PERSPECTIVE — “How do you move something from being token to intentional?” asks musical polymath Louise Toppin. This provocation is just one of the many questions that occupy the mind of the international scholar, opera singer, and activist. As a musical avatar who has performed at Carnegie Hall and Elbphilharmonie, Toppin is on a mission to recalibrate who, what, and how we program our concert seasons to enable a more equitable representation of music from composers of African descent. She is seeking a sustained and systemic cultural shift.
Toppin’s solution? Her recently launched African Diaspora Music Project, a database that houses nearly 4,000 songs and 1,200 symphonies by composers of African descent.
Toppin is challenging programmers to think beyond newsreel moments and, as she calls it, “formulaic programming.”
“We need to stop presenting one movement of Florence Price for Black History Month and giving no time to rehearse it,” she says, “and then spend two weeks on the Beethoven Ninth Symphony that everyone has played for the last 30 years.”
Gestural offers are symbolic of a typical narrative that Toppin is hoping to influence.
The spotlight programming on African American composers during this year’s post-COVID season openers points to recent mea culpa moments. The staging of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night represented the first production of an opera by a Black composer in the company’s 138-year-old history. Riccardo Muti conducted a work by Florence Price for his opener with the Chicago Symphony. The question arises about what happens next.
“Before the pandemic, I was talking to programmers about their programming in Black History Month,” says Toppin. “You are bringing in singers of color to sing Mozart? What does this have to do with Black History Month?”
You might think Toppin is angry or frustrated with the historical lack of representation of African American composers in programming. But in our recent Zoom conversation from her office at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where she is professor of music and voice, Toppin presented her case with high-octane optimism and boundless passion.
Her life’s work is genetically pre-determined to advocacy and pushing boundaries. Toppin’s commitment continues the legacy of her father, Edgar Allan Toppin (1928-2004), an author and professor of history specializing in Civil War, Reconstruction, and African American history. His accomplishments were many. But perhaps his most enduring legacies eventuated as board president of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. In this role, he was instrumental in turning Black History Week into Black History Month in 1976. It is no wonder Black History Month remains a recurring leitmotif in the conversation.
Toppin’s database is built on her lifelong commitment to her cause. She has been researching, recording, editing, and performing African American music across the globe. In October, Toppin gave a recital dedicated to the songs of Harry T. Burleigh — one of the most influential figures in the history of American song — at London’s Oxford Lieder Festival. The impetus for her database is further inspired by the vocal competition on African American art song and opera that she co-founded with tenor George Shirley. Toppin realized pretty quickly that the same repertoire kept resurfacing in the competition. So, the idea of a database to expand knowledge of the repertoire for the young singers began to take shape.
“My father’s passion for history as a public historian — not someone who spent his time just writing works for an academic audience, but hosting television and radio shows, writing for newspapers, finding ways to reach a wide audience — has deeply informed my approach and scope for this project,” Toppin says. “It has shaped me.”
Toppin’s father devoted his life to academia, but in equal parts he shared his work with his children. For the Toppin household, the line between his work and their play entwined with daily life.
“When I was a little girl, my father would take me to the library, and I would do the microfiche with him,” says Toppin. “He would also take me to the stacks. He would teach me to look things up for him. He would give me a date. I could barely read, but I could manage January 1865.”
It’s at this moment in the conversation that Toppin the soprano comes to the foreground. She recalls her happy childhood memories as if she is singing an aria as a coloratura soubrette — with a smile, a giggle, and a knowingness all at once.
Toppin began her African American Music Diaspora project in earnest during the 1990s as a way to catalog the music she had been collecting. She became a doctoral research student of Willis Patterson, bass-baritone and professor emeritus associate dean at the University of Michigan, who edited what The New York Times described as a “ground-breaking anthology of black art songs” in 1977. “It made an international splash, and it is still selling,” says Toppin.
“While I was organizing his music, I made sure that I made extras copies. It was part of what inspired me to start collecting. I had the foresight to see and record everything you see on the data base today: Dedications, dates, performances, biographical information, and recordings are all part of the catalog.”
Abhijit Sengupta, director of artistic planning at Carnegie Hall, considers the database to be invaluable. “At a time when artists and institutions are addressing the critical need to expand the repertoire to include the work of Black composers whose music may have been overlooked, the African Diaspora Music Project will prove to be an indispensable tool,” says Sengupta. “It is intuitive, easy to use, and rich with references to a representative body of work that is as much a part of our shared musical heritage as the cornerstones of the repertoire.”
The repertoire is rich in musical output but also stands as a documentary of American history. Many composers chronicled the historical events of the day through memorials and large-scale choral pieces. “The deaths of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X are all witnessed through these compositions,” says Toppin. “T.J. Anderson completed a series of works called In Memoriam.”
She also points to the compositions that speak to “the errors in our country.” Toppin believes the music gives richness to history in ways that we would never be able to talk about. She cites Robert Owens’ “The Lynching” as an example. “Who is going to talk about a lynching in a song? There are spirituals that speak to the slave narrative in terms of the horrors of auction day. How do we move forward as a people if we do not recognize these stories? Music helps us.”
Toppin also keeps her radar focused on rising composers such as Shawn E. Okpebholo, whose songs have been recorded by baritone Will Liverman, a star of Fire Shut up in My Bones at the Met. Okpebholo’s compositions juxtapose narrations of past and present events. “His music embodies freedom, spirituality and improvisation,” says Toppin. “There are vocalisms from the Black church that all feed into his language.”
Howard Watkins, a music coach at The Juilliard School and assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, believes Toppin’s database will have widespread influence. “For instance, here at Juilliard, the presentation of African American composers is a requirement of college and pre-college curriculum performances,” he said. “The database will offer students the opportunity to widen their repertoire choices.”
Toppin is used to being surrounded by the best, and her project has benefited from her collaboration with Grammy Award-winning conductor James Blachly, who serves as the database’s associate editor and orchestral liaison and has been working with Toppin for the past 18 months. He considers Toppin “a true inspiration.”
“Not only is she universally admired and respected as an international soloist, with dozens of composers having written especially for her voice; she also brings her renowned scholarship and historical perspective to the table,” Blachy said. “And she is a master administrator who is able to bring multifaceted projects under the umbrella of her organizations. No one else could accomplish what she has.”
Toppin and Blachly agree that the digital library will not only serve as an information portal but also as a living and breathing curatorial tool. It’s an artistic direction conversation starter — a cocktail for change. “That’s why the aural component is an important feature of the database,” said Toppin, who adds that some orchestras will not perform the music unless they have heard it. She is grateful to the Minnesota Orchestra for allowing her to use their recordings on her website.
Pianist Lara Downes, creator and curator of Rising Sun Music, a recording series that sheds light on the music and stories of Black composers over the past 20 years, says that “the database not only challenges our perceptions of Black music — its most important impact will be felt on the next generation.”
Future-making is very much Toppin’s dream for the database. Buoyed by the industry’s response to her work, she is looking for new partners and financial donors so that her database can be disseminated as far and wide as possible. As she says, “It just had to be done.”