‘The Black Composer Speaks’ Celebrates 3 Generations of Composers in 1 Night on Chicago’s South Side

By Elizabeth Peterson |

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Kahil El’Zabar, who performs with Fulcrum Point New Music Project and his own Ethnic Heritage Ensemble in the second annual The Black Composer Speaks performance

“Every event we do is a celebration of the richness of music,” said Stephen Burns, founder and artistic director of Fulcrum Point New Music Project. Fulcrum is gearing up for its second annual celebration of black music, The Black Composer Speaks. The event takes place on Friday, February 10, at the Promontory in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

The concert features compositions from three generations of composers including Alvin Singleton, Olly Wilson, Jeffrey Mumford, and Jessie Montgomery. Mult-instrumentalist Kahil El’ Zabar will take the stage both with Fulcrum and his own Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, founded over 40 years ago following his work with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Fulcrum will also present the world premiere of Present Awareness by Chicago-based composer and cellist Tomeka Reid.

Cellist and composer Tomeka Reid (Source: Tomeka Reid)

Presenting new music can be difficult for any artist or ensemble. Audience members might have preconceived ideas about new music, or preferences for tried-and-true “warhorses” of the classical repertoire. Attending a new music event, Burns said, can be like going on an outdoor adventure. “The first time you go to the rainforest you might think things will be one way, but once you get under the canopy it’s a whole ‘nother journey.”

Burns said he likes to encourage listeners to have open minds and open ears, and to consider the human experiences music might explore. He also likes to encourage active, engaged listening by giving the audience some information about each piece before it is performed.

For example, he might describe the music of Jeffrey Mumford as “ethereal and abstract like a Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly painting.” Even if you don’t read music or play an instrument, it is easy to imagine what a Pollock might “sound” like. Though listening to Mumford’s music, an audience member may not know that the composer is black, Burns insists that “because he’s an African American person, his music is black music,” Burns says.

Jeffrey Mumford (Source: Jeffrey Mumford)

Since listeners often associate black music with the blues, jazz, funk, and hip hop, but rarely with forms related to classical composition, Burns finds it is important to recognize black musicians working in diverse musical traditions. He hopes Fulcrum’s performances can help audiences confront their ideas about black music without oversimplifying the history of black music in America.

Finding the right space to encourage open-minded listening can be just as important as the composers and pieces and ensemble programs for an event. The Promontory allows audience members to sip craft cocktails while enjoying live music, offering a more relaxed alternative to traditional concert settings.

Composer Jessie Montgomery

The evening will begin with a panel discussion centered on inclusion, access, and aesthetics in music from the black diaspora. Composer Tomeka Reid will be one of the featured panelists.

For more information, visit Fulcrum’s website.