How Music Responds on WRTI: A Conversation with Writer Candace Allen

Jul 1, 2020

How does music help us find our identity and also bring people together with different backgrounds? Candace Allen—a contributor to the BBC and The Guardian, and author of Soul Music: The Pulse of Race and Music—shares her thoughts on recent events, and how music can respond, in a conversation with WRTI's Susan Lewis.

An American now living in London, Allen looks at what's taking place in her home country with anguish and hope. "I am not somebody who watches the videos because it's just too much for my heart and psyche to take. But as these things are being recorded, finally there is a groundswell...and also because of this pandemic, people decided that they weren't going to take it anymore."

"I think the most triumphant thing for me was waking up the morning after they had used tear gas to clear Lafayette Park and find out that people had come back the next night, the next evening and larger numbers and more disciplined and organized. And it was like, 'Oh my God, we're not stopping. People are serious.' And as somebody who knows the history, I take a grain of salt and it's a long trajectory, but there is a modicum of hope that people finally are getting it."

Allen grew up in a nearly all-white neighborhood in Stamford, Connecticut in a family of music lovers. Her father, a dentist, was a fan of everything from Gilbert & Sullivan to Toscanini to straight-ahead jazz. Her mother, a psychiatric social worker, loved Broadway songs. Her aunt, Billie Allen, was a theater director, dancer and actor, married to Luther Henderson, an arranger, conductor, and orchestrator who worked with Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers, among others.

As a child, she embraced it all, until she entered her teens. That's when, she says, "I found out I may be American but I'm not really American the way my other friends are. I am Negro, and that's different, and you can't do a lot of things they're doing. And I found my way to Black music of that era - early Motown,things like Mother-in-Law, the Philly Sound, and so forth. It helped me become formed and happy about my identity.

She went to Harvard as an undergraduate during a tumultuous time, when music, she says was part of a religion of revolution and protest. "There's Black music, and there's white music; there's your music and our music. Music helped us understand ourselves, gave us strength. Whereas the first civil rights movement, there was a lot more gospel and spirituals, for this second phase of Black power, we're getting more from jazz." The quintessential jazz piece from her college days? Pharaoh Sanders, The Creator Has a Master Plan

As a young adult, Allen moved to California where she worked for years in the film industry, becoming the first African-American woman to be a member of the Directors Guild of America. It was in California that the 'Black-White dichotomy' in music was shattered for her, as she experienced a lot of other music, including Fado, and Afro-pop.  Visits to the L.A. Philharmonic expanded her appreciation of classical music, from Beethoven to Poulenc.  (Allen was married to British conductor Sir Simon Rattle from 1996 to 2004.) 

"And I find out that there are different ways of interpreting [classical music] ... And it was a revelation, you know, it was communicating body to body, brain to brains. There was something that happened in being in the hall that happened in the, molecules, in the air and in your soul as these waves of music are coming back and forth and understanding that all music has that. And why should we be separated from it, just by racial, ethnic categories? We're only supposed to like this? They're not supposed to like that? "

In subsequent years, in researching her books, Allen traveled to meet with members of ensembles and organizations using music to bridge different cultural traditions: the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the Middle East, the Buskaid String Ensemble in South Africa, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, and the Al Kamandjah music school in Ramallah, among others. 

"I wanted to find out if these young people have the same tug between 'our music' and 'their music' that I certainly did growing up."

"And what I realized is that when people were more on the edge of survival, they didn't care where their joy came from. Whatever fed their soul, whatever sound it came from, it didn't matter.  If it spoke to them, it was fine. ... People, if they were serious about music, either the listening, the performing, or the studying of it, they just had no boundaries."

Allen is now a board member of Chineke!, an orchestra founded in 2015, made up of young black and minority ethnic classical musicians from the UK and Europe. It's an orchestra that nurtured cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who got international recognition when he performed at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle.

We talk about a vision of a time when these groups will not be regarded as rare; when people of color in the 'mainstream' ensembles will not be an exception; when black composers and performers will be included as a matter of course in standard programming, not just highlighted during special months. 

"Put them in the regular concerts. They have been adding to the canon since the 19th century. And certainly now, more and more new composers of color are being trained. Some of them have started as jazz musicians and are now writing operas or music from a classical point of view. It's happening. The talent is, is there, just open it."

And music Allen recommends? In these times when social distancing is important, she suggests smaller works could be looked at.

George Walker: "He has a piece for five horns, music for brass instruments. And there's Five Fancies for Clarinet, and he's done a lot of songs."

Florence Price: "A lot of her smaller pieces and her songs are reworking of spirituals and are really lovely.  

"And I was doing my morning walk last week, and on BBC Radio 3, I was hearing this wonderful piano piece. And afterwards I find out that the composer was Nathaniel Dett, who was a 19th-, early-20th century, African-American composer. Oh my goodness. There's just so much music out there."