Stories through music: Manchester Camerata Hidden Histories

Hugh Morris
Sunday, May 1, 2022

Manchester Camerata and Lavender Rodriguez have been collaborating with school students on a project focused on underrepresented composers and the compositional process. Hugh Morris attended a Hidden Histories session to find out more.

 Lavender Rodriguez with students taking part in the project
Lavender Rodriguez with students taking part in the project

Reeco Liburd

One of the few genuine positives of the lockdown period has been education’s interrogation of its historical biases. Potentially tricky conversations about what we teach, and which figures we platform, can only make the discipline stronger as we strive to make music more accessible.

The success of these conversations so far has meant that many schools now find themselves at the next stage of the process. Especially in music, figures like Florence Price and Julius Eastman are no longer unfamiliar names. Now, they need to be embedded within the curriculum going forward, to ensure history doesn't repeat its exclusionary patterns.

This is part of the aim of Hidden Histories, an outreach project that adds to Manchester Camerata’s broad portfolio of community work. By teaching students about the histories of previously overlooked composers, dissecting their creative output, and then reusing those approaches to inform new compositions, it's hoped that these hidden histories will eventually come alive, reborn in the creative touches of a new generation of musical creators.

Legacy remembered

Previous workshops organised by Manchester Camerata in partnership with composer James B. Wilson have examined composers such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Ignatius Sancho and Joseph Bologne. Here, four new figures feature on the mini syllabus. Scott Joplin, the piano innovator and King of Ragtime, is the best known of these figures. Julius Eastman – whose work has received increased interest particularly over the last five years – appears alongside a similarly rejuvenated figure in Britain's Ruth Gipps, whose Symphony No. 2 received its overdue Proms premiere with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla in 2021.

The final composer of the quartet is perhaps the least familiar, certainly in the United Kingdom. Known as the ‘Dean of Black Women Composers’, American educator and composer Undine Smith Moore initially trained as a pianist but ended up writing a significant amount of choral works, including a number of arrangements of spirituals and traditional songs from her childhood.

It's apt that Smith Moore should be selected for a schools’ project dedicated to increasing representation, given that the second part of her career was dedicated to doing exactly that. Though her 1981 cantata for Scenes from the Life of a Martyr was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the most profound impact of her professional life was felt through the Black Music Center at Virginia State Department of Music, which she founded in 1969 to educate members about the ‘contributions of Black people to the music of the United States and the world’. Active as a teacher until the end of her career, she described teaching ‘as an art in itself’ – an inspirational force, and one whose legacy is remembered here.

Early exposure

Lavender Rodriguez, a Manchester-based composer tasked with leading the workshops, concurs. ‘[Smith Moore] is considered the mother, or the star – a major presence for Black female composers. Her pieces are based a lot on spirituality and influenced a lot by jazz and blues. And she only saw her influences as spirituals and J.S. Bach, which is really interesting. A lot of her composing came from teaching music – she would create exercises for her students, and then write more and more and more.’

Rodriguez works as a facilitator and an instrumentalist, which they balance alongside their studies in composition at Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music. They explain more about the project's inception. ‘Manchester Camerata started this project last year, but right now was the first time that they were able to do it in person. The whole concept was to expose the kids to underrepresented composers that they may not have heard of, but also, write a piece and learn what composition is, what makes up that process and break down those barriers.’

There's a sense of paying it back for Rodriguez. ‘It's really touching that they get that exposure early on. I grew up in a white-centric county, and I was often singled out. I didn't think that composition was a viable career – there was little exposure for us. So being able to go into schools and tell them that regardless of who you are and what background you come from, you can do whatever your heart wants, it's quite powerful to be the person that tells them that.’

It's been a heartening experience for them – the session opens with a touching moment as the students detail their thoughts on one of Rodriguez's own pieces. ‘There have been times where I’ve introduced different people and pieces that they haven't come across, and I’ve come into workshops and someone's playing a bit of Scott Joplin or someone's playing Undine Smith Moore, or someone's gone away and researched them, or researched me. The fact they’ve actively gone out to research and play around with those ideas, those people, and those pieces. That means a lot, I think.’


Striking a chord

The sessions involve four schools across the North West who are each paired with members of Manchester Camerata alongside Rodriguez. Four sessions spread over four weeks involved an introduction to their instruments and an overview of their key composer, including why they faced barriers in their life and career. Then, each school was assigned a piece, going more into the technical aspects of the compositions and exercises to unlock its key themes. The third week would continue looking into why the compositions work and introduce elements of group composition.

I joined students at Upton-by-Chester High School as the class of Year 9 students were putting the finishing touches to a group composition with help from horn player Jenny Cox. Once finished, the piece would be orchestrated by Rodriguez for chamber ensemble and premiered in a final concert featuring the works of all the schools in the Hidden Histories project. The session I attended began with a classic round of ‘Zip, zap, boing’, before the groups split off into groups to create works exploring compositional parameters like contour, scales, intervals and introducing new colours with different modes. All ideas were then fed back into a storyboard assembled by Rodriguez, a graphic score that charted the progression of their whole group composition.

The workshops have really struck a chord with the students, as head of music Claire Thompson explains: ‘Socially, these learners are more well-adjusted to being all-encompassing of everybody in their society. So, for them to suddenly have to hop back and study Bach, Handel or Shostakovich, it's quite alien to them. And so, seeing composers from marginalised backgrounds – women, ethnic minorities, gay or queer sexualities – really makes a marked difference, and they really understand it.’

Redressing inequalities

Introducing composition as a key creative outlet is one of the fundamental aims of the project. ‘It's made me open my eyes to writing music,’ says Sophia, one of the Year 9 students involved in the sessions. ‘I never really considered composing as something you do in music. I just thought, like, you write the music, you play it, that's it. But I think that composing is a lot more about making a story through the music, and creating an atmosphere based on that.’

Olivia, a classmate at Upton-by-Chester, was particularly thrilled with the idea of orchestral musicians coming into school. ‘I’ve really enjoyed the creative aspect of it because it's not every day an orchestra comes into your school and says, “we’re going to make music together”.’ It's a special occurrence, Thompson says: ‘You can go through your whole musical life not seeing a bassoon up close, so having someone come into the room playing it has made a big difference. It's certainly influenced my curriculum from next year, too.’

Even at an early stage, the students are quick to recognise the importance of redressing history's inequalities. ‘In a lot of cases, I recognised the music, but a lot of composers didn't get the credit that they deserve,’ adds Alex, another Year 9 student. ‘I think that learning about the composers’ lives in real depth has helped me appreciate it a lot more.’

The project is summed up by Olivia, excited by the opportunities and new skills that might be unlocked: ‘I love how you can show stories through music. Being able to compose our own stuff, it's like, “whoa, I did that!”

Hidden Histories is a partnership between Manchester Camerata and Edsential Musical Routes, the music education hub covering Wirral and Cheshire West and Chester, with funding from the Department for Education and Arts Council England.