WCO Launches the Black Composers CD Project: Putting Black Composers on the Classical Music Map

WCO Bill Banfield 03

Dr. Bill Banfield, composer in residence

i've been a fan of patrice for many, many years.. so it was a real treat to finally get to hear her play some straight-ahead jazz at scullers. she blew us away with her playing, which was simply amazing!

Patrice Rushen, a composer being featured in the Black Composers CD Project

By Jonathan Gramling

For the past couple of years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has been quietly working behind the scenes on a project that will bring Black classical music to the forefront of the classical music world through the Black Composer CD Project. It hired Black composer Dr. Bill Banfield who is its composer-in-residence and is identifying Black composers to participate in the project and reached out to Albany Records, an internationally renowned classical music recording and distribution company. The music of the Black composers will be performed each fall for five years by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the live performances will be recorded and released by Albany Records each February for the next five years.

It’s an incredible and long overdue project.

“Our responsibilities not driven by any altruism at all,” Banfield said. “That’s way down on the bottom of this list. The thing that Andrew (Sewell, WCO’s music director) and Joe (Loehnis , WCO’s CEO) raised up is the whole idea that it is the role of the contemporary orchestra to be relevant and to serve the music and the music community by providing fine musical works for everyone to be touched and lifted by. That’s why it is so exciting.”

The Black classical music composers have been hiding in plain sight.

“Here’s a composer whose name is Patrice Rushen,” Banfield said. “You might not know that she wrote the music for one of your favorite films. ‘What?’ For instance, Michael Abels is on his way to WCO. Michael won the Pulitzer this year for his opera Omar. Many people might not know Omar as an opera or Michael Abels. But a lot of people have seen the films that Michael Abels did the score for. But you wouldn’t know that is Michael Abels. All of us know the maestro who did the suspense music for Jaws. That’s John Williams. Well the suspense music for the Peele movies Michael Abels wrote the music for. Similarly, Patrice Rushen writes a lot of music for movies and TV shows.”

Rushen was formally trained as a child at the University of Southern California Preparatory Department in Los Angeles.

“The whole program was designed for small children,” Rushen said. “They were being observed. Types and theories of curriculum were being developed on the basis of the experiential learning of kids who were very talented or had an aptitude for music and observing how they were taught. These were little kids from the age of three. I was involved in that program from three until I was out of high school. It started with the Eurhythmics program. And around 5-6-years-old, you are introduced to an instrument.”

Rushen went on to study at USC and earned a degree in music education with a minor in classical piano performance.

“They didn’t have jazz at the time,” Rushen said. “And they certainly didn’t have popular music. Those were my choices. I majored in both of those with the intention of doing neither because I wanted to be a film composer. But I didn’t know the path. I spoke about it with my parents. My folks were very well-meaning and progressive in their thinking, but pragmatic in that they didn’t know what that was. They were going to help me with my music education, but at the end of it, they needed to know that I could work. Music education was the safe bet. And it turned out to be one of the best decisions because a lot of the things that I still do and things that I was learning to do, the idea of learning to teach and the art of teaching — which is sometimes involving taking a large concept and breaking it down into actionable bites for your students to have a sense of substance. And that is almost identical to what it meant for me to learn to produce records learn to work with people in a music direction for TV shows, work in leadership roles with bands and ultimately, when I did get to film and TV scoring, that type of thing, to have the overview that allowed for the writing to be in a collaborative form with the director of the film with the music being a component that added to the pleasure of the entirety of whatever the production required.”

Rushen has enjoyed a very successful career.

“My highs are pretty obvious,” Rushen observed. “Anytime you get to hear the music come back to you, that it is being played in any configuration, whether I am doing dance music or symphonic music. That’s a big high to see the joy that it brings other people, their involvement, their active listening or even their physical participation in singing or whatever. Lows? I can’t think of many because every down period or point that doesn’t look as bright as the brightest point, there are lessons to be learned. And it’s on the way to, in my mind, the things that are better. Sometimes you have to do that in order to get there. Each time that something hasn’t necessarily gone the way that it thought it would or I am put in a situation where it seems to be difficult, there are lessons to be learned that allow it to go better next time.”

Although there have been Black classical music composers since before Mozart — Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was called “The Black Mozart” — they have remained hidden on the classical music scene. Rushen wrote and performed “Forget Me Not” in the early 1980s and scored many TV shows and films. But she has also composed classical music — for which she was formally trained — that hasn’t received the same level of exposure. There are preconceptions about who writes classical music and how it should sound.

“Composers aren’t necessarily immune to that same kind of assumption and scrutiny, particularly when what it is that they do has the potential to fit into a marketplace or space or be played and revered as being a certain art work in a situation where our customs have been to focus on the value as a legitimacy only of the Western European tradition,” Rushen said. “That doesn’t discount that tradition by any means. But it does say that its value has transferred into many different kinds of music as has the values and certain aspects of different ethnic traditions onto the Western European tradition. Art is transferable. Music and styles of music have the potential to be transferrable. They are able to communicate a certain aspect of truth to another person. And when that is happening and happening well, it isn’t necessarily attached only to the type of person who is listening to it. It’s transferrable because it resonates with a certain kind of human truth.”

As in the long-term relationship of Sewell and Banfield, so too the musical relationship between Banfield and Rushen led to her participation in the project.

“I had the opportunity to be programmed on one of their concerts,” Rushen said about WCO. “And a very good friend of mine, William Banfield, is their composer-in-residence right now. He’s a real champion for an awareness of other composers of color whom he feels deserve the opportunity for their voice to be heard. So I happened to be on a program where one of Bill’s pieces was being premiered. And the relationship between myself and Bill spilled over into the relationship with leadership at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with Andrew Sewell and Joe. We just felt like, ‘Wow, let’s see other things.’ They, especially Andrew, dove a little deeper into my music. And apparently he liked it and determined there were other ways and other projects to not only present this music and the music of other composers of color, but also to offer another challenge to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra to not just talk about it, but actually do something that would allow for this music to also be feted.”

The works of Banfield and Rushen will be featured on the first CD to be produced by this project and will be recorded through a live WCO performance this fall. Rushen is excited to be at the forefront of the project.

“I am very honored,” Rushen said. “I am very happy that they liked the piece. It was composed a bit ago and its purpose initially was as a commission from the Detroit Symphony for their youth symphony. To now have this played by a professional world-class orchestra — the youth did a fantastic job — it will be played by people whose sentiment about the subject is not going to be folklore. Those kids were so young, they didn’t have any idea of who Martin Luther King was. They played the piece and I could talk to them about it. And there were pictures of him on their music stands. But with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, there is also going to be a maturity in terms of the playing and the understanding and the sentiment of the piece that is going to add another element to the piece, which is going to be awesome to hear. Hopefully, it will be the definitive recording.”

The Black Composers CD Project has the potential to be a transformative movement within WCO and in the classical music world.

“I hope it isn’t lost on anyone that the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has taken on, in addition to the reputation that they already have as an orchestra, the idea of growing and reflecting the community that they serve,” Rushen said. “They are actively embracing excellence in all of its forms and looking for ways to be able to add that aspect to their orchestra’s personality and persona. I think they should be supported and commended for that, particularly in Madison with their being such a huge artistic community, one in which it seems open to ideas as long as they are presented respectfully. I think it is fantastic. I look forward to bigger and better things all the time.”

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has taken on a huge — and potentially transformative — project that could lead to an era of innovation and creativity in the world of classical music. And it is all because of seeds planted long ago when Andrew Sewell and Dr. Bill Banfield were perfecting their art at the University of Michigan. They are seeds that could lead to the flowering of beautiful music by Black composers for generations to come.