Soprano Dr. Louise Toppin and her long-time collaborative pianist, Dr. John O’Brien were welcomed by an appreciative audience to the Nelson Music Room on the East Campus of Duke University, performing the premiere of ”Double Consciousness: Perspectives on Composition in Black Music and Poetry.”

This event was NOT a mere concert – it was the fruit of a seminar between Duke graduate literati and composers whose subject of inquiry and the subsequent investigations and collaborations, resulted in a program of art song settings.

This review must begin with a humble and honest collegial confession: Toppin is a longtime friend, a colleague and musical collaborator with the author. We have shared concert stage and classroom more times than accurate count can be kept over the past three decades. Toppin has championed the African American art song tradition, premiered dozens of new works nationally and internationally, giving them to the world of concert music in profound ways and means. Amid a year of pandemic nonetheless, she has spearheaded and brought the commercial publications of complete collections of art songs by Margaret Bonds and Adolphus Hailstork to near-complete fruition. While Toppin maintains highly sustained notoriety and collegial respect throughout the Triangle area, the collaboration of poets and composers occupied the lion’s share of this program – an exhilarating and daunting endeavor.

Consequently, this writer’s discussion of the song cycles will focus less upon the musical effects of the settings, and more upon the effects of poetic imagery reflected in the musical settings and floating (temporarily) before the assembled audience. The poets who developed the material for musical settings: Damilare Bello, Professor Tsitsi Ella Jaji, Crystal Simone Smith and Tanatsei Gambura. The composers who collaborated with responsive musical settings: Chris Williams, Professor Stephen Jaffe, Ethan Foote and Brittany Green.

Williams’ “Grasping Blank,” a three-part song cycle by Bello, opened the program. The poems included in the cycle: “the crises of this present, remembered,” “18 syllables,” and “an invitation to imagine.” The imagery of all three poems draws the listener in a variety of emotional directions, from “public health hostage status” of pandemic in 2020 to the mantra-like spoken-word limitations (“the present is lesson in 18 syllables”) and the broad expanse of sincerity captured in nature’s bounty (“a sheet of rain mapped out in crochets”). The effects of “rhythmic speech” are not to be missed, but the veiled repetition of the closing adverbs of the closing poem (“ceaselessly, furiously, endlessly”) recall a memorable early moment from the Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7 by Anton Webern. (Certainly, such musical word painting occurs elsewhere, but its interest is not lost on this writer.)

Jaji’s “Ritual Object” is inspired by the sculpture of Willie Cole. She provided the following note on the sculpture and the poem: “Ironing is a morning ritual that is especially important to the black communities I belong to, where looking polished is a matter of pride and pleasure. This poem was inspired by the delicious memory of the crisp smell of starch and steam. And by the wonderful artwork of Willie Cole, who has used the iron as an art medium, sometimes burning prints into fabric with an iron’s head that evoke the shape of a slaver’s ship. The iron, like any ritual object, has the power to transform such elements as water, fire, metal, air into a multitude of meanings, each one as malleable as folded cloth.”

Toppin was joined by composer and pianist Stephen Jaffe for “Ritual Object.” The work attempts to convert both the artwork of Cole and Jaji (Jaffe’s co-collaborator on the work) into “sculpted sound.” The piano sound is converted from mere keyboard idiom to transformative sound palette via its variegated capabilities, from the dampened hammer effect to the “bell effect.” The harmonic language of Olivier Messiaen can be heard given transformative treatment through occasional blues interpolations assigned to the uppermost octaves of the piano. This transformed expression attempts to give sonic meaning to the image of the iron “as ritual object,” whether formed as the result of finitely transformed physical elements…or the result of infinitely transformed human experiences.

Toppin’s greatest challenge in this art song lay in the placement of so many interesting words of text on such high pitches in her tessitura. Some places in the song revealed the difficulties of the voice in negotiating the word of the text and the pitch chosen for the voice to sing. One should never doubt Toppin’s ability to nail the notes written, but “an eyebrow could be raised” when one struggles to understand the sung text that occurs when notes are placed high in the tessitura. Such a matter is compositionally technical, residing with the composer’s setting; the higher the setting (right down to the vowel, the consonant or diphthong!!), the more difficult it is to sing and for the audience to hear and understand, both in a textual and musical context.

Foote’s setting of “Chronicling Light” by Smith grapples with two thought-provoking details expressed in text: the listed calendar reference to “July 2020,” and the opening lines of the poem: “the sun lifts no matter the day, it lifts its light no matter the hospital room, no matter the morning sea, light returns no matter the street or beating…”

A brief parse of a few chronicled events provide a stark reminder of how dire conditions were locally, nationally and internationally amid the pandemic and crisis of social justice in America. This poem makes all too veiled reference to the emotional tenor of the times of last year, where national Covid-19 statistics of India surpassed Russia, protests in Serbia turned violent over the announcement of a weekend government shutdown, and Brazilian president Bolsonaro tested positive for Covid-19. Although President Trump would test Covid-19 positive three months later, political rancor continued nationwide throughout July over the White House response to Black Lives Matter protests and Covid-19 anti-masking protests. Representative John Lewis passed away. To make matters any more ridiculous, amid the pandemic the Trump administration announced its intention to leave the World Health Organization (WHO).

The musical setting of this poem focused on a sonic equivalent of the rays of sunlight that lift, illuminate, and return – even against the horrific, near-maddening context of July 2020. The technical demands made on the voice were considerably contrastive to those in the Jaffe setting. The setting of “sun,” “lift,” and “light” were quite attractive as text painting which always has an endearing effect between the text and music. The setting occasionally recalls the eclectic body of songs composed by Charles Ives.

Gambura’s poem “Death and Dreaming in My Language” is drawn from a larger work Things I have forgotten before. It depicts the strangest experience of witnessing death of a sibling within a dream. However, the fact gradually unfolds “within dream” that the death witnessed is that of a sibling (“my brother”) becomes that of one’s own child. References to place (Harare, Zimbabwe), language, and local funerary practice intensify this strange macabre duality, the haunt of dreams and terror of inescapable grief.

Williams’ setting involves ethereal soundscapes, utilizing the upper octaves of the piano to provide a striking contrast to the strange and violently confrontational imagery “within dream.” Song is described in the text of the poem as the equivalent of “home,” even amid this strange experience “trapped in dream” via the closing phrase: “maybe home is a dirge invoked by dreaming, an elegy for those we can’t afford to lose”.

Composer Brittany Green used the traditional spiritual “Hold On” for her work “Words for Our People.” This work draws from a multiplicity of interweaving styles and expressions connected to the African American vocal tradition and aesthetic. Spoken word “takes equal stage” as song with a surprise component: the interpolation of a quotation from another spiritual song, possibly a recalled field holler or sermon drawn from the ex-slave narrative of Phoebe Boyd, collected by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the Library of Congress in 1935 (Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories).

The piano accompaniment is angular and punctuated as the song, which alternates between singing and pointed declamation. The song includes some of the most lyrical and rhythmic “testifyin'” to be included among the current generation on composers’ contribution to African American sacred art song repertoire. This setting calls upon the rhythms of ring shout, chant and Cuban son…for the voice with hand clapping, not just the piano accompaniment.

The additional narrative that includes inferences to several other spirituals, as can be seen in the following lines: “Our people got to do right in the sight of God. He knows all about us, God knows what people say. Way down in me, by and by, I want to hear the first trumpet when it blows that morning. He gave us the commandments, gave us Christ, Christ went down Jerusalem. Saved a wretch like me, gave me strength to hold that gospel plow, and make it to the Promised Land.” How fitting that the song ends on a high E-flat for the soprano!

The program’s final set included a pair of art songs from Hailstork: “Autumn Fires” and “Merry Autumn” from Two Moods of Autumn based on texts of Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Laurence Dunbar. These were followed by Rosephanye Powell‘s “Healing” from the cycle Here and Now, Persis Vehar‘s short but powerful “The Message from the Ones” from In the world we leave our children, and concluded with “You have given dust yet expect gem stones” from For Terry by Maria Thompson Corley.

Hailstork has the charming tendency of dashing off musical delicacies just for Toppin, who along with O’Brien, has completed a recording of the complete art songs of Hailstork.* I have the feeling that Hailstork is nowhere near finished composing for her!! While she and O’Brien were recording, she received an additional song from him! Beethoven was right when he once said that “Bach composed great music like an apple tree bears apples.” The same can be said of Hailstork!

The Stevenson setting is the shorter of the two, and yet both have a joyous sense of appreciation for the bright exploding colors marking the change of season. The Dunbar verse waxes both Biblical and sermonic in the longer setting, resembling that of a preacher expounding (with consistent rhyme and rhythm) upon the 104th Psalm.

Hailstork shows his irresistible “text painted sense of humor” at the words “Don’t talk to me” by inserting a break of intended silence – to break up the poetic line to make a dramatic musical point. The closing of the setting also includes more “ingenious jesting with art” by cloaking the last words of the poem (“the earth is just so full of fun”) with an odd Lydian modal inflection left glancing our ears, the composer bestowing his own enjoyment of the text upon the performers and audience.

On this program the shortest songs of the evening packed the most powerful and enduring messages. “Healing” by Powell is a simple return to the spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead;” the familiar word “sin-sick” is replaced by the words “wounded” and “troubled.” An old song text is given a new melody, and its effect upon an audience carries with it beauty and comfort within supplication.

Vehar is one of numerous living composers Toppin and Lister commissioned for The New Generation Project: Contemporizing the African-American Art Song and Arranged Negro Spiritual in 2014. “The Message from the Ones” states the following in its text: “In the world we leave our children The Patience of the Universe is not without an end so it might slowly walk away leaving you alone in the world you leave your children…” This text speaks both haunting proverb and prophecy within its lines, a run-on sentence that neither needs neither commas nor semicolons.

Near the end of the program Toppin spoke briefly about the discovered family parallelism between Corley and herself. Both women lost older brothers during their adolescent years; Corley’s brother Terry is conferred literary honor in this poem, laced with brotherly sarcasm and pungently eloquent humor. Perhaps Corely got her “sisterly payback” in this setting and Toppin sang a similar humor to Edgar Toppin Jr., but both women extended artistic and familial tribute to their brothers.

The audience was given as beneficial an understanding of the music as can be hoped, given the unique and probing nature of the subject of the seminar (and the title of the recital), its diverse settings of word and music (performed with minimal rehearsal opportunity), and the discussions among the poets and composers between the three parts of the program. The degree of “audience maturity” called upon for this program were easily met by the community of shared interests: the Duke University Department of Music, friends and colleagues from around the Triangle. A good time was had by all!

*Toppin’s recording, Songs of Love and Justice, Vol. I of songs by Adolphus Hailstork was released September 1, 2021 on Albany Records. Clink on the link to find out more.