|T.J. Anderson, now 80, was honored with concerts at Tufts University. (John Bohn/Globe Staff/file 2002)|
SOMERVILLE - In "The Souls of Black Folk," W.E.B. DuBois voiced the African-American's desire: "This is the end of his striving to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture."
T.J. Anderson, whose 80th birthday was honored last weekend with a three-day new music festival at Tufts University, has attained prominence in that kingdom, and on his own terms. Anderson, who ran Tufts' music department from 1972 until 1980, and continued teaching there for another decade, was one of the first (and, still, too-few) prominent African-American composers in contemporary classical music, often recognized more for the fact of his career; the festival's Sunday finale put his music front and center.
The concert illustrated Anderson's curatorial approach - disparate musical styles arranged side-by-side, in co-equal juxtaposition. In two piano solos - 1982's "Call and Response" (performed by Peter D'Elia), and 2007's "In Memoriam Gerald Gill" (played by Edith Auner) - fragmentary, avant-garde clusters, glissandi, and sparks slowly assemble into tonal endings: a snatch of hymn, a quiet cadence. Pianist and Tufts professor John McDonald and alumni Tom Swafford (violin) and James Coleman (cello) dug incisively into "Ivesiana": unsynchronized nostalgic simultaneities scaffolded and subverted by violent, disconnected outbursts. McDonald was also sharp and scintillating in "Watermelon," a 1971 solo that transcribes a street vendor's call, then occasionally glimpses it through aggressive modernist traffic.
Three premieres showed more overt vernacular references. "In Memoriam Jennifer Fitzgerald" (repeated from Friday's concert, which remembered the composer and Tufts alumna) featured trumpeter John McCann bringing flair to a jazzy, brief series of muted riffs before opening the bell for a final, haunting peal. "Jazz Overtones" was written for Ann Hobson Pilot; the BSO harpist, her husband, saxophonist R. Prentice Pilot, and percussionist Will Hudgins combined in minimalistic loops of bright African rhythms that unraveled into individual soliloquies, reassembling into a jump-cut series of modal jams: the ancestry, gestation, and birth of the cool.
The final premiere was the most unusual: "Birdsongs," commissioned for the art-rock ensemble Birdsongs of the Mesozoic by band founder and one-time Anderson student Erik Lindgren. The five movements, four setting intricate texts by Anderson's son, poet T.J. Anderson III, referenced Charlie Parker, Igor Stravinsky, and Frederick Delius, but even within the rock milieu, Anderson's penchants emerged - mosaic sequences of isolated instruments, driving rhythmic grooves undermined and reasserted. Soprano D'Anna Fortunato's flamboyantly operatic, angular melismata were sometimes a curious fit, but testified to an all-encompassing musical appetite. Anderson's kingdom of culture is a diverse place indeed.