University of Illinois: New recording pairs music of Bach with works by Black composers

Rochelle Sennet, a professor of piano in the School of Music at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, recorded suites by J.S. Bach and by a variety of Black composers in her project “Bach to Black” to broaden the appeal of each to diverse audiences.

The first in a series of three recordings planned for the project, “Back to Black: Suites for Piano” was released in June by Albany Records, and it is available through the major streaming services. The three-disc set features Sennet performing 12 pieces of music – Bach’s six English suites and six compositions by Black composers.

Sennet has a Western classical music background, performing works from composers such as Bach and Beethoven. She also enjoys performing the works of Black composers, and she finds the audiences for performances featuring Bach and those featuring the music of Black composers are quite different.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she said. “Classical music doesn’t have to be for one certain audience or an elite bunch of people. Music is a way to bring people together.”

In her liner notes for the recording, Sennet wrote that she wanted to encourage conversations about inclusion and equity in classical music, as well as celebrate the composers whose works she performed.

“I welcome the opportunity to spread the message that everyone deserves to be included in the classical music space regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or cultural background,” she wrote.

Sennet said it is tricky to navigate being a person of color in a mostly white space. She finds that people sometimes have expectations about her – assuming she is a singer or asking if she performs jazz or gospel music. She objects to such attempts to place Black musicians into a box that limits them to a particular genre of music.

“If they are interested in playing Bach, they are sometimes told, ‘Don’t do that, it’s centering whiteness. Present work by Black composers,’” Sennet said. Through “Bach to Black,” she asks: Why not both?

Sennet said she enjoys playing Bach’s work because of the skill and the understanding of the music needed to bring out the multiple voices that are played simultaneously and yet independent of one another. She also enjoys the challenge of deciding how to perform it on piano when it was written for harpsichord.

“There are always questions about how to interpret the tempo, whether to play a short note versus a long note. People have very different opinions and thoughts and ideas about something as simple as tempo. And the way scores looked at the time was different from the 19th century and the 20th century and now,” she said.

All the compositions Sennet performed for the project are suites, or multi-movement pieces. She will eventually record 38 compositions.

The project will showcase a wide range of work by Black composers. Sennet paired each of the Bach suites with a work by a Black composer that had similarities with Bach in some way, such as key, tone or rhythm.

For example, she wanted to include a composition by H. Leslie Adams because she has played his work over the years and the key of his piece “Contrasts” paired well with Bach’s “English Suite No. 2 in A Minor.”

The recording includes two works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Sennet was excited to perform his compositions because they had not been recorded on piano, only in orchestral versions.

It also was important to Sennet to disrupt expectations about the music written by Black composers. “I chose work (by contemporary composer Jeffrey Mumford) because he makes a strong point that his work doesn’t fit into any box,” Sennet said.

One of the challenges of the project was obtaining access to the scores of the works Sennet wanted to perform. Not all of them were within the public domain. Some of the scores had not been published or were out of print. Sennet worked with the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago to find some of the compositions that interested her.

“Bach to Black” was recorded at Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts between September and November 2020.

Sennet was scheduled to perform a portion of the music from her project at Krannert Center in March 2020, but the performance was canceled due to the pandemic. She’s performed some of the music in a virtual recital, and she presented a prerecorded video performance in July. The pandemic helped her to think creatively about how to use technology to reach large audiences, but Sennet hopes to eventually perform music from “Bach to Black” in person at Krannert Center and other venues.

“I’m very proud of this project, particularly that it was done during the pandemic,” Sennet said. “It was quite a humbling experience as well. Performers learn a lot about themselves when they record because they are listening to things to see that this works and this doesn’t work. There’s no better way than to go back and listen to yourself play to do some self-evaluation.”