On the Wisdom of Undine Smith Moore

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walkerhillI have been reading Helen Walker-Hill’s splendid book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and their Music, and learning many enlightening things. Today I’m going to share with you some of the thoughts of Undine Smith Moore. I already knew I liked her music, but it turns out that she was also a percipient cultural critic with many insights to share.

Two particular thoughts leapt out from Walker-Hill’s account, both to do with the way those who are excluded from a dominant culture can have a clearer view of that culture than those who are inside it. I’ll quote at length because the clarity of expression is part of what makes her clarity of thought so palpable:

White composers, being part of the dominant culture, do not know or participate in the culture of the black man. With a highly institutionalized racism, they have not shared the common memories, sufferings, aspirations, modes of dress and speech, styles of life characteristic of those they have educated to feel inferior…

Black people are aware of the qualities of the life of white people. As gardeners, cooks, nurses of white children…in the educational world, the business world, black people know all their lives the inner workings of white life.

…the black composer has a more genuine and extensive participation in both cultures…while whites have a real participation only in their own…blackness does not limit his choices, it amplifies them.

This brings into focus so clearly why what feels like elite groups from the inside can look from the outside like a bunch of small-timers. To an extent, this is the inevitable trade-off between breadth and depth: to become genuinely expert at something you have to ignore a lot of other stuff to make space for the dedicated attention expertise requires. So brilliance necessarily entails a degree of narrowness. But in the structured contexts of social inequality, this leads to privileged people feeling pleased with themselves and each other, while remaining fundamentally ignorant about anything that isn’t part of their bubble. Meanwhile, those outside their bubble can see quite how small and insulated it is.

The same sense of perspective comes through in her comments in response to the question of whether she would wish to become a full-time composer:

This question was surely written for men. Their wives assume those dreary responsibilities which make it possible for them to compose…It would be fine to have a life so ordered that other everyday responsibilities did not impinge so heavily on my time.

This is in one sense the perennial practical issue of how the double shift of professional and domestic labour holds women back compared to their male peers. But it’s also interesting to consider to what extent it is also an artistic issue. On one hand, fragmentation of attention and fewer hours to dedicate to creative work would be expected to inhibit skill development. On the other, dreary as much housework can be, especially if unshared and un-thanked-for, the previous point of Moore’s that I quoted could lead us to suppose that people who don’t participate in the practicalities of supporting daily life are more limited in experience and thus less competent at being human than those who do, and that must in turn make them commensurately narrower of imagination.

(Flashback to a conversation with friends as a postgrad after hearing a performance of tortured and intricate piano works by a determinedly reclusive composer: we found ourselves reflecting that it didn’t sound like it was written by someone who had ever cleaned their own toilet.)

It is unsurprising, given these insights, that Moore’s advocacy for Black musics in the curriculum also entailed a critique of the ‘great works of the great masters’ model dominant then and still prevalent now in the teaching of art music. For, once you start including the people who have been historically left out, you also find yourself in a position to see all the things that aren’t usually visible within the ivory tower, including the way those within it are limited by its walls.

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