BULLETIN: Stir Up Your Repertory with Music by T.J. Anderson, Jr.

Submitted by hgale on Mon, 01/08/2024 - 08:30

The 21st Century Bulletin: Volume 5
March 2024

with music by T.J. Anderson

by John D. McDonald


Introducing Anderson


Never seeking a niche—stirring up the music—so as to be poised for unexpected challenges, T. J. Anderson, Jr.’s long, healthy creative life reaches beyond disciplinary confines at every turn. This musical life-in-motion reflects his self-identification as a “Unitarian Universalist-Pacifist-Humanist”—a phrase he wrote to me on the back of an envelope in 2016. T.J. elaborates:

Music requires an open mind; the things that I like now won’t be the things I like ten years from now, because I hope to change. As a Unitarian as well as a composer, I bring the same sense of curiosity, the same search for truth, the same search for identity, the same search for those things that are meaningful to a compositional program as I do to religion.

from an interview in William Banfield’s Musical Landscapes in Color; University of Illinois Press; 2023

Portrait of T.J. Anderson

The profundity that becomes evident through involved listening to his elusive works, and the fecundity with which he has made new work since the 1950s, are qualities that point to Anderson’s ability to negotiate the perpetual motion and discomfort of self-reinvention. Profound in their often poignant embrace of issues of world concern, slippery in their refusal to align entirely with pre-existing forms or even with their own intended procedures, and fecund in their perennial restlessness and penchant for balancing regeneration with repetition, Anderson’s works present performers and listeners with confrontational challenges. These challenges ‘stir up the music’.

T.J. served as the first African American to be a successful Composer-in-Residence for an American Symphony Orchestra (Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony; 1969-71), was the first African American to chair a music department in a predominantly white university (Tufts, 1972), the first composer to orchestrate Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha (1967-72), the first chairman of the National Black Music Caucus (now Naspaam.org; 1972-76), the first African American to conduct the Boston Pops (1973), the first university music department chair to create a joint degree program with two independent institutions: Tufts University and New England Conservatory (1976; ongoing after forty-seven years), the first resident composer at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts (1970s), and the first composer to receive a fellowship at the National Humanities Center (1996). These are only a few “firsts” that characterize Anderson’s distinctive achievements.

Anderson’s outlook seeks no separation from the music; his generosity is felt in the strength of his musical expressions as much as it is shown in his forthright professional and personal interactions. His artistic citizenship foregrounds musical choices made out of a devotion to finding without forcing, pushing without patronizing.


Anderson’s Music: An Overview


“What has made T.J. so enormously popular is his lack of affectation and his evenness of temperament. What has made him so interesting has been his consistent investment in the great social issues of our times. He brings to this investment both passion for justice and uncommonly informed judgement.” Here, close friend Chester Middlebrooke Pierce, a Harvard Medical School professor of education and psychiatry, aptly describes qualities that shine through the works in Anderson’s current ACA catalogue of 118 titles.

T.J.’s socially engaged musical practice, undertaken over the last seven decades, has amassed a varied oeuvre. If you play any traditional orchestral instrument, children’s toys, accordion, dulcimer, electric guitar, pitch pipes, drum-set, synthesizer, harpsichord, Jew’s harp, saxophone(s), or others, there is something waiting for you in T.J.’s ACA catalogue. Whether you seek solo pieces, ‘art’ songs, chamber music for varied ensembles, choral music, music dramas (operetta; opera; oratorio; experimental hybrids), or symphonic works, Anderson has written for you. The catalogue also demonstrates T.J.’s personal approaches to improvisational practice within compositional frameworks.

In his essay Shape and Tonal Equilibrium, poet Yusef Komunyakaa indicates that “historically, the African American has survived by sheer nerve and wit…Being in motion—improvisation, becoming—this is the mode of our creativity…Our music became an argument with the odds, a nonverbal articulation of our pathos.” These important words from Blue Notes (edited by Radiclani Clytus; University of Michigan Press) quite precisely articulate T.J. Jr.’s position as a Black composer who contends with an often hostile artistic landscape by employing the “nerve and wit” of “improvised pastiche,” a practice Anderson feels imprints his personal touch on each piece. He adds:

The future of the American orchestra will depend on its ability to improvise. The concept of improvisation is part of the musical history of mankind and is connected to the idea of freedom…my orchestral work Freedom allows performers to explore improvisational parts or they may play written-out examples of expectations. The work makes use of several improvisational possibilities. Tetrachords, contour lines, modes, chords, and graphic notations are all represented.

n.b. Freedom is as yet unpublished; from Samuel Floyd, Melanie Zeck, and Guthrie Ramsey’s 2017 Oxford University Press volume The Transformation of Black Music

An ACA member since 1965, Anderson’s catalogue features many scores (from as early as 1960) that exemplify his unique take on improvisation. Prime among these are Fragments (A J.S. Bach-T.S. Monk Fantasy), a piano concerto commissioned by the University of Iowa that features a fully improvised solo part in rilievo to a scrupulously notated orchestral canvas; Intermezzi, a work for three instruments (pf, cl, and sax) that can be played as three solo pieces in sequence or as a trio of the three independent pieces played simultaneously; and Ivesiana, a piano trio in which the parts are unsynchronized, presented in a new ACA edition. Anderson’s mentor Darius Milhaud, who wrote two string quartets that could be played separately or atop one another as an octet, inspired T.J.’s improvised pastiche concepts of “multiple sound platforms” and “orbiting”: up to six different simultaneous pieces could go on within a work, enlivening a coexistence of diverse ideas.

A sampling of other ACA titles includes his In Memoriam series, installments of which begin with the 1968 high school band work In Memoriam Zach Walker (commemorating a harrowing lynching that occurred in Anderson’s birthplace of Coatesville, PA in 1911) and continue through to the 2022 In Memoriam Greg Fukushima (for alto flute). The majority of the In Memoriam pieces are brief solos (with the notable exception of the 1974 In Memoriam Malcolm X, for soprano and orchestra), moderate in their technical demands, yet often so intimate and personal as to encourage profound care and sensitivity from performers. Pieces that remember Gerald Gill (Tufts colleague; historian of race and democracy), Peter Gomes (preacher and theologian), and Lerone Bennett, Jr. (social historian and author of Before the Mayflower), among other distinguished Black scholars and artists, join this musical record. Valued friends and acquaintances who have made impressions on his everyday life in Boston, Chapel Hill, and Atlanta inhabit these miniatures as T.J. intimately documents the culture one person at a time. He has written “we have many biographies of famous people, but not enough of everyday people.”


I was touched and honored when T.J. wrote the oboe solo In Memoriam John Garwin McDonald for my father, an executive and avid amateur singer who died in 2021. T.J. said to me, “I didn’t know him, but I know you, and through you I got an idea I liked about him.” This gesture epitomizes Anderson’s ability to demonstrate friendship and empathy through his compositional practice.

Further piquing the imagination, two recent voice-and-piano settings of words by his son T.J. Anderson III [left, shown with the composer] and his mother Anita Turpeau Anderson respectively, Evocation (2016) and Three Songs of Life (2022), show T.J.’s imaginative treatment of sung text. Larger canvases include the Chamber Concerto: Remembrances (1988), a virtuosic showcase of Anderson’s musical parlance recently performed by the Oberlin Contemporary Ensemble; the powerful, devotedly researched oratorio Slavery Documents 2, premiered in 2002 to remarkable effect by Boston’s Cantata Singers and Orchestra; and the opera Soldier Boy, Soldier (1982; Libretto: Leon Forrest), premiered by Indiana University Opera Theater.

And there’s more. Currently residing in his collection with Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, projects from all phases of Anderson’s career will soon find their published home with ACA. Stay tuned!

[See below for spotlights on four works available right away: Songs of Illumination; Play Me Something (an absolutely wonderful teaching piece); Jonestown; and How To Be Remembered]


Characterizing Anderson’s Career


I began working on a biography of T.J. Anderson in 2015, coupling a book project with a two-disc audio recording documenting works for soprano and piano interspersed with short piano pieces—a cross-section of music composed between 1979 and 2020. The book project title Stirring Up the Music: The Life, Works, and Influence of Composer T(homas) J(efferson) Anderson, Jr., derives from a 1978 letter to T.J. from Robert Shaw for his 50th Birthday Celebration:

Every place you go you stir up trouble: you make people think; you cause them to examine personal and aesthetic relationships; you force them to inquire into their musical taste and prejudices; you instigate laughter…

The forthcoming recording What Kind Of Person Are You?, featuring soprano Louise Toppin, takes the question posed in the last line of Anita Turpeau Anderson’s poem People as its emblem, and presents T.J.’s music for soprano and piano alongside short piano pieces (many of them part of the In Memoriam series). This publication and recording release—as well as this article—are meant to inspire others to engage in discovering this composer’s many sides.

These musical sides have been explored by performers in limited ways. Anderson’s three operas have either been performed just once or merely workshopped, and yet to be premiered are two of Anderson’s most striking contributions to the 20th/21st Century repertory. Intervals, a fantastical collection of scores organized in sets, each of which catalyzes new ideas about what orchestral activity can be, creates freshly independent roles for the participating musicians. The entire work, commissioned by conductor Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1970 during Anderson’s composer residency, lasts about 42 minutes (all seven sets, to be performed before, during, and after an orchestral concert intermission or ‘interval’). Too unwieldy (or scary for the players?) to program during that seminal residency, the work, in its multifarious components, asks: what could a modern orchestral concert program look like? Additionally, the disarming operetta The Shell Fairy (for young singers and piano; libretto by Chester M. Pierce), the first in a string of notable theatrical works, still awaits its debut. Committed performance organizations who may meet the challenge of unveiling these works in upcoming concert seasons will not regret the effort. After half a century, they are guaranteed to make a fresh impact.


Get Ready to “Step Into Yourself” with Four Anderson Creations


T.J.’s works take deeply personal turns, and the tricky frames of reference that can result cause Anderson to caution “if you step into yourself, you are losing a number of your listeners.” A commitment to the contemplative search for musical honesty (stepping into oneself?) means that Anderson’s music is rarely an easy road for the new listener; the sounds do not often rest comfortably in the ear.

Perusing Anderson’s ACA works, you will find tenderness, fearless confrontation, downright fun, and piquant lyricism. The four works summarized here are just a small indication of what is in store for the musically inquisitive seeker.

1. Songs of Illumination (1989-90)

Songs of Illumination, a cycle of twelve settings of poems by T.J. Anderson III for soprano, tenor, and piano composed during a Guggenheim Fellowship year, explores almost every conceivable vocal technique in the service of vibrant, often graphic poetry. Its nearly forty-minute span makes it one of T.J. Jr.’s largest recital works. Following internal, varied stylistic directives, Anderson achieves a monumental utterance in the genre.

Organized in an alternation pattern of soprano and tenor solo songs, the cycle also presents three deftly handled duets. In his program notes for the 1998 Centaur recording of the work, William C. Banfield writes:


Songs of Illumination is a masterful blend of contemporary poetry by the composer’s son and a wide variety of compositional approaches from varied pitch collections, arm clusters, improvised vamps, and minimalism with vocalism from vibratismo to rap, “human beat box” and even scatting. This is modern concert music of extreme complexity and unpredictable lyricism, with the pianist playing an effective third role.

Booklet Notes Centaur Records CRC 2375, 1998

Whether it be the unforgiving melismatic vocal chromaticism of Living Below Van Gogh (with next to no keyboard support); the ‘chorale prelude’ style of Cody and the Chicken, with soprano as cantus firmus amid piano rivets and grace-note punctuations, all preceding a super-virtuosic, thrown-off piano ending; Income’s microtonally varied incantations of the note “E;” an a cappella tenor solo in rap style; or the improvisational scats and claps of Myself When I Am Real (performed in ‘Tempo Mingus’), this cycle stays permanently in exploration mode.

This ambitious work is well worth devoted study and deserves multiple new performances.

2. Play Me Something (1979)

Anderson’s Play Me Something (1979), for solo piano, “small hands,” was composed for a student at the Rivers School Conservatory in Weston, Massachusetts, which sponsors a Seminar on Contemporary Music for the Young each year.

Play Me Something (“hey—you’re a musician?—play me something—do you take requests?”) is really more of a menu from which to choose a sonic meal than a “piece” in the accustomed sense. This ACA manuscript score excerpt displays part of the menu; note the need to read alto clef (not usual for a pianist), the grand pause as a menu item to be played, and the varied stylistic references shown even in this small part of the piece:


TJ Anderson - Play Me Something


The composer writes:

Play Me Something is not a piece or etude though it contains elements of both. The composition is a series of musical gestures or events which may be performed in any order. The gestures which repeat may be played as many times as the performer wishes. The pianist may or may not use all events and an attacca or slight pause may be placed after each gesture. Once an event is completed, the performer may not play this episodical material again. Multiple performance possibilities can enable the total work to have a duration between five seconds and five minutes.

Some of The Shell Fairy music found a miniature ‘home’ in Play Me Something. Here, specifically, the music for the number Who Am I? in Scene 1 of the operetta was repurposed as a set of two ‘gestures’ or ‘events’ in Play Me Something. “I think the idea of using so many types of music in one effort was pleasing to him,” says librettist Chester Pierce. “Often he’ll have various types of jazz and classic forms in one work. In Shell Fairy, I think this inclination is carried out in greater extent.” Pierce, the psychiatrist who introduced the term ‘micro-aggression’, also coined the term ‘childism’. He defined it in both the empowering way ‘feminism’ is used and the critical way we explain the pathological illness and oppression of ‘racism’. Recounting the Shell Fairy’s story, he leans into the positive side of childism: empowering children’s imaginations. We can view the light steps of The Shell Fairy and its echoes in Play Me Something as Anderson’s and Pierce’s testament to children. Social engagement, improvised pastiche techniques, and aspects of childism are explored in other works as well. Block Songs, scored for “voice, chromatic pitch pipe, jack-in-the-box, music box, and Winnie-the-Pooh toy or equivalent,” speaks of a young Black mother’s psyche and experiences in a context where there is little need for synchrony between voice and instruments. Since the toys are largely automated, they start and are allowed to play themselves out. Likewise, in the small-scale charmer Five Easy Pieces, free, unmeasured music made for his three children to play on violin, piano, and Jew’s harp leaves a deep impression.

It is clear that just as much of Anderson’s creative energy went into making these works for young people as was employed for larger contemporaneous compositions. No conceptual “writing down” to non-professionals occurs. None of Anderson’s music concedes to trends or fashions.

Weaving throughout the soon-to-be-released recording What Kind of Person Are You?, I perform Play Me Something in five different versions. Its novel ‘playing-style menu’ format has inspired several Tufts student projects that help young composers figure out how to engage performer choice as part of their mission, using some or all of the “gestures” or “events” that can be shaped, repeated, ignored, celebrated. With its refreshing brand of improvised pastiche, Play Me Something incited me to employ it as programmatic glue for this Anderson recording project.

3. Jonestown (1982)

A stark contrast to Play Me Something, this effort for young musicians (children’s choir and piano) emerged three years later. Essentially an epitaph for the more than 900 people who were murdered at the cult settlement in rural Guyana led by Jim Jones, Jonestown briefly and powerfully recounts the horror of the mass ritual cyanide poisoning that counted among the dead 691 Black people (70% of Jonestown’s residents), some of whom were children. In calling for children’s voices to mark this horrific 1978 incident, T.J.’s unflinching portrayal of the largest deliberate loss of American civilian life until September 11, 2001 featured his initial professional collaboration with his poet son T.J. Anderson III, whose text is first intoned by unison children’s voices after an opening incantation of “Jonestown” (pp; hands cupped to mouth, three voices whispering) to a continuous, up/down low-range piano glissando with a timpani mallet (pedal held). Imagine the singers’ and audience’s reaction alike to these opening sounds and words:

The black mask of death vomits its gloomy discharge
Fleas dip their transparent wings and smile as their tongues vibrate over rotted bodies

What one critic called the music’s “trepidatious, single-note motif in the midrange interspersed by urgent ascending rubato passages," Jonestown had been commissioned by the Chicago Children’s Choir, and the premiere at Boston University in May of 1984 was undertaken by John Ross and the choir Voices of Black Persuasion. The piece provides a stunning example of the composer’s confrontational approach to exigent musical expression; both difficult (but never impossible) for the young singers to execute and hard for the listening audience to swallow, more challenge is presented here in five minutes than in most much longer works.

4. How To Be Remembered (Memory Book; 2020)

In February 2021, the Tufts Composers concert How To Be Remembered interspersed two performances of a work by Anderson written during the pandemic with selections from his In Memoriam series, presented alongside Tufts faculty and student works. The concert was performed masked before a limited live audience and simulcast via livestream. How To Be Remembered is the second poem of Part 1 of T.J. Anderson III’s book-length poem Devonte Travels the Sorry Route (Omnidawn Publishing; 2019), which has been described as “a conversation and masquerade in four sections, charging every moment it explores with resonant depth.” T.J. Jr’s setting of How To Be Remembered began and ended the program in two manifestations, first with collaborating composer/pianist Joel LaRue Smith narrating and the present author playing, and then with the two of us switching roles. A later performance as part of a lecture on Anderson’s work at Howard University in March 2023 saw Howard faculty member and composer William Kenlon narrating; I was again at the keys.

Offered alone and in the August 2021 publication of Memory Book, an anthology of short T.J. Anderson pieces sponsored by American Composers Alliance in honor of T.J.’s 93rd birthday, the non-narrative, list-form poem lends itself to the evocative musical frame that Anderson, Jr. provides for speaking performer. Leaving the poem to sound alone in cordoned-off excerpts allows the listener/receiver a conducive environment in which to contemplate each compelling text-image. This example from the ACA score shows T.J.’s signature ‘filigree-style’ piano passage providing a striking transition from one text section to the next:

TJ Anderson - How To Be Remembered

By way of wrap-up, I paraphrase here from The History Makers Interview, February 19, 2012 [T.J. Anderson's Biography (thehistorymakers.org)], in which T.J. responds to the question of how he’d like to be remembered:

I'd like to be remembered as so many different things, because I am different things. Certainly as a composer would be my first ambition, because my life has been devoted to music. But I'd want to be remembered as a father, teacher, mentor, and race man. As someone who tried to be honest, honest as possible. I don't succeed most of the time, but honesty is the goal and sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't. Of course you do all you can. And you leave like everybody else leaves, (laughter) yes.



Selected ‘Hints and Cautions' from Stirring Up the Music:
A Compendium of One-to-Several Liners by T.J. Anderson, Jr.

My work day is different because when I get on something, I get hot. When I get hot, I get up in the morning at four or five o’clock and work. And then I digest in the evening what I have done. By the time morning comes, I’m still on a roll, and I let it roll.

Personal Interview, November 2015


I refuse to accept ONE expression as being THE only legitimate black expression… Jazz is only one expression of it. We have blues, spirituals, gospel—all of these are different forms, totally different. And of course we have a classical tradition…We, as serious black composers, oppose oppression, and that’s one of the fascinating things about black music.

Anderson Interview in The Black Perspective in Music, 1973


If a composer doesn’t have problems, I’m not interested…I’m concerned about a composer seeking their own way.

Anderson, in an article by Gilbert Trythall, BMI The Many Worlds of Music, April 1969]


Support must go across the board to the whole spectrum of human expression.

unpublished Conversation, 1989

from THE 21st CENTURY BULLETIN, Volume 5
March 2024