One Pianist’s Rising Sun Streams A Fresh Light On Black Composers

Pianist Lara Downes champions Black composers such as Benny Golson, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Eubie Blake, Hazel Scott, and Alvin Singleton. “This is our American music,” she says. (Photo by Max Barrett)

DIGITAL FEATURE – “I just want people to know who these women were,” said the pianist Lara Downes recently, explaining the inspiration behind her Rising Sun Music project. “I’ve been working with Florence Price so much and I’m so tired of everyone telling the story about her, because the more you know the more you understand how complex her story is. Her life and work are part of an important moment in the cultural transitions of the 20th century.”

Rising Sun, which has a new theme each month, is a digital label that features Downes and guest artists.

Thanks to champions like Downes, the music of Price – an important African American composer, pianist, and teacher who died in 1953 – is now enjoying a renaissance. But when she offered a program of Price’s piano music to major labels a few years ago she had no takers, even though audiences were thrilled when she performed Price’s “Fantasie Negre” as an encore. So she decided to bypass established labels and launch her own digital endeavor instead, the title inspired by the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing (often called the Black National Anthem).

Rising Sun Music enables Downes to focus on Black composers, whose music she records with guest artists and releases on streaming platforms. The project, which has a new theme each month, launched in February with Remember Me to Harlem (named after a Langston Hughes poem about the Harlem Renaissance), a collection exploring Harlem as a center of musical migration and featuring works by Benny Golson, Eubie Blake, William Grant Still, and Margaret Bonds. The March release, Phenomenal Women, highlights music by Hazel Scott, Nora Holt, Bonds and Price.

The April album, Spring Fever, illuminates the theme of rebirth and renewal with music by Nkeiru Okoye, Alvin Singleton, H. Leslie Adams, and Betty Jackson King. In May, the spotlight will be on the 19th-century composer Justin Holland, a classical guitarist, teacher, and activist. In the summer, Downes will explore the great migration as a metaphor for different kinds of migrations and transformations.

A piano piece by Nkeiru Okoye is on the album ‘Spring Fever.’

Downes is constantly discovering new composers via the Rising Sun website, where scholars contact her and send manuscripts and scores. To broaden access to this music, she aims to publish new editions. In April, Theodore Presser Company started publishing sheet music for many of the works she features. Rising Sun Music continues Downes’ long-standing interest in American music, underrepresented composers, and genre-crossing works.

Downes was born in San Francisco in 1973 to civil rights activist parents: a Jamaican-born scientist father and an attorney mother of Russian-Jewish heritage. Downes and her two sisters were homeschooled and all three studied the piano, practicing on three instruments in different rooms in the family house. Early in adolescence Downes studied with the Austrian pianist Adolph Baller at Stanford. Her father was ill for many years and died when Downes was nine, after which she moved to Paris with her mother and sisters.

Her studies in Europe included the Hochschule in Vienna and the Mozarteum in Salzburg with Hans Graf. After she returned to the U.S., about a decade later, she visited the Guggenheim Museum and saw an exhibit about music in the 20th century, which she has described as an “epiphany.” She has subsequently dedicated considerable time and energy exploring works by women and composers of color, championing their music in talks, recordings, radio, and live performances. She is particularly interested in composers who write music “where traditions and genres collide.” 

“The first thing you learn when you’re a piano student is that there is this huge tradition behind you,” she said. “There are so many notes in front of you, and your classmates are all playing the same music, and that sets up this weird thing, if you’re all playing the same Beethoven sonata. It’s like a really crowded forest, but then over there you see something wide open. I am a really curious person, and the only thing I ever wanted to be aside from a pianist was an archaeologist. I always did have this awareness that there are hidden treasures,” she said.

Portrait by Carl Van Vechten of William Grant Still, whose music is included in ‘Remember Me to Harlem.’ (Wikimedia)

Downes doesn’t think of herself as an activist, however. Indeed, she said she’s “getting a little nervous around the word activist.” She prefers to think of herself as a citizen: “The only thing to do in this life is to find the thing that matters to you and the unique thing that you can say. In my case, it’s so clear why this work means something to me on a personal level but that’s not true for everyone.”

Downes had plenty of time to fine-tune ideas for Rising Sun Music during the pandemic. When the first shutdown happened in March 2020, she said, “I had a really hard time and got pretty seriously depressed. I had been moving so fast, and right in front of me was the outcome of a lot of months and years of big projects. It just felt like this huge blow.” Her 17-year-old son, who studies jazz with a teacher in Brooklyn, helped her film some of her online offerings during the lockdowns.

Downes noted a lack of discernible progress towards equity in the classical music industry. But since the social justice protests of 2020, she said, institutions are finally thinking about ways to address issues of equity and diversity. She expressed confidence that real change is being made and that the effort to diversify the repertory is genuine and “part of the global transformation that this year is bringing.”  In classical music, she added, “the tone around diversity or community – what we used to call outreach – had this kind of charity thing about it, like ‘we’re going to do good things from our high place.’” There is a recognition now that that the community is the audience, she said.

It’s also important, according to Downes, that organizations commit to embracing a composer and not just giving one-off performances, “so that audiences have the sound in their ears and know the importance of the story. This is our American music.”  Downes contends that there’s too much “filler” programmed on classical radio, and that instead of giving airtime to second-rate pieces, it would be more beneficial for stations “to pay attention to something that is connected to our experience and our history and sounds so beautiful.”

In Downes’ ideal world, there will come a time when no one describes artists as “a Black composer” or “a woman composer.”  Before 2020, she said, a fear of change hindered progress toward more equitable programming. She applauds the “new courage and curiosity” that is becoming more prevalent in the music industry. Being more exploratory, she said, can enable an institution to attract a whole new audience. “I think there’s been a reluctance,” she said, “to test those limits.”