Even before the formalization of the concept of race, the concept of Blackness came to be equivocated with the concept of threat. It is impossible to determine which came first: brown skin delineating “less-than-human”-ness or Blackness threatening non-Black quotidian existence. At some point in time, this Black versus non-Black separation must have not held such a violent implication on collective existence; this is reflected today in the myriad friendships and relationships and communities that prove such co-existing is possible and beautiful. Many elements of today’s reality also reveal the symptoms of this historical separation. From the concept of “white flight” in the United States to the curious practice of concert programming around the world, no realm of society and humanity was left untouched by this separation. Those who claim that classical music practice somehow avoided sociopolitical trends amongst humans are either a) ignorant of the reality in which and developed classical music practice and/or b) part of a too-large group of people who must conveniently ignore reality, lest they face themselves with the truth – that their non-acknowledgement of this separation within classical music practice is a tacit support of the status quo. This historical separation, perpetrated in such a manner that was meant to keep Blackness subliminal (but somehow not to erase Blackness, partly because of the non-Black need for free labor and a source of creativity from which one can steal), continues to operate, despite centuries of activism, blood, sweat, tears, physical and emotional pain, torture, murder … And within all these decades of resistance, in spite of all these decades of attempted erasure from public society, Blackness still exists.
What happens when a people are thought to be stupid (but the reality is quite the contrary) and less than human, thus somehow justifying their mistreatment, abuse, and being forcefully pushed into the margins of public society? Simple: those very same oppressed people form complex underground societies, usually to the surprise of their oppressor. These societies portray the traits of what Gayatri Spivak would call the subaltern or what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney would call the undercommons. For Spivak, the subaltern is part of the masses, through which she quotes Foucault: “The masses know perfectly well, clearly … they know far better than [the intellectual] and they certainly say it very well”. Spivak further implies that the subaltern knowing stems from a Freudian history of repression which has a “double origin, one hidden in the amnesia of the infant, the other lodged in our archaic past, assuming by implication a preoriginary space where human and animal were not yet differentiated”. It is perhaps from the development and establishment of the human-animal separation that oppressors came to reclassify a segment of humans as animals, sublimating any guilt that could arise by denying a specific type of access to their definition of human reality. For Moten and Harney, part of the oppressor’s penchant for categorization and separation is rooted in the concept of containerization, especially as part of “what should be called the first wave of regulatory innovation as logistics”. Upon further dissection, they conclude that “modern logistics is founded with the first great movement of commodities, the ones that could speak” – i.e., the Transatlantic Slave Trade. However it was during this incredibly inhumane practice that Black people in the United States, out of necessity rather than choice, developed a unique survival skill set.
The main mistakes of the oppressor, then, are, firstly, the assumption of stupidity amongst those they oppress, and secondly, the abandonment of the observation place in their metaphorical panopticon. It is during these moments of being temporarily unmonitored that Black people in the United States began their initial musical and artistic practices within a country to which they did not choose to move, and in a country first inhabited by indigenous people who were also ravaged, but by a different type of torture and abuse. Among these initial practices include the creation of step dancing, the birthing of secret languages, the continuation of African shouts and complex rhythms, and the formation of hush harbors – secret places where a plethora of divers rituals could be undertaken in safety and with full emotional release. “It was here [in the hush harbors] that the spirituals, with their double meanings of religious salvation and freedom from slavery, developed and flourished”, and the spirituals are the foundation for most Black music practices in the United States. These simple mistakes made by the oppressor are also rooted in what Lenin calls the socialization of production. Within this fundamental contradiction of capitalism, “production becomes social [...] The social means of production remain the private property of a few”. However it is within the social realm that unity, community, and solidarity is developed. Even through capitalistic socialization, the masses and the subaltern can come to know, learn from, and create with one another. In the social realm of production, enslaved Africans (and later African American Black people) additionally shared culture, trauma, African linguistic practices, and – of course – skin color. The Black undercommons were meant to be submissive, obedient, invisible. In secret, they were emoting, surviving, creating, and reproducing.
Because quantitative accumulation always results in a qualitative shift, as Blackness multiplies, its invisibility recedes. The oppressor could not fathom the possibility of Blackness multiplying to a point where its visibility transformed into an inevitability, and this sentiment has come to dominate many sectors of academic practice. To use geography as an example, Katherine McKittrick writes “Geography’s and geographers’ well-known history in the Americas, of white masculine European mappings, explorations, conquests, is interlaced with a different sense of place, those populations and their attendant geographies that are concealed by what might be called rational spatial colonization and domination: the profitable erasure and objectification of subaltern subjectivities, stories, and lands”. In “western countries” of the “global north”, most pedagogy excludes important events related to Black culture, most notably erasing significant contributions from Black people. The teaching of classical music history is a public space where such a profitable erasure has occurred. Figures such as Vicente Lusitano, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Ignatius Sancho, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Julia Perry, Halim El-Dabh, Undine Smith Moore, Nora Holt, Estelle Ricketts, and more are practically excluded from classical music pedagogy. In a tweet from 2020, Jon Silpayamanant – composer, researcher, educator, and multi-instrumentalist, and founder of the Saw Peep Intercultural Orchestra – so poignantly posits: Why do I have to be actively researching Black musicians and composers to learn about them?
It is the public space that oppressors design and realize that is not meant for the masses, the subaltern, the undercommons. Thusly, when a Black practitioner of classical music is featured in some way in a public space, it is an intervention. It is a disruption. It was not supposed to happen. It is disruptive. In this regard, the scores that are associated with such works are essentially scores of intervention, and – as such – some of these scores are for works where the composer-creators’ voice speaks volumes. One such work is No Safety In Silence (2017) by Renée C. Baker.
Scored for voice, clarinet, strings, and piano, No Safety in Silence requires a conductor familiar with shaping music according to the various energies of the performance space, the performers, the audience, and the relationship with the other works on the program (if any). The vocalist has no specified pitches, or rhythms. Rather, the vocalist is instructed to vocalize according to the urgency of the text, of the soul, and to match the musical journey of the musicians. Already with this considerably meager amount of information, one can glean that this piece depends heavily on reading the performance space and intervening. For a bit of context, Renée C. Baker’s life experience includes navigating the classical music world as a violinist, violist, conductor, composer, improviser, organizer, entrepreneur, and member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Her music career has driven her to perform in various classical and popular music projects across the US (including on Broadway in New York), culminating in being principal violist of the Chicago Sinfonietta under the direction of Paul Freeman for over two decades. She also is the founder and conductor of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, the creator of Cipher Conduit Linguistics (CCL; a technique that widens the sphere of gestural conducting and communication), and an experienced visual artist working in multiple media. Baker has held music and visual art residencies internationally in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Additionally, she has scored hundreds of silent films, and is in-demand as a conductor for live synchronized performances. Through investigating her engraving and scoring practice in conversation with her visual art and her unique CCL technique, the complete image of Baker’s all-encompassing chimeric musicality only begins to emerge. It is no wonder why her music makes such a strong impact; her very existence and ontology denotes a human who transcends even those who are considered superhuman.
Musically, No Safety in Silence contains multitudes. It wanders, it shouts (in direct alignment with African shout practices included in antebellum hush harbors), it supports, it challenges, it affirms, it argues, it pleads. The music itself reads as sympathetic vibrations from the powerful text, written also by Baker. The text echoes a famous text by the self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, who writes “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. […] What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” In this text, Lorde seems to speak directly to Black people who are holding back powerful thoughts and statements for fear of being prosecuted, punished, abused, or even murdered. Baker’s text, however, also tackles a different aspect of silence, the aspect that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so strikingly articulates in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people”. Dr. King’s words are an excoriation of those who claim to be on the side of the oppressed, but who do not say anything when they are given the chance or when a situation arises where something must be said. This sentiment opens Baker’s piece: “An admission of guilt. Silent about things that matter.” Baker’s text further calls out those who remain silent when they should not. In her words, they are “complicit, abusers, consenting enablers. They live with injustice …until [they] speak, admit, exhale.”
There exists yet a deeper, more prescient duality within the last lines of this text: “… until you speak, admit, exhale.” The duality emerges when considering the multitude of unjustified emotions that Black people – through societal stereotypes and systemic racism – inflict upon themselves, including feelings of ugliness, inferiority, stupidity, inadequacy, embarrassment, and more. This spiritual self-immolation ignites from the impossibility of living up to a universal standard that was not created by Black people. Through Baker’s charge to all who are appallingly silent in situations of injustice, there is another charge directly to the oppressed. This is a charge for them to recognize their strengths, recognize their work, recognize their power to intervene. The oppressed, then, must speak their reality and their truths. Through speaking, they can admit to themselves that they have been a victim of impossible standards created by those who want nothing more than for them to remain invisible. After the admission, they can exhale and ultimately move on to the next chapter of their lives with the power and the agency they have always had but never allowed themselves to claim. No Safety in Silence pierces numerous spaces and contains powerful apothegms and wisdom that have the power to move the world, if the world would truly listen.
While scores for works that include the vocalization of words and text speak in a direct, accessible, expected manner, scores which do not contain presented text speak and intervene on the symbolic, metaphorical plane. Quite often, such works have a power that is not immediate, yet reveals itself gradually as more knowledge about its creator is gained. Piece for Chamber Orchestra (1979) by Edward Bland is one of such works. Scored for oboe, clarinet in B-flat, trumpet in B-flat, trombone, 3 timpani, and strings, this grossly underappreciated, underperformed, and undervalued example of musical ingenuity is an achievement that cannot be adequately described. The opening is a fury of punches in the face. With its aggressive, strong-beat double dotting, using pitches that are inspired by (but are not strictly) dodecaphony, Piece for Chamber Orchestra immediately shouts its subaltern superiority, and never ceases its shouting throughout its journey. This relentless momentum falls squarely within Bland’s main desire for his musical creations.
Born in 1926, Bland began his musical life as a childhood prodigy in clarinet and saxophone, focusing on jazz. He served as a clarinetist in the army band, which allowed him access to funds that paid for his university education in Chicago. It was there where he studied serialism and 12-tone technique, but also continued his jazz practice, studied West African drumming, and formulated his own strong opinions about his own compositional voice and how it relates to race. Bland’s one film, The Cry of Jazz, predates his foray into music composition. Completed and released in 1959 (when Bland was just 33 years old), the film’s confrontation of typical stereotypes of Black people punches as strongly (but differently) as Piece for Chamber Orchestra. Concerning the film, “the British critic Kenneth Tynan, in a column for The London Observer, wrote that it "assuredly belongs to history [as] the first film in which the American Negro has issued a direct challenge to the white”.
After developing and moving towards the solidification of his compositional voice (which he labelled Urban Classical Funk), Bland moved himself and his family to New York, mainly to take advantage of the income-generating opportunities in music that were available to him. His work with popular music, however, dredged up a desire to compose Urban Classical Funk scores. It was later in his life, at the age of 53, that he completed Piece for Chamber Orchestra – a piece that a younger listener labeled as “rap without words”; a piece that comes after Bland proved his larger-than-life presence in the performance space as a prodigy, in the academic space as an enfant terrible thinker and a brash composer, in the film-making space as a defiant amateur, and in the pop world as a creator whose works were sampled by Fat Boy Slim, Cypress Hill, Beyoncé, and more. For Bland, the corpulence of his presence invariably was (and still is) an intervention, allowing him to migrate to various spaces and leave a significant impression.
In his composer’s statement, Bland writes: “Throughout my professional life, my creative efforts have been haunted by aspects of a cultural warfare that has been simmering under the worlds cultures for several centuries”, acknowledging the separation that has plagued composers such as Baker and Bland with a subaltern status. He continues:
Whatever else can be said, Western civilization is profoundly ill-at-ease in the present moment. For all humans, life is a short affair climaxed by the grim certainty of death. Since no one can live in the past, and may or may not have a future, all that any of us really has is the present moment. As a composer, my job is to create work that holds the listener’s attention so tightly that he or she cannot stray from the piece. […] When this occurs, a continuum of past, present, and future has been achieved. This continuum, which is experienced as a prolongation of the present, is what I call the eternal Now.
Where Renée C. Baker’s speaking as a scored intervention in public space posits a challenge fraught with complex multiplicities, Bland’s speaking is holding – not an oppressor’s holding, akin to a containerization, but a reminder to connect to the greatest space of all: the space of existence where time is not considered and materiality is secondary to observation. Bland’s duality arises in the phenomenon that his goal is to use a temporal art to essentially stop the passing of time for the audience. When truly connecting to Piece for Chamber Orchestra and much of his other pieces, it is evident that Bland’s music has made this possible.
Today’s younger Black-conscious “classical” creators are organically blending a plethora of practices – especially Black-centered cultural practices and references – into the public performance space. Concert halls, museums, outdoor stages, parks, and more, have hosted presentations from Black classical creators who speak through their creations, bringing messages that boldly implicate the existence of their “existence in spite of …” One such artist is Liz Gre, who is currently studying ethnographic approaches to music manifestation at the City University of London as a PhD student. Her scores investigate formal engraving practices that are pushed to the boundaries of community, ancestry, and spirituality work. Her performance (featured above) with the Omaha Symphony in 2019 is an example of music composition, poetry composition, spoken word artistry, bel canto and visceral vocal performance, evocation of Negro spirituals, and more, essentially bringing the private hush harbor into a vulnerable, public arena. Her graphic score Invoke accompanies directions which reference the circadian rhythm of Blackness: rest, restfulness, waking, blazoned, yearning, joyous, worked, workings, returning.
Other Black artists who incorporate transdisciplinary approaches to their scored creations include Shannon Sea, Ibukun Sunday, Forbes Graham, Sarah Pitan, Lisa E. Harris, Camille Norment, Yaz Lancaster, Pamela Z, David Dogan, and more. The quantity of such artists is increasing, shifting the classical space qualitatively towards a historical juncture when such voices simply cannot be ignored. More important still is the very real phenomenon that what these artists are saying with their speaking compositions is also crawling towards a categorical space that reads as justice. Admittedly there is quite a bit of work to do. Some of this work may be labelled as decolonization, both for oppressors to grow into cognizance of their overt and covert abuse as well as for the oppressed to realize the full extent of their abilities. Much of this work, however, I label as acknowledging reality. The creation of, support for, encouragement of, and making visible of this music is not directly or indirectly responsible for the corrosion of the physical world, increasing murder rates, and other atrocities that go against the perpetuation of human existence. On the contrary, the mental and visceral explorations of the subaltern or the undercommons only furthers investigations into peaceful co-existence, true justice, apology, unification, and the necessity of being rooted in reality. Those who engage in music creation, score engraving, and inter- or transdisciplinary practices are pushing such ideals into public spaces with an urgent, desperate need. It is in these very spaces where the subaltern is silent that music and artistic praxis can provide the megaphone through which the subaltern may speak.
The meta-implications of speak – the very process of giving voice to a voiceless entity – are, then, part of the artistic praxis of the subaltern or the undercommons. While Spivak’s pessimism leads her to conclude that “the subaltern cannot speak”, partly because “representation has not withered away”, I turn to Renée C. Baker’s charge to “speak, admit, exhale.” Artistic practice – especially amongst Black music practitioners deeply rooted in space-making, space-awareness, and Black-consciousness work – will always comprise speaking as an act of disruption, resilience, community-building, survival. For many Black music practitioners, the greater implications of speak form the foundation, the heart of praxis. Further still, many prefer their speaking to be amplified by the formulation, manifestation, respect, and realization of a score.
The german translation by Michael Steffens of this article is published in Positionen issue #130
The cover image shows the composer Renee C. Baker © Michael S. Baker
 Foucault, Michel.Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected essays and interviews, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY,1977; p. 206–207
 Freud, Sigmund. “A child is being beaten: a contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions”, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey et al., Hogarth Press: London, UK, vol. 17, 1955; p. 188
 Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Autonomedia: Brooklyn, NY, 2013; p. 89
 ibid; p. 92
 Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. “African American Christianity, Pt. 1: To the Civil War”, National Humanities Center, www.nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/aareligion.htm,2005; p. 3
 Lenin, Vladimir. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Penguin Classics: London, UK, 2010; p. 16
 McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2006; p. 10 from introduction
 Silpayamant, Jon.Twitter: www.twitter.com/Silpayamanant/status/1314581067026792448?s=20 ; Oct. 2020
 Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Ten Speed Press: New York, NY, 1984/2007; p. 49
 King, Martin Luther, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), Penguin Classics: London, England, 2018; p. 24
 Baker, Renée C. No Safety in Silence (music score), self-published: Bolingbrook, IL, 2017
 Vitello, Paul. “Edward Bland, ‘Cry of Jazz’ Filmmaker and Composer, Dies at 86”, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2013/03/27/arts/music/edward-bland-filmmaker-and-composer-dies-at-86.html,2013
 Bland, Edward. Composer’s Statement: My Artistic Journey to Urban Classical Funk, self-published,www.edblandmusic.com/composerstatement.htm, 2006, p. 2
 ibid.; p. 1
 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Grossberg, Lawrence and Nelson, Cary, Macmillan Education: London, England, 1988; p. 308