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Classical Album of the Week: A Classical Violinist Joyfully Plays the Blues

February 4, 2019. Trained as a classical violinist, Rachel Barton Pine grew up listening to the blues, and one day was thrilled to discover the two genres combined in the sheet music for David Baker’s Deliver My Soul - a 12-bar blues made into a classical work for violin and piano. She made it the first track of her recent album, Blues Dialogues—an album of blues-influenced classical works by 20th- and 21st-century black composers.

Blues Dialogues is just the latest contribution to a project started almost serendipitously over 20 years ago, after Rachel Barton Pine released an 1997 album of violin concertos by Black composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The album sparked so much interest, and so many inquiries from teachers, parents and students about where to find repertoire like this, Rachel started her Black Composers Project, which has now collected over 900 works by more than 350 black composers.

Her new album, Blues Dialogues, with Matthew Hagle on piano, reflects just one aspect of the rich treasure trove of music she’s collected. She talked with WRTI’s Susan Lewis about the album and how it fits into the larger soundscape. 

Portions of the interview:

SL: The album materials describe these selections as “blues-influenced classical works”. How do you define classical music?

RBP: Oh wow. That's the million dollar question, isn't it? If you say, well, it's composed music, with no improvisatory element, well, every once in a while there is, right?

I guess the best answer is you know it when you see it, right? You can't totally explain it, but it's music written with many detailed instructions, as far as articulations, dynamics; mostly written on the page. 

In fact, on this particular album, I don’t do any improv; it's all completely composed.   It's art music that you would hear on a violin recital, only there’s this influence of the blues, which is very much a more indigenous, improvisatory type of style, which is infused in these pieces. And I grew up with both kinds of music in the air, being a native Chicagoan and it’s so fun to find this music that blends both worlds.

I understand this is part of a larger project started back in 1997 when you had an album of violin concertos of black composers of the 18th and 19th century;


And that led to your Black Composers Project where you collected all of these over 900 works by more than 350 black composers from all over [the globe]! With so many choices. How did you select the pieces for this album?

Well, it was really a tribute to my musical roots. People think heavy metal is my second favorite genre of music and they're almost right! But blues is actually the second favorite and heavy metal is third, Scottish, fiddling is fourth, etc.

You know, growing up in Chicago, listening to my parents' old records; going to the Chicago Blues Fest; listening to the radio; sneaking into blues bars when I was a teenager to hear that the bands. It's just something that I've lived with my whole life that I almost considered to be just just like coming home musically. So the fact that this was music that I could perform on my violin that had, that element was just very, very special to me.

And of course, this represents but a fraction of the kinds of voices you find within the wide world of black composers. Much music is just written to be reflective of its time and place, whether it's romantic or contemporary stuff, that might be atonal or minimalist or what have you.

It’s not that all, or even most classical music by black composers is based on other kinds of so-called 'black music.' Certainly you do have music inspired by jazz, inspired by spirituals, inspired by hip hop these days, which is super fun.

But honestly this is only a very narrow slice and not representative of what exists. But it was something that was very close to my heart and that I had the background to know how to interpret. So it was just super fun, really.

So for people who aren't really familiar with the blues, how would you describe the blues? I noticed “Blues dialogues”, the title of the CD comes from perhaps composer Dolores White’s collection of pieces.

Yeah, exactly. Dolores White's work title, I just thought would make the perfect description of the album because it is a dialogue between the blues and classical and, you know, sort of an exploration really. 

PULL OUT QUOTE: People think of the blues as being sad or being protest music and that's also true, but it's also music of celebration, music of overcoming.

And the blues is just something that describes emotion actually. People think of the blues as being sad or being protest music and that's also true, but it's also music of celebration, music of overcoming. And I think it's something that's universally relatable. It's at the roots of so much music, whether you're talking about rock music or country music or other things. I think it's in all of our blood. So I think this is something that is going to be very accessible for both classical fans and non-classical fans. 

And you have some composers that people may be familiar with, but also composers who are not as familiar. 

Composers that people should become familiar with! Exactly!

Probably William Grant still is the most famous composer on the album. He was one of the Great American composers of the 20th century, and as an African American composer, he was the first to have his symphony played by major orchestras. The first to conduct a major orchestra. The first to have his opera staged by major companies. He broke a lot of ground; he is sometimes referred to as the father of African American composers. But his music is absolutely great.

David Baker, of course, is a very, very renowned composer who kind of blended jazz and classical.

And then a lot of these composers you may not have heard of. 

Billy Childs, who wrote a piece for me for this album, just won a Grammy last year and is really becoming quite a sensation. 

Duke Ellington, I'm sure you've heard of. But you may not have heard of Wendell Logan, who transformed, [Ellington's] jazz standard into a beautiful concert piece for violin.  Wendell Logan led the jazz program at Oberlin Conservatory. 

And then we've got Noel da Costa,  who was born in Nigeria to parents of Jamaican descent and then made his career in the USA, so he's alternately refered to as an African composer, an African American composer and a Caribbean composer. Everybody claims him! 

And that was such an interesting case.   I could tell by looking at the manuscript that it was super cool, but the handwriting just wasn't clear enough and the piece was so complicated that I couldn't play it off the page. And so I had to wait all these years to learn it until I could actually sit down and have it engraved -- all the notes entered into the computer so that it was truly legible.   

It turned out to totally be worth it because it was even more awesome than I had guessed.

Well, that's an interesting point. You're bringing up that this is an album of discoveries in many ways. Did you have any particular surprises or thrills that you wanted to share?

Yeah. Well, I love Errollyn Wallen’s Woogie Boogie. She’s a Belise- born composer who lives in the UK, so you'd think that an album of blues would be African American composers, but we've got our European colleagues and that's just a super fun little piece, kind of a deconstruction of of boogie woogie style.

And then Daniel Bernard Roumain, who of course is very well known as both a performer and a composer. His piece blends electronic music on the violin with like a Jimmy Hendrix kind of approach to the blues and he actually has you do all of these sound effects completely acoustically, but they're mimicking the types of things you might get from feedback if you were actually plugged in.

And so that's a really neat kind of extended technique exploration right there.

That's cool. What story do you think this album tells?

I think variety is really the key thing. As I said earlier, you know, it's been a small slice of all the voices that are out there, but even within this narrow concept, there's just so many different approaches to how this music is blended together and just the creativity that's showcased is really inspiring.

Check out more Classical Albums of the Week.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.