MusicUnitesUS presents: 'Castle of our Skins: Black in Europe and Beyond'

A residency and concert at Brandeis will explore the black classical music experience

Ashleigh Gordon poses with her viola behind her headPhoto/Monika Bach Schroeder

Ashleigh Gordon

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of State of the Arts"Castle of our Skins: Black in Europe and Beyond" will be held Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. at Slosberg Music Center. Tickets are available online or through the Shapiro Campus Center Box Office.

Discovering music that you were previously unaware of--but strikes a beautiful chord--is like glimpsing a missing piece of your world. Finally, someone speaks your language.

For violist Ashleigh Gordon and composer Anthony Green, the awakening occurred when they uncovered the world of black classical composers, who were previously unknown or under-appreciated in mainstream classical music — but it took several years and a lot of digging to create a complete and inclusive image of who they are.

Despite having had top-notch musical educations, says Green, they were surprised that as professionals, they had been unaware of some components of a truly diverse Black musical culture. In 2013, they founded Castle of Our Skins (COOS), a Boston-based concert and educational series that celebrates Black artistry in the concert hall and in the classroom. (The organization’s name comes from a poem by Nikki Giovanni and is an exhortation to celebrate Black identity.)

Gordon and Green will be in residence at Brandeis from November 15-18, with a program called Black in Europe and Beyond. They will be joined by prominent musicians and scholars, including Julius Williams (Berklee College of Music); Kira Thurman, author of the forthcoming book “Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms”; and the double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke! Foundation, Europe’s first professional all-Black/ethnic minority orchestra. The residency will offer insight on the differences between the Black classical music experience in Europe and the United States, and how those differences have shaped Black classical music — a world that can be elusive, even for the founders of Castle of Our Skins. It also tells the composers’ story, while recognizing the significance and merit of their works.  

“Ashe and I were embarrassed by how few black classical composers we could name between the two of us,” says Green. “Black composers were usually only taught in specialized classes, and were also restricted to certain styles of music, such as jazz or various African music.” Thus began a lengthy research period that Gordon describes as an excavation. “The research is out there, but you have to dig,” she says.

At New England Conservatory and other local music libraries, Green found books and anthologies filled with names of composers and titles of works, but not the musical scores he needed to bring the work to the concert stage. “So much of the music was unpublished, in manuscript form, incomplete, not available to the public.” Licensing the few published works would cost “literally thousands of dollars,” unaffordable for a community-based organization like COOS.

Hope glimmered in Chicago at the Center for Black Music Research archives, but “an archive is like a vault,” Gordon says. “The music that is there stays there.” In 2008, Community MusicWorks, an organization in Providence, Rhode Island, that creates urban community through music education and performance, commissioned Green to write a piece about immigration. CMW referred him to the nonprofit, an online portal to concert listings, recordings and articles about blacks in classical music.

With the information garnered from, Green “discovered” works that he and Gordon could use in their COOS repertoire. He says, “We have listened to hours of music that we are almost 100 percent sure we would never have heard if it weren’t for starting this organization.”  A few of their discoveries include Coleridge- Taylor Perkinson, Adolphus Hailstork, H. T. Burleigh, Florence Price and Jeffrey Mumford. “Ironically enough,” Gordon says, “they are all American composers, largely from the 20th century if not still living.”

Along with the music, Green and Gordon have read countless articles and journal entries, and watched documentaries and movies about black, African and Caribbean history to help shape the work of COOS’ work from the stories of these cultural, social and artistic struggles. “All of this has happened because of music,” Green says.

Their long and persistent research has made it possible for COOS to present engaging interactive experiences in settings from classrooms to concert halls. “What makes this program different from COOS previous programs is the focus on composers and musicians with ties to Europe, through ancestry, the trajectory of their career, and so forth,” says Professor of the Practice Andrea Segar, first violinist in the Lydian String Quartet and producer of the residency.

The residency repertoire ranges from Guadeloupean-French 18th-century composer Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges to Chicago-based violist Renèée Baker, director of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project (CMOP). Baker is expected to conduct at least one piece. Guest performers include members of the COOS Collective, a flexible chamber ensemble of professional musicians, artists and socially conscious creatives living and working in and around Greater Boston.

“I thank Brandeis University for organizing this residency for us,” Green says. “It’s a great opportunity ⎯ not only to collaborate with such an institution, but also to spread the knowledge and start these important dialogues about black classical music.”

The Black in Europe and Beyond program, sponsored by MusicUnitesUS and the Department of Music, includes concerts, lectures, a panel discussion, master classes and outreach performances that focus on the stories of the under-acknowledged black composers and musicians connected to the world of European classical music. All events on the Brandeis campus are open to the public. Made possible with support from the Brandeis Arts Council and a Brandeis Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programming grant.

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