What is Black Song?

That is the question Louise Toppin posed in her recital with collaborator John O’Brien at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Audience members were also given the opportunity to respond to this question themselves in a survey provided by Toppin, but after hearing her recital featuring various songs from the African Diaspora, I am still not sure I have a definitive answer myself. Perhaps it is not a question that should have a definitive answer.

When I entered Watson Hall at UNCSA, I was greeted by a music stand near the piano stacked with books. I expected this to be the music Toppin would be performing from, but instead it was the music she has had published as part of the African Diaspora Music Project (ADMP) which now contains 4,000 songs by composers of African descent. Before Toppin even sang one note I was immediately drawn in by her immense knowledge of the background of the music she would be performing, offering personal anecdotes of her experiences interacting with some of the composers. I am accustomed to performers simply walking onstage, bowing, and beginning their performance. This introduction by Toppin, however, made the music personal not only to herself but the audience as well.

It is hard not to feel a personal connection with this music, though, as the songs are written in English, telling stories that are distinctly American. That is what separates them from typical art songs by Schubert or Brahms or yet another cut-and-paste performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Too often, American composers – especially American female composers or composers of color – are set aside because their style is not European enough, and that is even the case right here in the U.S. I had only even heard of one composer on Toppin’s program that included the likes of Henry Thacker Burleigh, Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, Rosephanye Powell, Persis Vehar (the only non-African American composer), Maria Corley, and Adolphus Hailstork. That is why Toppin and the ADMP’s work is so important.

Toppin’s performance itself was breathtaking, literally. I keep going back to one moment in the recital during Moore’s “Watch and Pray,” a spiritual that tells the story of a young slave on auction day asking their mother if this is the day they will be sold. The song ends with a final, climactic plea from the child, telling their mother not to grieve after them once they are gone. There are moments in music when all you can do is sit there with your eyes closed, letting your hair stand on end until the next note is played. This was one of those moments, and there would be more to follow throughout the program. From there, Toppin moved right into Moore’s “Set Down” which is another spiritual but one that tells the story of a servant who is so happy they cannot “set down.” This juxtaposition of joy and solemnity was heard from top to bottom of the program, from Burleigh to Hailstork to Bonds, but each emotion was portrayed beautifully by Toppin and O’Brien.

I would be remiss if I did not praise O’Brien’s playing as well. Collaborative pianists always face the struggle of making themselves heard but not overpowering their partner, and O’Brien played his role masterfully. The piano sounded as if it was one with Toppin’s voice making his soloistic moments in instrumental interludes even more special. There were also numerous “jazzy” sections that were handled in the correct way, instead of slipping into something too classical-sounding for the character of the music being played. O’Brien had several moments of his own where I closed my eyes and listened to his chords ring through the air after he stopped playing. Even when unresolved chords rang out at the end of certain songs or phrases it was still moving. The stories these songs tell are not always comfortable, and for Toppin and O’Brien to be able to fully commit to that discomfort through dissonance is especially admirable.

What is Black Song? Black Song is joyous. Black Song is somber. Black Song tells uncomfortable stories. Black Song can make you feel at peace. Black Song has a lot to tell the world, it just needs the right storytellers. Louise Toppin and John O’Brien have done a wonderful job at starting that process.