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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: Jul 27, 2020

A New Series of Music Videos for Now

The middle term of the main title needs no explanation: you’re reading this in an age of a global pandemic that has no end in sight, an age in which basic human decency and kindness have to be defended, an age in which the humanities and arts, those last bastions of the human spirit, are dismissed as irrelevant to “real life,” an age in which racism, hate, and violence are validated at the highest levels of government.

But the other two terms require more explanation.

The explanation is this: as I write, an international team featuring U.S. bass-baritone Justin Hopkins, South African-born pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers, and multifaceted U.S. tenor Andrew Richards (here serving as videographer and producer) have begun releasing a series of extraordinary music videos titled Songs of Comfort. The series features music and poetry by four great African Americans whose art was, by custom and in some places by law, marginalized or dismissed because of their skin color: Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966), Florence B. Price (1887-1953), Langston Hughes (1902-1967), and Margaret Bonds (1913-72). To these are added Price’s arrangements of African American spirituals as Fannie Carter Woods, the granddaughter of a former slave, sang them, and her arrangements of other spirituals for piano solo, as well as Bonds’s brilliant and stirring settings of Robert Frost’s The Pasture and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – the poem that Frost said was his “best bid for remembrance.”[1]

And that’s where comfort and trauma come in. Words cannot describe the trauma that was inflicted on Price, Hughes, and Bonds because of their race. Nor can words describe the trauma inflicted on the slaves who created the spirituals in this series.

But music can – and does. More, importantly, the musical voices of Price, Hughes, Bonds, and countless of their enslaved ancestors demonstrate the capacity of the arts, specifically music, to transcend that trauma, to magically transform it into utterances that envoice the latent goodness in the human spirit, to bring beauty and joy to the human experience even in difficult and hateful times. That capacity provides yet more evidence of the historical truth that music and the arts generally are where the embattled human spirit goes to take refuge and grow stronger in times of trauma; that the arts are the fertile soil from which goodness, inevitably, will spring forth again.

And of just this, a marvelous contribution to the human spirit has been born. I shared my editions of this music (prepared from the composers’ autographs) with pianist and series co-organizer Jeanne-Minette in 2019. She, Justin, and Andrew took it from there. Here’s what she has to say about how and why the team has willed this endeavor into existence:

. . . I was immediately struck by the profound sincerity of the music of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, and set plans in motion for a commercial recording project. . . . Fast forward to April 2020: a month or so into the global lockdown, the emotional and psychological effects of our new normal hit. Like many of us, I barely saw any reason to practice; performing and collaborating seemed a lifetime away. Yet, on a deeply personal level, I needed comfort, encouragement, renewed faith in the value of our art. I returned to the Bonds and Price scores on my iPad, and was instantaneously transfixed: for 2 entire days I wrapped myself in the welcoming arms of solace and inspiration offered by the works of these two remarkable women. Early May came around, and the lockdowns gradually started to ease. The moment interactions with a limited social circle were allowed, I called dear friend, collaborator and fellow Antwerp resident, bass-baritone Justin Hopkins. Like me, Justin had seen no reason to make music since mid-March, but was at least curious enough to say, “okay, play through these songs for me, let’s see.” He was the first visitor to grace our home for months, and sat (masked, of course!) on my couch while I sang and played through several songs. The mask emphasized the transformation in his eyes: his expression rapidly morphed from drawn and ambivalent to inspired, excited, deeply moved.

The decision to start recording was entirely based on the desire of both Justin and me to find an avenue through which we could share these embers of hope and encouragement with our suffering communities. Both Price and Bonds both were confined by the combination of their sex and race, yet these works soar beyond any confinement. The song texts vary greatly: from the pastoral innocence of Robert Frost to the politically loaded Langston Hughes. The latter resonated deeply and in a timely fashion with the protests in the U.S. following the harrowing cases of police brutality and the powerful #BlackLivesMatter movement. We felt that we stopped being the initiators of this project: it became something we were steered to, and the project – really life itself – was leading us. We were joined in the recording process by my amazing husband, Andrew Richards, as our sound engineer and videographer. Also Andrew quickly fell under the spell of these works: the texts and music guided every moment of filming in the most profound and moving way.

We plan to release the results of this magical time with regularity in the coming weeks. We have recorded 10 songs and 5 piano works--the latter including some multi-movement pieces. Our world is unlikely to return to normal in the foreseeable future: unrest continues to simmer and surge internationally, suffering has increased manifold, futures are uncertain. History has, of course, seen such periods before, with different causes. Immersed in the works on Price and Bonds, we found hope: I personally feel that few composers can equal the sheer vulnerability and sincerity of these pieces. Neither of these two women hid any part of themselves: the scores are sometimes fragile, sometimes a sledgehammer; sometimes utterly feminine and gentle, yet iron willed. The writing ranges from complex and challenging to vulnerable simplicity, all without a trace of self-consciousness or apology. The music called us as performers to embrace our most profound selves, and allow it to be seen and exposed. Rather than being daunting and scary, this allowed us to find an enveloping serenity and hope in our current days.

Thus we call this series “Songs of Comfort,” which we will release into the world with the hope that it will bring to each listener exactly what is needed today.

So there you have it. If in these strange and frightening days you’re one of the countless people whose spirit needs “embers of hope and encouragement” given voice in music that is at once vulnerable and sincere, iron-willed and like a sledgehammer; if you’re interested in participating in the un-silencing of artistic voices (especially the voices of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds) that have been wrongly marginalized because of our world’s resolute turning a blind eye to beauty and greatness because it didn’t like the skin color of people who brought them into the world; and especially if you want a beautiful reaffirmation of what the arts can bring to a world too oft bereft of beauty and goodness, comfort and hope – then you’ll love these videos.

This week’s installments in the series: Justin and Jeanne-Minette perform Florence Price’s setting of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s The Heart of a Woman (recently re-published in my edition by G. Schirmer, with a brief commentary here) and Margaret Bonds’s setting of the heartwarming gospel song When the Dove Enters In (soon to be published by Hildegard Publishing Company). Here is a link to the #SongsofComfort playlist, and here are Justin and Jeanne-Minette with The Heart of a Woman:

Check them out. You will definitely be glad you did.

[1] All of the Price editions mentioned here have already been published by G. Schirmer (New York), which acquired the international rights to Price’s complete catalog in 2018. The works of Margaret Bonds are to be published in 2020-2021 by Hildegard Publishing Company (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania). All works in this series are done using my source-critical editions.

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