Following the Lead: Nathaniel Dett, Arranged by Matthew Tran-Adams

December 20, 2016

By Gloria Lipski

Pointing to black faces as an indicator of diversity is highly problematic. But so is saying that you "don’t see colour" as when folks claim to be blind to racialized differences such as skin colour. Scrolling through the faces of the Canadian Music Centre (CMC)’s Associate Composers, there’s literally not much colour to be seen; there are a handful of black composers, whereas there are hundreds of white faces—white men in particular.

I’m being oversimplistic in opening this conversation. There are a lot of visible and invisible differences to celebrate among these composers of various backgrounds, genders, ages, orientations, countries of origin, socioeconomic statuses, abilities, and so on. There are also many reasons that a person who self-identifies as black might not have become a CMC Associate Composer, including by choice. Furthermore, as a white Canadian of European settler background, I do not have the right to identify people as ‘black’. However, especially as a person of relative privilege, I believe it’s my responsibility to try and listen for what’s not being heard—in this case, who’s not being represented among CMC Associate Composers.

As I searched through the community of composers, I didn’t see a single black composer in the list beyond honourary Associate Oscar Peterson. What I did find is an interesting story of intermingling voices.

CMC Associate Composer Matthew Tran-Adams arranged a piece in 2006 titled JUBA from the piano suite In the Bottoms (1913) by Nathaniel Dett, arranged for Concert Band by Matthew Tran-Adams. Right from the exhaustive title, Tran-Adams makes every effort to give due credit, evidenced at other points in the score as well. This is a short, quick, little piece blown up from piano to concert band including the entire typical secondary school wind ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, timpani, and percussion. On the sprightly piano, the piece begs to be played faster and faster, but the indication “Non Troppo Allegro” (or the original: “Don’t take it too fast!”) suggests that a more lumbering pace for a 15-piece ensemble would still be appropriate. JUBA arranged for Concert Band simplifies the original form into a classic, high-school ABA structure, with the peppy main theme taken up by the 1st and 2nd flutes, alto sax, and mallets. It makes for a light and sparkling dance. The B-section sees the potential for an even more conversational tone with most of the reeds and the low brass stepping up more chromatically amongst interjections from the percussion, high winds, and horn. This interactivity highlighted by the grouped instrumentation of the band expands on the effect deliverable by solo piano alone. In a surprise addition, Matthew’s biography states that there are versions for beginner/intermediate concert band, string orchestra, steel pan ensemble, and recorder!1

Matthew’s works have been performed primarily across Canada and the States. Both his academic and compositional interests take an ‘intercultural’, social justice bent. He is a lecturer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto), and his curriculum work and journal publications champion equity and antiracism in music education while his compositions include dedications to Chinese-Canadian railroad workers and the Vietnamese Boat people.2 His works continue to receive recognition in the concert music world. In 2014 Matthew won the Royal Conservatory of Music’s 21C: 21st Premiere Contest for his work to-BEI-ron-JING-to/多—北—伦—京—多 REMIX I. JUBA arranged for Concert Band holds an exemplary place among these works; it falls under the unit: “Empowering Role Models: Nathaniel Dett and the African-Canadian Community of Drummondville”, written for the Toronto District School Board’s Africentric-Inclusive curriculum under the auspices of their Equity Department.

Nathaniel Dett has been called a “black Canadian composer” on many occasions. Perhaps a little more research could unearth his opinions on being identified in this way. I wonder if he had experiences that would have led him to relate to what other black composers have said about the role race played in their careers, particularly their invisibility and experiences of tokenism. Dett lived from 1882-1943 and worked to elevate black music primarily by preserving and performing spirituals as a composer, pianist, and conductor.[3] He often incorporated folk idioms of his own heritage into his compositions in the European art music tradition. He is known as one of the most highly influential musicians in the United States—where he continued his career after leaving Canada—earning several honourary doctorates and leaving the legacy of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. Dett passed away 16 years before the CMC was established, which might explain his absence as a CMC Associate. However, several other composers under the same circumstances are included. Perhaps this collection is a place where Dett’s music can get some more of “the attention and exposure it deserves,” to quote the CMC’s About page.

JUBA, one of five movements from the In the Bottoms suite (1913), is one of Dett’s most performed compositions as it is standard repertoire for piano students. It pays homage to a style of African American group social dance involving body percussion (patting) as self-contained accompaniment where resources were scarce, probably due to colonial prohibition of traditional instruments.4 Dett’s original conception was to have a fiddler, dancers, and a patter perform with the piano… I wonder how often it has been performed that way. Dett struggled and strove to see black music presented with dignity and sophistication, rather than popular stereotyping.5 It’s already an interesting step to see Canadian-born, African American Dett take a DIY, subversive music and classicize it for the piano, one of European classical music’s most tyrannical instruments. Matthew Tran-Adams adds another layer.

An image from the first page of the score for Matthew Tran Adams arrangement of JUBA.

Matthew can never have met Dett; while any living relationship between the two composers is nonexistent, the way that Matthew sets up the score and the context for arranging the piece speak to how he positions himself in relation to Dett. The score notes begin with Dett’s biography and the story of the original JUBA, followed by a short blurb about Matthew himself and a plug-with-a-purpose informing readers that JUBA arranged for Concert Band is part of the equity curriculum. The title and Dett’s name are bigger and bolder. To round out their connection on grounds other than race, both composers hail from the aforementioned region of Niagara Falls, called Drummondville in Dett’s time.6

Of course there are complex power dynamics involved when white folks engage with the music of black folks. In this case, Matthew’s purpose is to give learners access to Dett’s music and the chance to participate reflectively in the music of a black composer. He even arranged the piece to keep every student involved in making music as much as possible from beginning to end.7 This story is one where a black composer plays a key inspiring role that is not usurped by the non-black arranger’s goals and glory. Matthew uses his (at least in some ways) privileged platform as a white man and a teacher to amplify a different voice, a different dance. This piece wholly follows the lead of a black composer. Dett’s name comes first. In my mind, the real lesson Matthew teaches through JUBA arranged for Concert Band is how to try your best to be an ally: listen, self-educate, lend your voice. And make space for other voices. The CMC blog is a free community forum for musical musings; I invite you to participate, whoever you are.

You can learn more about Matthew Tran-Adams by visiting his CMC profile page, and you can access the score for JUBA through the CMC library and publishing services. This is part of a series of monthly blog posts that highlight various works from CMC Associate Composers. Check back regularly for new posts, and new pieces!

If you enjoyed this post we encourage you to visit/follow Music by Black Composers on Twitter.

1 Tran-Adams, Matthew (date unknown). Compositions.
2 Tran-Adams, Matthew (date unknown). Biography.
3 (author & date unknown). Nathaniel Dett.
4 Brown Jr., Ernest D. (2014). “African American Instrument Construction and Music Making.” In African American Music: An Introduction (2nd Ed.). Eds. Mellonee V. Burnim, & Portia K. Maultsby. Routledge Press, pp. 25-26.
5 Tran-Adams, Matthew (2006). JUBA arranged for Concert Band, 2nd unnumbered page.
6 Ibid.
7 Tran-Adams, Matthew (2016). Email communication, December 14, 2016.