by Anthony R. Green
Happy Mother's Day from Castle of our Skins! In 2015, COOS received a Travel to the Collections grant from the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) in Chicago. While the center itself has dramatically changed, the time that COOS spent doing research there will always remain invaluable. One focus that we had at that time was researching music and contributions by Black women composers. The world of classical music has historically mistreated its women, and efforts to bring justice to female composers of the past and the present are quite often met with misogynistic or otherwise awkward responses, from both men and women. Many of these responses fail to acknowledge the many challenges that women have historically faced from male-dominated societies, who often define men as the only gender that can contribute to society in a grand, important way. Among these challenges include gender role stereotypes, expectations, and also motherhood. As rewarding as motherhood is, imagine how difficult it was for female composers to balance being a creative as well as being a mother, among other responsibilities?
Through COOS's CBMR research, we came across the wonderful music and life of Lettie Beckon Alston (1953 - 2014). Not only was Mrs. Alston a composer, a pianist, and the first Black composer (of any gender) to receive a doctorate degree from the University of Michigan in 1983, but she was also a mother to her son Darnell, and a mother figure to many students. As a student herself, she studied with powerhouse composers such as William Bolcom and Leslie Bassett, among others. Her composition practice also included working with digital and electronic processes, and she studied electronic composition with George Wilson and Eugene Kurzt. She used these lessons and her wealth of experience to become a beloved and respected pedagogue at Wayne State University, Oakland University, and Eastern Michigan University. Yet her quiet presence has left her as a respected composer within the circle of musicians and enthusiasts who are familiar with her work, but not so popular outside of this circle. This is proven by many online sources (including Wikipedia) that still do not have her death year registered.
Fortunately, there are current efforts to increase the number of performances of Mrs. Alston's music, including from the Hidden Voices: Piano Music by Black Women Composers project at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU Boulder). This project continues the work of the beloved pianist and scholar Helen Walker-Hill (mother to violinist and composer Gregory Walker, who is the son of the late Pulitzer prize winner George Walker). And for those who are keen to hear her music, simple YouTube and Google searches will yield plenty of links, where you can enter her unique musical world. With that, a wonderful place to start is with Karen Walwyn's fantastic interpretation of Alston's Well Marked, the first rhapsody from her Three Rhapsodies for Piano. Enjoy and Happy Mother's Day!!
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