Counterpoints are Perkinson’s beloved Louisiana Blues Strut and Sinfonietta No. 1 and Perry’s Prelude for Strings, Symphony in One Movement for Violas and Basses and Ye, Who Seek the Truth, arranged for orchestral by Jannina Norpoth. Stewart’s own We Who Seek the Truth for solo violin, strings, verse narrator and electronics, paraphrases the text of Ye, Who Seek the Truth in manipulated audio samples from the recordings of the other works on the disc.
The bold sonic landscape of Stewart’s We Who Seek the Truth packs a punch, but the work’s real impact comes from its message for our times.
“I paraphrased the lyrics of Ye, Who Seek the Truth, which kind of says, ‘forgive those who seek the truth, they’re just looking for solace,’” Stewart said. “’Everyone’s just looking for peace.’”
Transcript of interview:
Jennifer Hambrick: We are here to talk about your most recent recording American Counterpoints, which features music by Julia Perry and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. The recording was released recently on the Bright Shiny Things label. And just to begin at the beginning, maybe to kind of begin at the beginning, how did this recording come about?
James Blachly: Well, Curtis and I have worked together for a long time, probably about 15 years. And I had been fascinated by the music of Julia Perry, and particularly by her violin concerto, and I was looking for someone to work on that piece with, to champion the piece. And I thought of Curtis, and we got together. And it happened that Curtis has also had quite a history of being fascinated by Julia Perry’s music. And so that began the journey, which was about a year and a half, perhaps, before the performance in December 2022 where we first gave the New York premiere of the work and the world premiere of the revised version of the violin concerto.
Jennifer Hambrick: What was it about Julia Perry’s Violin Concert that made you decide to program it and to build a program around it?
James Blachly: Well, several things. One was that it was completely unknown, and there’s something very fascinating about a piece that’s clearly masterful in its compositional integrity and yet has never been heard, which was the case at the time when we were preparing the piece. It then was premiered shortly before we performed it in New York. Roger Zayhab, who was the scholar who put it all together and created a new performance edition. So, there’s something about the mystery of that. But also, when you look into the piece – it was composed from 1963 to ‘68, over a five-year period, and then revised in 1977, just two years before she passed away. So, there’s something in just the evidence of how long she worked on the piece and that she turned back to it shortly before passing away – there’s evidence that this is a piece that mattered to her. And as Curtis and I explored the piece, we felt like there may even be something autobiographical in the work, or I could certainly read it that way, personally, as an interpreter. But it’s a very moving piece and an exceptional piece of compositional brilliance, I think, to derive such a piece with so many varied textures and harmonies and sound worlds and colors from two intervals. It is just a tour de force of brilliance and her skill as a composer.
Jennifer Hambrick: Curtis Stewart, you are a solo violinist and chamber musician, and you are featured as soloist on Julia Perry’s Violin Concerto on this recording. This work is at present really not in the violin concerto repertoire, as you pointed out, James, a moment ago – not in the canon of violin concertos, I should say. Curtis, could you talk about your journey with this particular work – learning it, performing it and so forth?
Curtis Stewart: Well, it’s one of those pieces that grows into you, I think. It’s such rich thematic writing, which could be perceived as repetitive. There’s a theme that moves through pretty much every key, 12 keys, if you want to speak in terms of normal tonality, harmonic tonality. But she’s just so careful about the registration of each one of those repeats, the very minor rhythmic variations that happen, so that it feels like someone is speaking. It doesn’t feel like she’s just repetitive, like – it’s not minimalism in its repetitiveness. It’s more like saying the same thing to yourself 12 different ways to really embrace what you’re trying to say, in a way. I think there’s certainly the influence of spirituality and religious music, as evidence in Ye, Who Seek the Truth, there’s a chorale-like element. There’s two very beautiful chorales that happen kind of, like, 3/7 through the piece and also, like, 6/7 through the piece. And they repeat, and it’s the same and also very different in its repetition. So, it grows in. And it’s just extremely challenging, just from a technical perspective. There’s double stops that go from the bottom to the top of the instrument over and over – just in rapid succession, and you can tell that she’s looking for maximum lyricism. And those two things – they’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re definitely not usually in the same world. So, it’s a huge challenge both technically and musically.
Jennifer Hambrick: Sure, I can imagine. Curtis, did you know this work before, I gather, James reached out to you?
Curtis Stewart: I didn’t know anything about it. James called me. So, we had been talking about the project in general. We had been trying to figure out what the things was going to be. And then James called me and said, “I found this Julia Perry concerto.” And it was funny because PUBLIQuartet, the string quartet I’m in, we do a lot of arranging and improvising. And we were just trying to figure out how to arrange Perry’s Prelude for Piano for string quartet, which is funny because James had just done the Prelude for String Orchestra. And it’s just beautiful, it’s just cool that we were both interested in the same music. And when he mentioned that there was a Perry concerto, I was like, “Yes!” Before he finished the second syllable of “Concerto,” I was like, “Yes!” So, we were just of the same mind. And I think the question at that point was, how do we frame this? And for me it’s very important to – I do a lot of work just bringing the music of Black and blues-oriented composers to the world of classical music. I think of the blues as America’s classical music. That’s my view. And so, I love framing Black composers with other Black composers, just because there is no monolith. I think some people think of, “Oh, I want to” – I just saw the movie American Fiction, which deals with a similar idea of where Black creative are put into a certain space. There’s a certain space they can make money, there’s a certain space that they’re supposed to occupy. And putting these two composers on this album, I hope, makes an argument against that type of thinking. Julia Perry is so extremely academic in a great way, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson has those same academic chops, but he frames it with style studies and really couches things in the blues and pop music. He used to do arrangements for Marvin Gaye and Max Roach. So, all those musics are inside of his through-composed music that are on this album. And they’re both really adept of counterpoint, the literal act of musical counterpoint. And so, that’s a kind of play on words, in that both Julia Perry and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson are counterpoints to making this argument, demonolithicizing Black composers in America.
Jennifer Hambrick: An important concept and a great word, too – demonolithicizing.
Curtis Stewart: Boom.
Jennifer Hambrick: Yes, absolutely. An important concept. So, you mentioned, of course, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and his musical language. Let’s talk a little bit about his music by way of, of course, discussing this recording. Curtis, you added Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Louisiana Blues Strut to the live performance and, of course, it’s on this recording as well. Tell us a little bit about this work.
Curtis Stewart: Well, the first time I played this work was on the main stage at Carnegie Hall, Isaac Stern Stage. Tania León was conducting a string orchestra of the Harlem Chamber Players for a project with Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran called Two Wings, about the Great Migration and how, as people moved from south to north, music moved, and they changed the music of America. American music changed because of that movement. And so, this piece is featured in part of it. And I was supposed to emerge from the orchestra, stomp across the stage, wink at Tania León – Pulitzer Prize-winning Tania León – and then march back. And so that was the energy with which I started learning this piece, that was back in 2019. The idea of a cakewalk – I think that interacts very closely with the dual-edged sword of the satirical quality of what the cakewalk is. You know, slaves would do the dance for their masters so that they could get a reward, but it was always with sarcasm and this biting quality. It’s almost like, similar to what Shostakovich did in his music, that sarcasm in the face of power that’s abusing its power. So, I try to dance between the cultural background of that music and the notation, which is pretty open. There’s not a ton of articulations, there’s not a ton of dynamics, and so Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson leaves it open to the player to really interpret and add themselves to the work.
Jennifer Hambrick: James Blachly, I’d like to bring you back into the conversation, as well. There seems to be, to my ear at least, a sort of counterpoint going on between Perry’s Prelude for strings and Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 1.
James Blachly: Yes, no, that’s perfect. That’s what we’re hoping with the album, that these pieces will speak to each other and that these composers will, by highlighting their different genius, their different brilliance, highlight and accentuate each other in what they offer. Yeah, the Prelude for Strings is very rich harmonically. It’s slow, it’s very beautiful. But it’s also structurally concise and well-considered, which I think are things that we find in really all of Perry’s music – is just this structural integrity, as well as a kind of formal integrity. And I find her music rewarding to study in the same way that it’s rewarding to study Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As you find more and more connections as you go, and greater and greater continuity, her music is similar in that way, that the more you look into it, the more you see, the more you encounter, the more you hear, the more you admire her compositional skill and commitment to her musical material, which is certainly true in all the other pieces on the album, as well. But Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 1 is an extraordinary tour de force for the string orchestra but also a tour de force compositionally. And it’s just written at such a young age, it’s astonishing what he was able to do from such a young age. And he was one of the greatest musical talents this country has ever seen and heard, and so we’re excited to be showing and celebrating his genius on this album, as well.
Jennifer Hambrick: And notable right off the bat is, of course, the instrumentation of Perry’s Symphony in One Movement for Violas and Basses. Such an interesting instrumentation. Could you talk about that and kind of what it’s like to be in the middle of that piece?
James Blachly: It’s a wonderful journey. That piece is – my goodness, how to even describe it? It’s like being in a rhythmic arcade, where you go and there’s like all these video games and every rhythm is fascinating in its own way, and you get to play with each one of them. And they’re all really danceable. You could basically get down to any rhythms in that piece. They’re very rhythmically rewarding, but they’re also complex. And so, for two instruments that aren’t celebrated as often as others – the violas and the basses are generally buried in the orchestra, compared to their smaller counterparts – for her to have them be center stage is wonderful. And we have some tremendous musicians in the Experiential Orchestra who brought this piece to life. And it was just a joy to go from the beginning to the end from the first time we read through it, and the amount of dedication that each of the players brought to it. They knew that this was a special piece and really looked into the depths of genius of it. We’d love to see all of this music performed more often, but I’m excited to see as other people discover this piece in particular, how they’ll start playing it more often.
Jennifer Hambrick: And as we’re talking about counterpoints, there’s also what seems to be an intentional counterpoint between Perry’s Ye, who Seek the Truth and, Curtis, your work We Who Seek the Truth for solo violin, strings, verse narrator and electronics. This piece concludes the recording. So, Curtis, if you would, tell us about this piece.
Curtis Stewart: Well, it’s funny. The first time I spoke to someone about it, they were like – they had no clue what they were listening to. That was their first comment – “I don’t know what I’m listening to.” And it’s kind of based on the work that I did on my previous two albums, Of Love and Of Power – that are also both Grammy-nominated – kind of pandemic project compositions, where I’m layering a lot of voices. And in this piece I took samples of the raw edit from our recording sessions with EXO – Experiential Orchestra – and I chopped those up, turned them backwards, sped them up, did all kinds of stuff to use the work of Perry and Perkinson as the kind of texture to this piece, and paraphrased the lyrics of Ye, Who Seek the Truth, the original spiritual, which kind of says, “forgive those who seek the truth, they’re just looking for solace. Everyone’s just looking for peace.” And then thinking about we – all of this on this call, as well as those who are looking for the music of Perry, looking for the music of Coleridge-Taylor and all these others who are, as James says, undercelebrated. And that is the truth that we are seeking. That sense of celebration is that sense of truth. So, there’s a whole paraphrase of me just interrogating myself on the nature of what it means to seek the truth and the hardships that Perry, Perkinson, and my parents also – they were both musicians – just thinking about that struggle and the nature of that struggle and what our obligation is right now.
Jennifer Hambrick: Once again, I have been speaking with conductor James Blachly and violinist Curtis Stewart about their recording American Counterpoints, which features music by Julia Perry and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Thank you both so much for your time today.
Curtis Stewart: Thank you.
James Blachly: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.