April 08, 2021


Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers. Will Liverman, baritone; Paul Sánchez, piano. Cedille. $16.

Semir “Sammy” Hasić: No More War. Navona. $14.99.

     Asking “why write music?” is very different from asking “why listen to music?” Composers create for all sorts of reasons, from internal drive to external reality (commissions) to financial pressures to obligations of all sorts. Should there also be obligations to listen to music? Some people certainly think so: that thinking lies behind many releases of music by, for example, women composers and members of other under-represented groups. Certainly some people will come to music that they “should” hear because they will feel they are doing something obligatory. And certainly some supporters of the “under-represented” will tell listeners that they should not only listen but also accept and support music because of who or what its creators are or were. And if that music does not bring pleasure or speak to listeners, the argument goes, there must be something wrong with the listeners, who must have some sort of unconscious bias, lack of understanding, etc. In fact, these disputes are analogous to those about contemporary music of all sorts, electronic music of all types, even twelve-tone music and music created using nontraditional systems (say, the works of John Cage or Harry Partch). This sort of extramusical argument is essentially a sociopolitical one that attempts to use societal pressure and induced guilt to “make” audience members pay attention to composers and works that they might otherwise not listen to, much less enjoy. But enjoyment is, of course, a subjective experience, and implying (or stating directly) that someone should enjoy this or that piece or composer is a form of psychological dictatorship, whether the “should” applies to aleatoric music or Wagner’s music dramas.

     So the “why listen?” question looms large as regards new releases on the Cedille and Navona labels. Dreams of a New Day is specifically intended to bring black composers to listeners’ attention – although the question of whether this music “sounds black” and, if so, deserves to be heard on that basis, is at best an open one. It is safe to say that the main attraction of this disc for most listeners will likely be the chance to hear unfamiliar music (never mind the skin color of the composers) in strongly committed performances by Will Liverman, a baritone with a fine operatic voice, who receives excellent piano accompaniment from Paul Sánchez. The songs themselves come from many time periods and vary widely in their approach and the extent to which they are overt advocates of some concept or other. I Dream a World by Damien Sneed (born 1979) is thoroughly modern in its focus on social issues and its eventual lack of resolution. Five Songs of Laurence Hope by Henry Burleigh (1866-1949) impressively mingle the style of spirituals with that of songs for the concert hall – and are strongly emotive and evocative, using the words of a mentally troubled female poet who wrote under a male name and lived in several regions of the world. Amazing Grace by Leslie Adams (born 1932) is a somewhat declamatory version of the words to the famous spiritual-like song. Three Dream Portraits by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) use words by Langston Hughes as a specific celebration of African-American pride, and remain effective even though their sentiments now sound somewhat naïve. Riding to Town by Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) has naïveté of its own, plus a rhythm reflective of the notion of the ride being described. Two Black Churches by Shawn E. Okpebholo (born 1981) is another strongly sociopolitical work, its focus being on church bombings in 1963 and 2015, respectively, and its treatment (especially of the earlier, Birmingham bombing) spun out at considerable length. Mortal Storm by Robert Owens (1925-2017) is a set of five songs that are collectively only as long as Okpebholo’s single one about Birmingham – with Owens using his cycle to explore societal darkness and its dehumanizing effects from several angles and with considerable intensity. The CD ends with Birmingham Sunday by Richard Fariña (1937-1966), arranged by Liverman – yet another work focusing on the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, in this case taking a Scottish folk tune and modifying its warmth and simplicity to produce a level of irony that heightens the sense of tragedy. Liverman and Sánchez produce strongly committed performances of all the songs, and Liverman’s elegant tone is used to good effect to highlight the various ups and downs – more downs than ups – in the words and music. So, to whom is the CD addressed? If it is intended to engage only African-American listeners, then there is plenty offered here in terms of regret, troubles of the past, and hope for the future (albeit somewhat less of that). If, however, the idea is to reach out to a wider audience –  African-Americans make up only about one-eighth of the U.S. population – then the most-effective works will be the ones that proclaim a commonality of experience and that reach (as Burleigh’s songs do) beyond events focused on skin color to discern an underlying humanity, however troubled it may be, that is quite literally more than skin deep.

     Racial matters are also present, although not as the sole focus, in Semir “Sammy” Hasić’s musical advocacy disc with the overall title of No More War. Hasić (born 1964) is an accordionist, and he performs on the CD as well as serving as composer, arranger and producer. The disc is experiential rather than strictly musical – or, to put it slightly differently, it offers music and other aural material in the service of a cause. Hasić’s specific focus is one that will be obscure to most Americans: the 1991 Battle of Vukovar in eastern Croatia. Hasić, however, seeks universality from this specific event. He uses it as the basis for a plea that is scarcely original with him: to end the constant cycle of war and violence that seems to define human interaction so distressingly frequently. To make his point, Hasić starts the first piece on the disc, War Rhapsody, with the sorts of playful, nature-oriented sounds that are all too typical of films and other media in which similar antiwar messages are conveyed. Then, inevitably, there are the sounds of war machines – helicopters and tanks – disturbing the tranquility and upending the supposedly idyllic life that people apparently had before the battle. Hasić interweaves actual music with the soundscape, using themes to accentuate feelings of terror, loss, brief optimism, fear, and emptiness – the last being especially clear at the work’s end, when the accordion sounds mournfully, pretty much on its own. Similar techniques pervade the entire disc, but the specific elements differ from piece to piece. Thus, Waltz for Orphans intends to depict two orphaned children left only with each other. My Country raises questions about the reasons for conflict and the suffering it brings. Racial issues show up in Say No to Racism, which moves from an irregular rhythm to a regular one, as if trying to evolve beyond racial conflict.  My Tears is suitably dark and melancholy. Scheherazade 1001 Nights fits rather oddly here: it is a four-minute encapsulation of the famous story of the king who killed each of his wives after one night, until one of them kept him so entertained by stories that she overcame his violent nature. Stranger is intended to evoke common experience: all people have been strangers somewhere, at some time. Tornado is mostly the sound of airplanes and is intended to be uplifting. Migrants integrates sounds, presumably those of a dangerous journey from war, with multiple forms of ethnic music. Improvisation for Freedom is indeed an improvisation, intended to symbolize the notion of the world never quite figuring out how to stop the cycle of war and violence. That is the logical ending of Hasić’s sequence, but there is a final track on the CD – one of complete silence, in the vein of John Cage’s famous 4’33”. Hasić calls this concluding piece (or non-piece) COVID 19 and says it pays tribute to victims of the disease – although the connection with the rest of No More War is tenuous at best. As with the CD featuring songs by African-American composers, the question here is who is the hoped-for audience. Certainly Hasić’s intentions are unexceptionable, but they are also common to the point of triteness. So too are many of his means of expressing his concerns: the intermingling of sound with the combination of themes, harmonies and rhythms that we call music is nothing new, and none of the commingling is done in any especially innovative way. Hasić plays the accordion quite well and makes its sound central to virtually everything on the disc, and he also writes with some skill for a chamber group that includes violin, flute, oboe, trumpet, trombone, percussion and piano – and, separately, for a string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, bass). The well-intentioned material here is not, in the final analysis, especially compelling as a musical experience or particularly engaging as a multimedia one. It seeks to reach out to people who find war and violence disturbing – certainly a very large audience – but it limits itself by failing to provide anything significant that audience members will not have been exposed to many times already.

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