The challenge of presenting 'African American music': First, define it.

 
September 21, 2016
I often hear that music is like a museum. This is meant as a criticism, implying that it is devoted to displaying old things in a relatively static way. Music, though, should be so lucky, since museums today are dynamic, interactive, varied, state-of-the-art temples to understanding more about our art, our world, our history and our lives. If you doubt this, take a look at the excitement surrounding the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture this weekend. And rather than criticizing music for its supposedly muséal qualities, we should examine how museums can present music.

Many of them do. In Washington, there are auditoriums in most of the Smithsonian museums. You can hear concerts in the music room at the Phillips Collection or at the diminutive and distinctive Kreeger Museum. And the new African American Museum has the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater, on the uppermost underground concourse of its warm, tiered building, which will present several events a month.

Every museum that presents music is faced with the challenge of coming up with programming that will complement or dovetail with its identity. Some museums present music that relates to their collections: The concerts at the Freer/Sackler galleries feature Asian artists and compositions. Some museums present resident ensembles, such as the 21st Century Consort at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's McEvoy Auditorium. Some run an independent concert series that occasionally features concerts relating to a current exhibition, like at the National Gallery of Art or the Phillips Collection. The two main shows at the Phillips this fall, one of Jacob Lawrence's "Migration" series and one of the artist Whitfield Lovell, will be marked with concerts of music by African American performers and composers, including a season-opening recital with the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves on Sunday.

But when it comes to musical performance, the African American Museum's tacit mandate is to spotlight all of African American music -- which is like trying to put a frame around a living person and call it a portrait. It's tough to pick "African American" music out of the fabric of American musical history, of which it is an essential, even dominant part. Concerts at the Winfrey Theater could conceivably range from opera to hip-hop, jazz to country, R&B to classical. Of course the museum won't have the resources to present some of the greatest luminaries of the field -- the megastars like Beyoncé; it's hard to find a balance between household names and the less familiar figures of African American music history.

"I'm dealing with things by genre," says Dwandalyn Reece, the museum's curator of music. "Also thematically. That's a way to get at some of these stories so they're all on the same playing field, whether you're a famous musician or someone making music at home."

There's an additional challenge, as well: At this museum, music is an artifact as much as an art. Exhibits include Marian Anderson's dress, George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership and sheet music to songs titled "Slavery Days" or "A Bundle of Rags": important cultural relics that are only secondarily, if at all, objects of aesthetic analysis, much less performance.

Reece is eager to establish cultural connections to help museum-goers look beyond individual stars.

"I'd like to provide a three-dimensional view of the story," she says, a presentation that will not only "emphasize fame and achievement but look at the artists, music, society as part of the story that contribute to whatever you call African American music is all about."

Reece's music exhibition is on the museum's fourth floor, along with exhibitions devoted to theater and the visual arts. The music exhibits are organized around five main themes, ranging from the roots of African American music to its global influence to more abstract themes like the concept of agency. They include an interactive touch table in an exhibition that seeks to re-create the spirit of the community record store, an institution long since fallen by the wayside. Touching the table will illuminate links and information that help viewers see the relationships between one kind of music, one cultural figure and another, across musical genres and eras.

The exact relationship between this show and the performances downstairs in the Winfrey Theater remains to be seen. As yet, the museum has announced only a few upcoming events, none of them musical; they include a discussion with the cast and creators of the TV series "Underground" on Monday, and three public interviews with authors of forthcoming books, including Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers (dates are yet to be announced). Music events will begin this winter, says Deirdre Cross, the museum's director of public programs.

The African American Museum has, however, already presented a few concerts that may give some sense of the theater's future, well before its flagship building's opening. In 2009, it co-presented the Navy Band in a concert devoted to the music of African American composers including Alton Adams, the first black Navy bandmaster. In 2012, a recital on the theme of art song in America presented texts by African American poets set to music by the living composers H. Leslie Adams and Alan Mandel. Cross suggests that there will be several events each month, on the order of about one a week.

It's a challenge for a concert series to reflect a museum's mission. Witness the Metropolitan Museum's concert series, which had become essentially a straightforward classical chamber venue until Limor Tomer took it over in 2011 and completely redefined it as a space for creative artistic collaboration. The former reflected the conventional view of museums to which classical music is so often compared; the latter reflects the kind of unconventional boundary-challenging that is a better reflection of what music and museums are becoming.

But over time, such series often, inevitably, take on a life of their own — like the "Summergarden" series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, once conceived to reflect the museum's artistic concepts and direction, today simply a showcase for contemporary music from around the world (played by the New Juilliard Ensemble) and jazz.

A closer antecedent to the challenges facing the African American Museum might be the concert series that the cellist Steven Honigberg, a member of the National Symphony Orchestra, curated and led at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1994 to 2002. The Holocaust Museum is obviously not an art museum; for it, too, music is in part an artifact, or a political statement. The series focused on works by composers whose lives had been touched by the Holocaust, a vein of music that has been increasingly mined in recent years. Some of its work is documented on CD, including a series of four releases called "Darkness & Light."

But at this institution, a series along these exact lines would be far too limiting. Because African American music encompasses every genre in the company, classical chamber ensembles alone couldn't do it justice. A reminder will be the three-day Smithsonian Folklife mini-festival that will accompany the museum's opening, on Saturday, featuring some of the major musical stars of our day.

Reece's goal is, she says, to "open the window and get people to think about music in new ways."

"We're doing tip-of-the-iceberg," she says. "We can't do anything encyclopedic or even comprehensive. There's limited space, limited attention span. People can only read so much."

But, she continues, "I'd like to push those boundaries a little bit. Part of the expectation is that people think African American music is just a couple of genres. That's not the truth. I want to give some kind of cultural literacy for talking about music."

By Anne Midgette
Photo by Jeff McCrum
The Washington Post