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Photograph by Irene Young

Renowned composer Barbara White must not give much credence to the belief that you can’t go home again. She returned home in her mind when writing the composition Reliquary, and she hopes to return to Pittsburgh, her graduate school home, where one of her compositions will be performed.

Noteworthy Career

Christopher Weber

Barbara White
The music inside the University of Pittsburgh’s Bellefield Auditorium will start almost inaudibly, a trickle of muted notes. Suddenly, jarring bass chords will leap from the piano—then nothing again. Silence will wrap the tones, making them seem stark and ponderous as a tempo emerges. The audience will wait as the same two notes are repeated like beats of a drum, accelerating into a blues melody played at breakneck speed.

One of those expected to be listening to the solo recital by pianist Geoffrey Burleson is Pitt alumna Barbara White (FAS ’97, ’94). She plans to sit in the audience, perhaps greet her old teachers while nearby graduate students will probably elbow each other and mutter, Hey, that’s her. The one our professors keep talking about.

It’s not just Pitt professors and graduate students who know of White. The American Academy of Arts and Letters has cited her music as “playful, quirky, bold, powerful, colorful, kinetic, fearless, and appealing.” Even Paul Griffiths, a music critic for The New York Times, called White “a real discovery … a composer who knows how to find characterful instrumental ideas and make them work.”

Given those accolades, it’s not too surprising that White has received numerous musical commissions from, among others, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York New Music Ensemble, and the Boston Musica Viva. She also received a 2000 fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship. White’s Reliquary is the piece scheduled for a February performance in Bellefield Auditorium. She named this piece after the gilded cabinets found in old-world churches. Usually, a reliquary holds precious saints’ bones and martyrs’ cloaks. But White’s piece is a musical reliquary, a suite of five movements dedicated to the memory of five people she wanted to honor. Each movement tells a story. The first two are dedicated to Ivan Tcherepnin and Luise Vosgerchian, her music teachers during her undergraduate days at Harvard University. The next two are dedicated to White’s favorite composers: Frenchman Maurice Ravel, whose most famous work is Bolero; and Lennie Tristano, an American who worked in a jazz idiom.

The fifth movement is more personal still. It’s dedicated to White’s mother, Ruth. In this one, the pianist’s left hand will slap the bass keys. Anyone who remembers the old popular song “Tain’t No Sin” might want to sing along:

When it gets too hot for comfort, and you can’t get ice cream cones,
Tain’t no sin to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.

But it won’t be karaoke. While there are snatches of the jaunty, freewheeling melody, the chords are smashed together—the pianist must attack the keyboard frenetically, and then fade back, as if fatigued. As the underlying beat grows as strong as a pounding heart, the melody will turn bluesy and whimsical. You can almost hear it: Tain’t no sin to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.

In her seat, White will hear the old tune behind her notes, but as a composer, she does not necessarily want everyone in the audience to recognize it. “I don’t expect people to understand what I’m referring to and why,” she explains. “There are private references that only I get and that people misinterpret—but sometimes their misinterpretations are interesting. I just want them to be engaged.”

If the audience members do somehow catch this private joke, it will sound something like Ruth White singing “Tain’t No Sin” in the family’s home in North Reading, Mass., outside Boston:

When the lazy syncopation of the music softly moans,
Tain’t no sin to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.

No one in the White family thought it was strange for Mom to bop around the house singing; after all, this was a house full of music. Ruth tended to sing just for herself, in a middle voice, not too loud or too soft, but everyone could hear it, especially when she was in the kitchen making noodles: When it’s too hot for comfort . . .

Meanwhile, her daughter Barbara was usually in her room fooling around with the clarinet. By the time she reached high school, White had taught herself to play five other instruments as well: flute, piano, saxophone, baritone horn, and drums. (Years later, she would play coffee cans in a performance at Pitt.)

But the clarinet was White’s love. By her own account, she was a good player—but she was less interested in playing in the New York Philharmonic than in making new sounds. So, she started writing her own pieces, like a set of wild variations on “Happy Birthday” for the band director at North Reading High School, Mr. Weiss. The band blared it. White says it was so cool.

By the time she arrived at Pitt in 1992 as a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in music, she was already an accomplished young composer. She had been to France to study at the Paris Conservatory. She had written music for the dancers she met at weekly jam sessions in Boston. And she had been to the MacDowell Colony, the famous New Hampshire summer retreat for artists, where she met Eric Moe, the Pitt music professor who would one day be her dissertation director.

After the retreat, there was never any question that White would attend Pitt. The attraction, for White, was Moe and the rest of the music department’s faculty. “They were young, open-minded, and very, very skilled,” White remembers. “They had been exposed to a lot of different ways of thinking about music. For me, there was kind of a split between improvising jazz and serious music that would be written down. What I found at Pitt was all that could be concert music.” Indeed, even old songs like “Tain’t No Sin” were concert material. For White, it was an epiphany, one that she might never have had without the department’s unusual curriculum.

By longstanding custom, the music programs of the world are divided into distinct and strictly separate areas. If you wanted to study world music—Portuguese ballads, for instance, or the Javanese gamelans—you went into ethnomusicology, its own distinct subdivision. If you wanted to study the classical canon—Beethoven’s early works, say, or medieval French troubadours, or Stravinsky’s influence—then you went into historical musicology, another such subdivision. And if you wanted to write your own music, as White did, you studied music theory and composition. At most universities, these three areas were almost like different departments; the ethnomusicologists had nothing to do with Beethoven, and the composition students couldn’t tell you a thing about Javanese gamelans.

In the 1980s, Pitt’s music department made a radical departure from this traditional system. Its students still specialized in one area, but the faculty began to require them to take courses in all the areas. What’s more, students were required to take at least one course outside the music department. Thus, composition students might study the history of theater. Ethnomusicologists turned up in art history classes. It was all part of a new, interdisciplinary perspective on music scholarship, explains Deane Root, chair of the Department of Music. “The strength of one’s research in music,” says Root, “depends on a student’s ability to access information from a variety of perspectives. Bringing the three areas together created a richness of ideas that would otherwise not be possible for students. And it improved their job prospects.” Before long, music departments at universities around the country were adopting this sort of integrated curriculum.

In an ethnomusicology seminar White took in 1993, she wrote a paper about Don Byron, a clarinetist and composer like herself. Byron grew up in the Bronx, listening to and playing in all kinds of styles from Latin to orchestral. As an adult, his genre-bending music continued to reflect this diversity: Byron arranged and performed works ranging from Puccini to Stevie Wonder. Yet, in White’s research, she discovered that people viewed Byron’s music through the prism of race. Because Byron was African American, his listeners and critics often called him a jazzman. They assumed, in other words, that a Black composer could only come out of the jazz world. The lesson was an ear-opening one for White. She had discovered that listeners make up a history—often a false one—to go with the music they hear.

Two years later, as a doctoral student, White started writing the suite that would one day become Reliquary. It would explore her own musical history—a “sonic scrapbook,” as she called it. At the same time, it would play with that history, unraveling it into jumbles of notes and silences that distorted White’s past as much as they revealed it. “It was very important to me,” White explains, “to do this project in which I was, first of all, acknowledging all the different kinds of sounds in my head, and then finding a way to embrace and tweak them so that they became mine.”

By 2000, White had become an assistant professor of music at Princeton University. It was a fine job for a freshly minted PhD—but such good fortune was not unprecedented. Graduates from Pitt’s music department regularly landed prestigious posts. Their integrated courses of study gave them an edge on other candidates, because they could teach both musicology and composition, not just one or the other.

At her new home in New Jersey, White still had the old piano she bought in Pittsburgh, an out-of-tune Betsy Ross Spinet, one of those flat-topped pianos that look more like a bureau than an instrument. The spinet had a dull, clunky, antique sound that a pianist couldn’t pretend to like. But White loved that chunky mass of wood, felt, steel, plastic, and wire. She hadn’t written a piece for solo piano in more than a decade, but she felt sure, intuitively, that the new piece materializing in her head had to be written at the keyboard. “Using the piano was like putting on a strange costume deliberately to see what would happen. Sometimes, when I choose to put myself in an unfamiliar place, I discover a musical result I would not have anticipated.”

At that piano, White began in earnest composing Reliquary during her mornings over a five-month span in late 2000. At first, it was pure experimentation. She hit the same notes over and over, sometimes softly, sometimes slamming the keys. She reached into the spinet and plucked its strings directly. She played all the old songs and scales she had learned as a child, and then she replayed them in different keys and tempos. In the process, she realized all kinds of things. She realized, for instance, that her mother had a unique way of singing “Tain’t No Sin;” she had slowed it down and made it into a more easygoing, lilting tune. White followed her mother’s example but went way beyond it: She turned “Tain’t No Sin” inside out, upside down, backwards and forwards in a punning, sinful fashion.

Pianist Burleson gave Reliquary its world premiere performance in May 2001 at Harvard. White sent a recording of the performance, as well as the sheet music, to Eric Moe, and when he heard it, he wanted his students to hear it, too. So he scheduled the February 2005 Bellefield performance as part of “Music on the Edge,” the concert series he has directed for the past 15 years. The series is dedicated to music that cannot be heard at Pittsburgh Symphony concerts—or most anywhere else, for that matter. Reliquary certainly fit the bill.

“It’s a tour de force of a piece,” Moe says. “The music is so persuasive, big, idiosyncratic. In the past, composers found their ‘ism’ and stuck to that—modernism, minimalism, surrealism, and so forth. But Barbara has moved beyond that. Having world-class musicology professors was a big help to her, because it showed her there was a wide range of styles to draw on.”

Including the vocal stylings of noodle-making mothers. The intricate, personal textures of Reliquary are attracting notice all over the country. The piece has been performed recently at Princeton, Cornell University, and Union College. White, who last year was promoted to associate professor at Princeton, is delighted at how her work is “taking on a life of its own,” adding, “I’m pleased that pianists are taking it into their repertoires, since it’s so complicated and demanding. When I first wrote the piece, I wrote it because I just wanted to write it.”

“Tain’t No Sin” in that.

Christopher Weber (A&S ’04G) is a freelance writer.

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