CSO Institute Visits the CBMR
In mid-March an enthusiastic and curious group of staff from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Institute for Learning, Access, and Training visited the CBMR for a tour and informal Q&A session. After introductions and a brief summary of the CBMR’s history and mission, Librarian Janet Harper presented her “Milestones of Black Music” display and stories with the intent to correct and fill in what are often misunderstandings or gaps in general knowledge about the depth and breadth of black music throughout history and the diaspora. The CSO Institute’s staff were surprised and intrigued to hear from Deputy Director Morris Phibbs about Vicente Lusitano, who was active in the mid-sixteenth century as a composer, teacher, musician, and music theorist in Portugal, Italy, and eventually in Germany. Though they were familiar with white mensural notation and the choral part-book format, they had not known of Lusitano’s work or of his particular importance and stature as the earliest known published black composer, whose musical style was so similar to other more often studied composers of his generation.
One Institute staff member, who had just contributed an entry about the CBMR’s collection of Melba Liston scores to the Chicago Symphony’s “Sounds and Stories” blog, was particularly interested to see music manuscripts in the composer’s own hand (see their blog post). The visitors were also shown scores of orchestral music in the CBMR collections, including Florence B. Price’s Concerto in One Movement, which was reconstructed by the CBMR and performed by its New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, and scores by Irene Britton Smith, a Chicago composer who admired Price and who served as a CSO docent later in her life.
Early original artifacts in the holdings were also popular with the visitors. They enjoyed touching history in the form of an old volume of songs from the Civil War, which included the story of the “Song of the Contrabands” (also known as “Go Down Moses”). They also appreciated early sound recording formats such as the wax cylinder.
Gianpaolo Chiriacó, a CBMR resident fellow from Italy, talked about the ideas and research he has done on black vocality and played a clip from a concert by experimental vocalist Mankwe Ndosi which demonstrated how contemporary African-American vocal practices are connected to musical traditions from here and in Africa.
Madeleine Walsh, Associate Director for Institute Programs, provided comments about specific highlights of their visit:
- A photograph of the cast of the 1942 production by the Chicago Negro Opera Guild (a unit of the Negro National Opera Company) of La Traviata elicited her response “To think that they were touring across the country, even while there was no resident opera company in Chicago, speaks to the important cultural resource that the ensemble represented.”
- Learning the origins of the terms “race records” and “R&B.”
- Seeing sheet music that included addresses in the Bronzeville neighborhood inspired thoughts about Chicago’s history, the incredible contributions of black Chicagoans to the cultural presence of the city, and Chicago’s ongoing struggles with race and geography.
- About Vicente Lusitano, she commented “I had no idea that a man of African descent was publishing music in Western classical traditions as early as the sixteenth century.”
- And speaking on behalf of the entire tour group, Walsh wrote “I have so much respect and excitement for the way that the Center promotes active use of its resources for contemporary creative endeavors, from documentary filmmakers to musicians seeking to perform music in the Center’s collection. And I was impressed by how the incredible breadth and depth of the Center’s work and collection—across genres, history, and geography, and offering both public programming and peer-reviewed, published scholarship—make it a rich and valuable resource to a wide variety of scholars, artists, students, and members of the general public.
The CSO group, which included Katy Clusen, Alyssa Crance, James Hall, and Madeleine Walsh, was unanimously impressed by the Center and the scope and size of the holdings in its Library and Archives, and commented on the CBMR staff’s passion and knowledge about black music. The group expressed its hope to return and to spend more time with CBMR staff and its collections and to do further investigations on their own.