By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
For inspiration on his debut album, violinist Randall Goosby turned to his ancestors while offering a nod to the future. The result is the impressive Roots (Decca). The album finds the 24-year-old Goosby—an Itzhak Perlman protégé who at age 13 took first prize at the annual Sphinx Concerto Competition in 2010—exploring the chamber music of such Black composers as William Grant Still (1895–1978), Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004), and Florence Price (1887–1953), as well as the R&B-inspired contemporary work Shelter Island by double bassist Xavier Dubois Foley, a fellow Perlman protégé. The album also features works by George Gershwin and Antonín Dvořák, both of whom championed Black music.
Strings caught up with Goosby, between his home in Memphis, Tennessee, and New York, where he studies at the Juilliard School with Perlman and Catherine Cho.
Strings: What role do Black classical composers play in history and why is it important for you to bring them to the forefront?
Irrespective of music, I think Black composers played more or less the same role as Black people of any other profession throughout history. They withstood great challenges in hopes of a better future for generations to come, and their contributions have gone largely unnoticed for way too long. Until these contributions are brought to light, it will be impossible for us to have a clear picture of how we got to where we are—and where we want to go.
What should violinists know about approaching these works?
Well, as with any music we play, the more you know about the composer, the better. Obviously, there is not very much historical documentation of these composers and their lives, so you’ll have to use your imagination at a certain point. In any case, I think the best way to approach any piece of music is with an open heart and mind. Listen to what the music has to say.
I’m curious about the personal impact this music has on you as an artist.
The process of discovering, learning, and sharing this music has been truly inspiring for me. Composers like William Grant Still and Florence Price had to navigate the world of classical music in a time when, frankly, African Americans were not welcome. Despite this, and the myriad other obstacles that were imposed on them, these composers were able to find their own distinct voices and channel them into some really amazing music. It really puts the power of their artistry, and also the experiences of Black people today, into perspective.
You’ve included the violin world-recording premieres of Florence Price’s elegant Adoration and Fantasies Nos. 1 & 2. How did you first come to hear her works?
In short, the internet! I first heard of her just a couple years ago, and, like any curious kid would do, I Googled it. I found what few recordings there are of her music, and was so intrigued by her unique style and sense of harmony. I think one of the most striking features of her Fantasies is how quickly she moves from spiritual, sung music to virtuosic, rhythmic music with real harmonic complexity. The blending of influences in her life—from her own family’s renditions of hymns and spirituals to her compositional studies at the New England Conservatory—is fascinatingly clear in these works.
Listening to Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s three-movement Blues Forms for Solo Violin, I was struck by the sheer power of his innovative music. What emotions are you putting into its performance?
The first time I heard this piece, I was honestly pretty intimidated. I was 15, and I had just been asked to perform the last movement, “Jettin’ Blues,” for the annual Sphinx Virtuosi Tour, which made a stop at Carnegie Hall. I listened to a recording of Sanford Allen—the dedicatee of this piece—playing it, and my first thought was something like, “Wow, that sounds difficult!” But, the more I got to know the piece, the groovier it started to sound. There’s a swing to the rhythm that, in combination with funky intervals and expressive gestures, makes this piece so much fun to play—and listen to!
William Grant Still is a giant among Black classical composers, but is best known for his orchestral work. Tell me about his three-movement Suite for Violin and Piano.
Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano was inspired by three sculptures created in the 1930s by artists who were part of the Harlem Renaissance: Richmond Barthé’s African Dancer, Sargent Johnson’s Mother and Child, and Augusta Savage’s Gamin. There is clear influence from blues and jazz, which is rather typical of Still’s musical language and style, and each movement achieves a striking resemblance to the sculpture on which it was based. I first played it when I was a teenager, and it remains one of the most fun pieces I’ve played. Each movement is so unique and characterful on its own, yet they stand together so well as a complete work. I think it’s a fantastic little slice of the Black experience, told through the sculptures and interpreted beautifully by Still.
How does it compare to his other work?
What sets this work apart for me is the intimacy that results from its instrumentation. I had so much fun putting this together with Zhu Wang, the pianist on the album, because there is so much interplay between our parts. There are sections of the piece in which we are conversing, or reacting to each other’s line, and there are sections where it feels like we are telling a story together and almost finishing each other’s sentences.
What were the challenges of the piece?
For me, one of the biggest challenges was clearly conveying which parts of the piece are spoken, and which parts are sung. This is a distinction I like to make when playing almost any music, because it really helps to define the character of the music. There is a wonderful variety of textures throughout the piece, and if the violin and piano are not unified in how those textures are brought out, the emotional effect is not as strong.
And then there is Foley’s Shelter Island.
Shelter Island is one of the coolest pieces on the album, in my opinion, and it was written by an old friend of mine, Xavier Foley. Xavier is an extraordinary double bassist with a really special compositional voice, and I’m so grateful to him for being a part of this project. When I asked him if he’d be interested in writing something for us to play together on the album, I didn’t want to give him too much instruction or input, because I wanted him to feel free to say what was on his mind—through the music, of course. The piece was inspired by our time together at the Perlman Music Program in 2011, which takes place every year on Shelter Island. This was the first time that we got to spend time together, though we first met at the Sphinx Competition a year prior. It’s a reflection of the good vibes that Shelter Island inspired in us, and is influenced by musical styles from bluegrass to Bach.
Some might be surprised by the inclusion ofDvořák and Gershwin. Why was it important to include their work?
I figured people would be surprised by Dvořák and Gershwin being included on the album. I actually didn’t intend to include them at first, but my team at Decca suggested that it may be worth adding a couple of composers that classical-music lovers would recognize. I thought that it would be a great opportunity to highlight the significance of Black composers in classical music, because the reality is that the music of Dvořák and Gershwin would not be what it is without the influence of Black music and culture. Dvořák said, “[T]he future of music in [America] must be founded on what are called Negro melodies… These beautiful and varied themes are a product of the soil. They are American…”
The Sphinx Competition has championed Black and Latinx string players. How did the organization help you develop as an artist?
Safe to say I wouldn’t be where I am without Sphinx. It wasn’t until I participated in the 2010 competition that I learned there are Black composers of classical music, not to mention Black classical musicians. Sphinx really opened my eyes, not only in this respect, but also in terms of what it looks like to live a life in music.
After winning the junior division in 2010, I got a taste of what it would be like to be a touring soloist, performing with the New York Phil, Cleveland Orchestra, and New World Symphony in the same year. Perhaps most importantly, though, Sphinx helped me realize my purpose in music—to lead and inspire the next generation. With almost every concerto performance came at least one presentation at a local school, usually one attended mostly by Black and Latinx students. After seeing the looks of amazement and excitement on those students’ faces after hearing me play, I wanted to have that effect everywhere I played. My mom still tells me, “If you can inspire even one kid to pick up a violin or develop an interest in classical music, you’ve done your job.”
Any words of encouragement for fellow string players in these uncertain times?
The world needs you! The pandemic has shown us just how crucial art is for everyone’s survival. It gives us inspiration, hope, an escape, a shoulder to lean on, and the list goes on and on. It brings us together in ways nothing else can. Music in particular can teach you so much about yourself and lead you to places you may never have imagined. Music has taken me to some of the most beautiful places in the world, connected me with some of my best friends, and has given me so many unforgettable memories. If you love to play, do whatever you need to keep playing. You won’t regret it!