It feels significant that pianist Bruce Levingston titled his latest album Citizen in the singular, and not the plural. The recording was born out of a concert Levingston was invited to perform at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and it includes the work of four living U.S. composers, an evocative ballade by William Grant Still, and three mazurkas by Frederic Chopin. While all of the works grapple to some degree with issues of citizenship, most feel more concerned with individual, personal stories of belonging than with the large-scale distribution of civic privileges and responsibilities.
C. Price Walden’s Sacred Spaces is a beatific paean to the powerful affirmation that a sense of belonging can bring. Walden writes eloquently in his liner notes about finding safe haven in churches as a gay Christian living and working in Mississippi, and his music is shot through with a potent, fragile relief. A crystalline edifice etched in painful light, Walden’s work is easily the brightest on the album—which is not to say it’s free of strife. The intensity of its devotion is heightened by its unspoken awareness that islands of safety are the exception, not the rule, and that we pray for peace because we spend so much of our lives at war.
Walden’s work feels like a delicate, luminous echo of Nolan Gasser’s American Citizen, which opens the CD. American Citizen is a musical evocation of Marie Atkinson Hull’s 1936 oil portrait of John Wesley Washington, a Mississippi man born into slavery in 1847.
That’s a complicated set of nested layers, and fortunately the work doesn’t try to keep them clear. It’s a firmly grounded offering, seamlessly melding together sentimental melodies, bluesy riffs, monumental chordal interjections, and more into a subtle portrait of an imagined life: full of loss and sorrow, but always returning to an indomitable wellspring of resilience.
William Grant Still’s Summerland is more ambivalent. A poignant ballade offering, according to a note from Still’s daughter, the composer’s vision of the afterlife, Summerland has an aura of resigned weariness to it. It reaches a quiet sort of paradise by the end, but its tranquility rests on scars and deep aches that may never fully heal.
This positive view of belonging is most obviously challenged by the two works in the middle of the disk, David T. Little’s Accumulation of Purpose and Augusta Gross’s Locations in Time. Little drew inspiration from the Freedom Riders to create a work of pent-up terror and struggle, biting dissonances and needling chromatic corkscrews preceding a dramatic centerpiece and a disquieted final nocturne. The landscape that Gross traverses is more abstract, spare phrases haltingly coming together to depict feelings of alienation, grief, and restlessness. While Little issues a sharp call to remember the titanic struggles that were required to expand the de facto boundaries of U.S. citizenship (struggles that are far from over), Gross turns inward to examine the ways community itself can be harmful, both by excluding us from others’ circles and by amplifying the tears rent in the social fabric by the deaths of those around us.
But the strongest conceptual challenge comes from Chopin, the odd man out in this compositional lineup. Levingston makes a strong case for the aesthetic continuity between these melancholic little dances and the other works, teasing out the bucolic pedal points of Chopin’s Opus 6 No. 2 into an open, welcoming expanse that could almost pass for an imitation of Aaron Copland. But by the second of the three selections (Opus 24 No. 2), we’re firmly in the early 1800s, and that’s where the conceptual challenge lies.
From our vantage point nearly two centuries later, it’s easy to forget the political stances of Chopin’s works. At the time, they were seen as a clear demand for Polish self-determination. Like so many other 19th-century composers, Chopin was contributing musically to a project of ethno-nationalism that sought to create independent nations for each of the various ethnicities in Europe: Poland for the Poles, Germany for the Germans, Finland for the Finns, and so on.
In its early days, this benign segregation seemed like a viable solution to the problem of violence and political subjugation between ethnic groups. But in hindsight, it’s easy to see that there’s only a small rhetorical step from “let the Germans all live together and organize their own state in Germany” to “Germany should be only for the Germans,” and the genocidal slaughterhouses that philosophy unleashed.
Given this history and the United States’ own long history of racial purity-driven white supremacist violence, Chopin’s mazurkas seem like a challenge: Is it possible to create a feeling of belonging among some without excluding others? Can there ever be a “these are my people!” without a concomitant “and those other people aren’t”? As much as the racism and xenophobia of the present U.S. political moment echo previous eras of our history, that history also echoes and is tied up in bitter histories elsewhere in the world.
Not being infinitely long, Citizen necessarily offers a limited perspective on these questions and tensions. Many voices are missing from this conversation – both as it has unfolded in the past and as it relates to our present moment – voices that have been and are still being violently silenced. Citizen, in its choice of repertoire, is not particularly engaged in the work of fighting that silencing: Still is the only non-white composer on the disk, and his work is the shortest offering.
Levingston’s playing is lithe and full-voiced throughout. He has an admirable ability to preserve the clarity of each strand in a densely woven contrapuntal texture, crafting a compelling whole without obscuring its parts. His phrasing is subtle, nuanced shadings of tone playing against each other to illuminate the underlying musical structure. There are relatively few rhythmically propulsive passages on this album, and the general atmosphere of weighty contemplation grows a little stale when you listen through without pause, but Levingston’s expert control keeps the experience from getting too bogged down. Citizen adds to a much-needed conversation, but much more work remains to be done.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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