Welcome to the New MBC Website!
As the former (and first) Managing Editor of the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation’s project “Music by Black Composers project,” I am thrilled to welcome you to our brand new website. This moment represents an important milestone in the life of this crucial work; after intensive preparations, we are ready to show everyone what we have been working on for the past 18 months. With our drive towards the publication of the first set of instrumental training method supplements for violin, it also gives us the chance to show you what this project will look like. On a personal level, this moment represents the achievement of goals I set out when I took on the project in June 2015. I am very proud of how far we’ve come and I hope you will share in my excitement.
When I began as Managing Editor, I was in charge of breathing new life into the project. In my capacity as “re-booter,” I immediately advocated we rebrand as “Music by Black Composers,” or MBC for short. With a more forceful and memorable name for our project, I dove in to the task of organizing and expanding its contents: our list of composers and pieces. Confirming what we already possessed, I set about finding as many Black composers as I could from as many locations as I could. Our list expanded rapidly! We currently count 50 composers from the Caribbean, 45 from Africa, 11 from Europe, and 150 from North American spanning from the beginning of the 18th Century to the present day. Early discoveries were done by internet research and included a rich repository of music by Brazil’s first female composer, Chiquinha Gonzaga; a duet for violin written by Juan Manuel Olivares in the early 1790s sent to us by the National Library of Venezuela; an edited collection of works by the musical patriarch of the island of Curaçao, Jan Gerard Palm; and the only extant copies of works by Puerto Rican composer, Felipe Gutierrez.
Violin sample volume cover
With materials starting to come in, and with the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation’s annual gathering coming up in October of last year, it became clear that our project needed a firm direction. I therefore set about creating a sample volume that would demonstrate what we were looking to accomplish. With the help of JuJo Creative, the designers of this site, we created our logo and the banner you see on this site for use with the volume. I wrote composer biographies, assembled some articles on Black classical music-making, and soon we had physical book that demonstrated our vision—one that teachers, students, and donors could experience viscerally and one that we could also use as a model for potential publishers.
Research continued apace, but in some cases, when the music is old enough, or unpublished, you simply need to be there in person if you want to get a look at it. In the fall of 2015 I began fieldwork for the project with a trip to the Columbia University Library in New York City to find works by Ulysses Kay. Soon after, I would be looking into the music of Blind Tom Bethune at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia, and the papers of Charles Coleman at the Archives of African American Music and Culture in Bloomington, Indiana. Most significantly, I spent time at the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University, the University of New Orleans, Xavier College, and The Historical Society of New Orleans researching the rich history of music composition in the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This yielded pieces such as Basile Barès’s “Polka des chasseurs à pied de la Louisianne,” the only piece known to have had a copyright assigned to an enslaved person, and the only extant copy of any music of Sister Marie-Séraphine Gotay, “La Puertoriqueña.”
Manuscript of Basil Barès, located in the archive of Xavier University in New Orleans
By the beginning of the summer, it was clear that we had more than enough music to publish our violin volumes. Along with Rachel and violin teacher Alison Bengfort, we began the long process of evaluating the difficulty levels of each work so that we know in which of the five volumes to put them. I particularly relished listening to Rachel and Alison play through so much of the music I had exerted such effort to find. It felt like a fitting capstone to a very productive year and gave me great hope that our volumes would resonate with musicians and teachers everywhere.
Canal Street in New Orleans
MBC was fortunate not to have to be in limbo between Managing Editors. Immediately upon my change of roles to Research Advisor, ethnomusicologist and music editor Dr. Megan Hill stepped in to continue the work. Although research is still being done, Dr. Hill’s tasks are more focused on the logistics of obtaining copyright permissions, considering volume layout and writing specific content. Thus, after 18 months we have a vastly expanded repertoire, most of the research completed, and we are moving decisively toward publication within the next year. I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, and I am therefore committed to the betterment of our whole music culture through this project: for the sake of young performers who would benefit from seeing themselves reflected in the music they play, to the teachers who have more means for inspiring students, to the composers themselves who have been unfairly marginalized, to the audience members who are at the cusp of discovering a whole new aspect of classical music they have never known. I am proud of the work I’ve done to advance this cause, and I’m proud to have passed it into such capable hands. I hope you will look through our materials on this site and agree on the importance of our work, lend a hand if you can, and most importantly share all of this wonderful music with everyone, all the time.