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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper

COMPOSING FREEDOM:

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

On Performers’ and Listeners’ Rediscovery of Florence Price’s Clouds (ca. 1947)


LIKE ABOUT THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY of the more than three hundred and seventy pieces that Florence B. Price (1887-1953) is known to have composed, Clouds is neither discussed nor even mentioned in any of the currently available writings that are fueling the ongoing Florence Price renaissance – not even in the authoritative life-and-works study written by Dr. Rae Linda Brown, edited by Guthrie P. Ramsey jr., and published in June 2020 by the University of Illinois Press. I published Clouds with G. Schirmer in January 2020, and in that same month tireless Price champion Lara Downes released the world-premiere recording, charting the way for future interpreters and listeners. The piece has since taken on a life of its own in further performances – about which more anon. But for now, let me just say a few words about it.


FIRST: Clouds is a five-minute masterpiece. Not long after Lara’s recording came out, a social-media acquaintance shared that after hearing it on the radio her mother exclaimed “Why in the world is this piece not in every pianist’s repertoire?!” Indeed, of all the forty-three Price editions I released with Schirmer last year, Clouds is probably the one that surprises and fascinates me most. That’s partly because I find its continued obscurity baffling, but mostly because of its musical content – for aside from a few gapped scales, Clouds includes no overt references to Price’s Black heritage. Instead, its moody, gorgeously evocative, and unceasingly imaginative music includes everything from wispy impressionism through a Romantic idiom redolent of Robert or Clara Schumann, to a tempestuous section that some performers say reminds them of Scriabin or Rachmaninoff, along with other material that I personally can’t imagine coming from anyone but Price herself. These disparate stylistic impulses are brought together in a seemingly spontaneous, but also deeply methodical, rondo-like form.


And then it hit me. In literature, in the visual arts, and in music, clouds are the ultimate symbol of something that was profoundly lacking in Price’s own life and her own world, and in our own: FREEDOM. They represent complete freedom of movement, of mood, of shape and form and color and everything else.


Freedom. As a woman, Price was expected to write “small forms” and slight, intimate pieces, and – as her dealings with (male) publishers and conductors vividly attest – when she did not conform to that expectation she was either rejected or ignored. And as a Black, she was expected to compose dances and spirituals, perhaps jazz and blues (although these were regarded as dangerous in White society). In these realms, writing on terms that were dictated by the same racist White society that worked relentlessly to oppress and dehumanize Blacks, she could gain a measure of acceptance and recognition from White society. But – again, as her dealings with publishers and conductors show – when she expressed her creative imagination in other terms, including idioms that were historically the province of White men, she was ignored or rejected.


And the same is true of movement: Clouds was written by a composer who had to enter buildings through specified doors, who had to view movies from the balcony, who had to live in certain neighborhoods – and this was true not only of her native Arkansas, with its Black Codes and Jim Crow society, but also of her adopted hometown of Chicago.[1]


Worse, White society’s segregation of the musical imagination of Florence Price also restricted her ability to express herself authentically to other Blacks – for neither the small but determined community of Black musicians who kept her name and her memory alive during the decades of White music historiography’s virtual erasure of her presence from musical life nor the current community of Price scholars and aficionados ever knew Clouds, ever heard it, studied, performed it. As noted above, it’s completely absent from every discussion of Price’s life and works published to date: the Price renaissance itself is complicit in perpetuating Price’s erasure.


But in Clouds, Price made good on the titular symbolism. In Clouds, she expressed her musical imagination with a freedom that denied every fetter that her racist and sexist world would impose on her imagination. In Clouds, she did not compose about freedom. Rather, she composed freedom. I know of no other musical composition that I can describe that way. It’s remarkable.


SECOND: Now that it’s available, performers are picking up Clouds and loving it, and so are listeners: Price’s musical freedom is beginning to escape the shackles of neglect that attended its encasement in the archives for nearly eighty years after Price wrote it. Lara’s recording and its YouTube counterpart have gathered tens of thousands of hits, and a YouTube video of a livestream performance she gave for The Boulanger Initiative last summer is immensely popular. And now, even in the cataclysm of COVID-19 shutdowns, musicians are taking it up – finding solace and joy, apparently, in Price’s musical envoicing of freedom. Just a few that I’ve happened upon in the last few months:


· September 1, 2020: Dr. Phoenix Park-Kim (Professor of Music, Indiana Wesleyan University):

· October 3, 2020: Dr. Pei-I Wang (Adjunct Faculty, Millikin University):



· October 30, 2020: Craig Jordan (Graduate School of the Frost School of Music, University of Miami) :



November 11, 2020: Madeleine Gaudette (Master of Music program in Piano Performance and Pedagogy at Memorial University of Newfoundland) (excerpt):


After seven decades of silence, tens of thousands of hits for one recording and (at least) four new performances in four months.I personally love it that these performances come from academic and teaching contexts – not least because Price was herself a career-long piano teacher, but also because this means that this music is being taught – a potent way of ensuring that it retains its belated and hard-won presence in musical life. Equally important, though, is that these interpretations vary widely – because that freedom from interpretive orthodoxy is, after all, freedom. And that, musically, is what Clouds is.


Freedom and Florence Price


Price’s freedom, too, was limited and hard won: both autographs for Clouds are heavily revised and worked over, demonstrating that Price toiled mightily in envoicing freedom in this masterpiece. We need to acknowledge that she was, as Elizabeth de Brito has recently argued, not exceptional in this regard, but typical – for as a Black and a woman in a profoundly racist and sexist world, she was physically constrained in ways that clouds are not. When she chose, in Clouds, to compose freedom, she chose to break those restraints, to give unfettered freedom to her creative imagination in ways that challenged others’ expectations and joy and beauty, spontaneity and depth to others’ lives through her music.


And power – for even though they’re floating, visible masses of condensed water propelled by winds, clouds are also powerful: whatever their variety, they bring the elements to our earth, block or surround the sun and moon, temper our feelings and moods.


I chose to write this post today because it has been exactly a week since the United States, already savaged by a pandemic only reluctantly acknowledged by the Resident and his enablers, was attacked from within in the most dangerous armed domestic uprising since the Civil War or, before that, Shays’ Rebellion – an uprising that aimed to overturn the results of the first free and fair election, untainted by foreign interference, that this country has had since 2012. It’s an easy altruism to call that insurrection a threat to freedom, but it’s also misleading – for those who cleaned up the mess left by the White supremacist terrorists were, overwhelmingly or perhaps entirely, people of color:


Blacks’ freedom, it would seem, still consists in the freedom to clean up Whites’ mess, and to be rejected or ignored when they demand the equal protection under the laws that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed them. It is up to today's world to bring justice and freedom to those who, today as in Price's own time, cleaned up after White society's intransigent abuses of its own freedom.


That, I think, is Florence Price was envoicing when she composed freedom in Clouds.

[1]I was recently reminded of this well-known fact when, in a different context, I happened upon Richard Wright’s 1941 photodocumentary 12 Million Black Voices (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

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