By Ace Gangoso
Almost exactly one year ago, we were singing in what would—unexpectedly—be our last concert of 2020. What a way to end my debut season with Fourth Coast Ensemble! Here we are a year later bouncing back, having recently kicked off of our Origin Stories concerts, live in HD. While we are all beyond excited to bring you these new performances, I still look forward to these blogs for The Art Song Fix because it gives us the opportunity to look back and reflect on how far we have come, in more ways than one.
My song of choice today is “In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington. I must confess, I never really expected to be singing a jazz standard in a concert with “Chicago’s classical vocal quartet.” Shame on me! Of course, this was the point of the concert (entitled Between the Lines) which explored the boundaries surrounding what is typically considered classical vs. non-classical—in this case, jazz.
Duke Ellington was a very gifted musician and songwriter, and a pioneer with his own attempts to blur the lines between classical and jazz. Teaming up with Billy Strayhorn, he sought out to write a multi-movement orchestral work telling the story of Black Americans, particularly through the lens of religion and slavery. Black, Brown and Beige premiered on January 23, 1943 and was met with mixed reviews, and, like his other large-scale works, never garnered widespread acclaim.
We must consider, however, that classical music circles were even more Eurocentric at that time than they are today, and society at large more rampant with unchecked white supremacy. The insulting saying “good enough for jazz” was borne out of ignorance and hatred not just of the music, but its creators. Who knows what would have happened in a more equitable time and space, with ears more ready and willing to hear new sounds from a person of color on the concert hall stage.
Here and now, at the end of Black History Month in the year 2021, it is evident that some progress has been made. I was tickled to get to use my falsetto croon and improvise riffs on this song immediately after singing full-throttle on Agustin Lara’s “Granada.” In classical concerts, you would often hear jazz pieces (if included at all) tucked in towards the end or used as an encore, presented as lighter fare in comparison to the more “serious” works that preceded it. But good music is good music, a good song is a good song, and every style and genre deserves to be respected and represented. Depth and virtuosity can be shown in a myriad of ways. May we continue to challenge our minds and senses, draw the circle wider, and grow the Fourth Coast family beyond what anyone would have ever dreamed!
by Ace Gangoso
Today I bring you footage from my own personal archives: a performance of “Litany” by John Musto, self-recorded around the beginning of last summer.
In his setting of this Langston Hughes poem, Musto managed to make a song in a major key sound deeply mournful, a trick straight out of Franz Schubert’s playbook. During the long piano intro, the tonality shifts and wanders as the meter changes almost every bar. The vocal line lilts about and floats above the piano hauntingly, often entering and moving off beat. Yet all of the harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic quirks somehow take place without drawing excess attention to themselves. The song doesn’t sound as jarring and amorphous as one might expect given its qualities on paper. Instead, what emerges is a sound world that evokes feelings of longing, searching, and unsettledness—feelings which we are wont to experience in our current physical world.
As much as we had hoped that January 1, 2021 would magically free us from the woes of the previous year, deep down we knew (or were quickly reminded) that things are rarely that simple. Similarly, we know that, even as new national leadership takes office, the substantive change that many hope for will take time. Some voice their eagerness for things to “go back to normal,” but my hope is actually that this doesn’t happen. The “old normal” was wrought with ignorance and complacency toward inequality and injustice, and I like to think that, overall, we have grown as a society in our consciousness and compassion. We have seen and felt suffering and hopelessness more plainly than ever, and have made sacrifices for the greater good.
But what I hear wrapped into the great beauty of this song is a call for even more—to not let “we’re all in this together” to be a mere cliché, to identify and actively seek out the people and things in our lives that we habitually ignore or put off, and to listen more closely for (and respond to) the cries for help around us.
Do you hear a similar call? Does this music speak to you in a different way? What are you most hopeful for this year? Feel free to use the comment section or reply to the emails with these blog entries to engage with us and let us know your thoughts! We have enjoyed staying connected with you this way and look forward to bringing you new content and performances soon.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!