Season 2 - Episode 222
Dr. Horace Maxile, Associate Professor of Music Theory in the Baylor School of Music, is a leading expert on the contributions of African-American composers in classical and concert music. In this Baylor Connections, he shares how his work fills a void in scholarly attention focused on African-American composers and offers seminal pieces for listeners to discover.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, the student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Dr. Horace Maxile. Dr. Maxile serves as Associate Professor of Music Theory in The Baylor University School of Music. His research interests include the concert music of African American composers, gospel music, and musical semiotics. Prior to coming to Baylor, he served as Associate Director of Research at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, Editor of the Black Music Research Journal, Associate Editor of the Encyclopedia of African American Music, and Chair of the Society of Music Theory Committee on Diversity. Dr. Horace Maxile, he's with us today here on Baylor Connections. Thank you so much for joining us.
Horace Maxile:Thank you. Good afternoon.
Derek Smith:We've had you from, how long have you been here at Baylor now?
Horace Maxile:Completing my seventh year.
Derek Smith:Completing your seventh year at Baylor. Now, you are originally from Louisiana. You have lived in a number of different places around the country, but how did growing up in Louisiana impact your love of music, and where did that begin?
Horace Maxile:It began primarily in church, came from a very experienced minister of music, who encouraged us to listen to lots of different things and sing lots of different styles of music in the worship service. Her name was Hattie Wade, very influential in my life and just helped cultivate the love that I have for music. Also, of course, public school, you know. I had a very, very good junior high school band director. Between those two folks, I got my start there.
Derek Smith:What are some of your earliest memories of actually experiencing music?
Horace Maxile:Earliest memories of experiencing music have to go back to my grandmother's house. My grandfather, wouldn't call him a practicing musician, but every Friday, right after the news and right before Dukes of Hazzard or something like that, that sweet spot, he would go to the living room and play the piano and play a couple of songs and sing a little bit. But he was just kind of stealing away to his own place, his own space. I would listen to him carefully, what he would do, and I would try to mimic some of the sounds he would make on the piano from time to time. So I would say those were the earliest experiences that I remember most vividly. But of course, band festivals and church services and musicals and band concerts and things like that also come into play.
Derek Smith:What instruments do you play?
Horace Maxile:I studied saxophone as a student in college, but I play piano and organ mostly.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Horace Maxile, and Dr. Maxile, we briefly gave an overview of your research interests at the top of the show, but let's dig a little bit deeper and begin to. What are your main areas of focus as a researcher?
Horace Maxile:Research for me, my main areas mainly centers around the concert musical or classical music, for lack of a better term, of African American composers. That's my main focus. Secondarily would be jazz and gospel analysis as well.
Derek Smith:Now, we hear a lot, certainly jazz and gospel music get a great deal of attention. Is it more difficult to find scholarly information about African American composers, or was there a need there that you tried to fill?
Horace Maxile:I think yes, that's the need, that's the void that I'm trying to fill. There's a lot of material out there on jazz. The field of gospel music research is growing. Blues and spirituals have been dealt with significantly in the literature. But for concert music or music in the classical or Western tradition, there is definitely a void there. There are some people doing some pretty good work, but when compared to the work on jazz and other vernacular forms, there's a big void in between those two.
Derek Smith:Where did you first begin to get interested in that topic and recognize that void?
Horace Maxile:That would be my undergraduate experience. I went to Louisiana Tech University, but Louisiana Tech is right down the street, maybe six or seven miles away, from Grambling State University, historically black college. I had a lot of friends that went there, and conversations would kind of center around senior recitals and things like that. I overheard someone say that they were going to do a piece on Ulysses Kay. I was like, "Who is that?" They all kind of chuckled. It was like, "You don't know who Ulysses Kay is?" I was like, "No." It was like, "Oh, it's a black composer." I was like, "Really? Wow. Cool." I'd heard of a few, but I had not heard of this particular one, and I think my experience and exposure to those composers was limited in a way to what was actually in the written literature or the pedagogical literature at the time. It has since expanded, but at that point or at that time there wasn't that much in historical studies that would afford that kind of exposure in historical textbooks for music students. So I was exposed to a little bit, but being around those guys at that institution opened my eyes a lot, and it just fueled the fire.
Derek Smith:As your eyes were opened to this, was there a thrill of discovery as you learned? What do you remember about those early days of discovering this as a topic?
Horace Maxile:Early days, I would say mainly just looking at the scores and just being blown away by the volume of things that were out there. And actually looking at the score and playing through a couple of things. I'm not the best pianist, but I can kind of chomp through a couple of things and actually listen to some of the ideas and just really look at the score not only as an artifact but perhaps as an extension of a tradition.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Horace Maxile, Associate Professor of Music Theory at Baylor. Are there stories that most stand out to you as you study African American composers? Are there stories or experiences that most stand out to you?
Horace Maxile:Mainly the idea of composers actually being active before the turn of the 20th century, active composers who were actually writing things and getting things published at the turn of the century, and what kind of enterprise that must have been for an individual, perhaps two generations or one generation removed from emancipation, writing this music down in hopes of getting it played. It's just an amazing thing to think about and consider.
Derek Smith:You know, we hear people talk about the ways that the African American experience is shared in songs, whether it be the blues or gospel or jazz, but are there ways that you find that in the music they compose, be it in a very different form?
Horace Maxile:I do. I guess the thing that I've learned the most is to not try to put a composer in a vacuum and believe that he or she should sound a certain way in order to be considered an African American composer. That would create a sense of essentialism that just doesn't need to be in the mix. I do believe that composers who chose to move toward a more nationalistic sound, that is, to try to bring sounds from their culture into this westernized form or format, had some challenges. You know, what gets lost in translation. But at the same time, who's actually hearing this? Who's your audience, and will they pick up on the subtleties? Those are some exciting things to consider or that I've considered in the past. In addition, I think the wide variety of genres within this western tradition. So we have piano concertos, piano sonatas, orchestral works, chamber works, string quartets, works for solo instruments. And so there's just a wide array of ways that composers chose to express themselves and not be a part of this, perhaps, a perceived monolithic expressive voice that might be considered African American or black.
Derek Smith:The search for these pieces, the search for these stories, what kinds of places has that search taken you?
Horace Maxile:Oh, man, everywhere. Piano benches in churches. There's a lot of music that ends up in piano benches. Sometimes archival collections. Visiting family members who just happen to have a piece or two that their mother or their grandmother wrote. So a lot of different places. Mostly archival collections, and a lot of these works are unpublished works. You run into some issues there with regard to rights and publications and publishing and copyrights and things like that. You just have to kind of skirt around those issues.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Horace Maxile, and prior to coming to Baylor, you worked as Associate Director of Research. That was at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago. Is Chicago a rich place in which to do that work? And what did you learn from that job?
Horace Maxile:Chicago is definitely a rich place to do lots of things when it comes to music. Of course, it was the birthplace of the electric blues. Gospel burgeoned there and just grew exponentially. But even on the concert music side or the classical music side, it was the home for Florence Price, the first African American woman composer of note. It was her home for a number of years. There's a school actually, or there was a school, I don't know if it's still open, named in her honor in Chicago. So it was a good place to do that work, and the Center was a good place as well. There was adequate funding and everything else to get all of that work done. The city itself, that was very welcoming. I think it's the most southern northern city there is in the United States. So when you say hi on the street, people say hi back. There's a very friendly vibe there. There's good food. I could go on the food, I could talk about the pizza forever. But it's a good place.
Derek Smith:That sounds good. You worked in research there in Chicago. When did research go for you from being an interest, hey, I want to learn more about African American composers, to being an area of scholarly pursuit and really what's become a calling for you?
Horace Maxile:Early on, I've been considered an evangelist of sorts for this music. Many older scholars in that day called my work evangelical, simply because I was simply just trying to pound the pavement and get people to listen or to consider a work or to perhaps think about this piece when you're teaching this particular concept. For me, I think the move actually came when I started to do scholarly presentations, and there was some genuine interest in my work. I got called for a couple of guest lectures at universities. I was like, "Oh wow, this might be something that interests folks." So it just kind of shifted that way. And since I'm not an active performer on that side of the spectrum, so I'm not an active pianist or I don't concertize on that level, if I can introduce works through my scholarship or introduce works through my lectures and get people to at least consider the works and give them a shot and put them on the same programs with a Beethoven or a Mozart or a Brahms and just let the works just stand on their own and let the audience just make those decisions, then I think my work is done.
Derek Smith:Well, we'll give you a little preview a little bit later on. I'm going to ask you if there are some places to start for people, some pieces, some compositions that you'd recommend people take a look at. So people can grab a pen and paper a little bit later, type it in their phone, look it up wherever they'd like to. That is upcoming near the end of the program. We're visiting with Dr. Horace Maxile on Baylor Connections. Dr. Maxile serves as Associate Professor of Music Theory in the Baylor University School of Music, and as you said, you've been called an evangelist for the music of African American composers. You mentioned the scholarly audiences, but I'm assuming, do you talk about those in different ways with different audiences, when you're just trying to maybe pique someone's interest? What does that look like for you?
Horace Maxile:Absolutely. I try to stay away from a lot of jargon when I'm not talking to music scholars. Don't want to turn anyone off, but basically want to get people to give the music a try or give it a shot. So definitely, I approach different audiences in different ways. But the music is still the music. There are still elements of blues or elements of jazz or elements of gospel or spirituals that could creep out. And so if you can make those points of connection for those listeners, then they might listen a little bit further to see how those particular themes or elements are developed in that particular context. Then the listening for perhaps the less formally trained musician becomes more of a search for, "Oh, when can I hear that theme again?" Or, "Where can I hear that melody again?" It becomes an active listening experience, which is actually kind of fun.
Derek Smith:You know, you mentioned that your research has taken you to church benches, to people's houses. What does the research look like once you've found a piece? You've got a piece that's captured your ear or a story you're interested in. How do you synthesize that with the other work you do into more coherent scholarly focus?
Horace Maxile:I try to perform an analysis of the piece and looking at the historical context of the piece. So not only looking at the notes but perhaps looking at the composer's life, what was going on in the life of the composer at the time the piece was composed, and really digging into the notes and looking at the form and the structures and large-scale, small-scale structures, pulling out themes. Are there quotations of preexisting tunes? When and where do they occur? Why and how do they occur? In what voices and lots of that. So really digging into the craft of the composition or the craft of the composer, as well as the aesthetic pleasure of listening to the piece itself. And then I think I start to just write those notes down, work from a formal outline and then look at the formal details and then look at the really cool things and start from the big picture and work my way down to the smaller details, adding historical context when I can and making it turn out as an article. That's one way. Another way is, if the piece is not published, perhaps looking for the family to see if I can create a performance edition of the piece so that the piece can live on in other ways, not only in my writing. Because music is a sound-based art. I could write about it as much as I want, but if no one hears it, then what good is the work? To some degrees, I want to create performance editions as well of unpublished works, so that people can actually play them and give the works a chance.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Horace Maxile. Dr. Maxile, you mentioned getting these works published in some cases, so people could enjoy them. You've got your broader area of focus as it comes to African American composers, but are there other more narrow focuses, themes that particularly interest you, that speak most to you?
Horace Maxile:Specifically, I am really interested in how emblems or musical signs or musical emblems, for lack of a better term, surface in these compositions and how they might convey meaning to a given listener at any given time. It's really important to understand that not only can blues be used in a symphonic way, or a blue note or a blues scale, but how and where does that appear, and why did the composer choose to put it at that particular moment? I think those are exciting things to think about and consider, because if it were all blue notes, and if it were just a 12-bar blues form, then what separates that piece from it being a B.B. King type of piece? Really, what makes it as classical as it is classical, and what makes it blues as much as it is blues? And then where do we meet in between to make those things come together?
Derek Smith:Dr. Maxile, you have the research component, but you also teach here at Baylor. You mentioned you came here to Baylor about seven years ago. What brought you here to Baylor from some of your other roles?
Horace Maxile:The desire to teach. When I was in Chicago, it was mostly research. It was a research position, collection development. I met with a lot of families and things like that to help grow the collection, and that was very exciting work. But at my core, I believe I am a teacher, and I wanted to find a place where I could teach. And also, the whole idea of a Christian university appealed to me in a lot of ways with regard to the places that I would want my family to be and places that I could see myself ending my career.
Derek Smith:Talking to Dr. Horace Maxile, and you talk about teaching and research. How do you balance the two, and how do the two intersect for you?
Horace Maxile:The balance is somewhat difficult, because I want to be good at both, and it's hard to do. It's a challenge in a lot of ways. I balance the two by focusing on one when I'm not focusing on the other. So my summers are filled with lots of research and pulling together of materials. I probably do most of the synthesizing during my summers when I'm not teaching, and then the writing piece comes out after all of the synthesis takes place, over the course of that academic year, over the fall and spring semesters. They definitely inform one another, because I have such a vast knowledge of a lot of literature, I can play an example at the beginning of class, just to pique the interest of my students. So they would hear violins, and they would hear a string quartet, but they would hear Wade in the Water, which is a spiritual. It's like, "Hey, what is that? I've heard that tune before. Who is that?" And then that opens the field for a lot of discussion, or maybe a little bit of discussion. And even from there, a student might say, "Well, can you tell me a little more about that composer, and where might I be able to find that composer's works?" And in some cases, not so much here but in past experiences, some of those conversations have led to performances of works in graduate and undergraduate recitals.
Derek Smith:Wow, that's great. Talking to Dr. Horace Maxile as we head into the final few minutes of the program. What most stands out to you about your experience here at Baylor specifically so far?
Horace Maxile:The collegial spirit. I really enjoy working here. I enjoy working with the people with whom I work. There's a genuine concern about me as a person, and I've experienced that, not so much what can you do for me but what can we do for you, and how can we help you? Even as I've gone through my experiences of being tenured and all of that, conversations were definitely centered on, "Hey, let's make sure all of that stuff is working out okay." But immediately after that, "How's your family doing? Are you all settling into the area well? Is there anything that we can do to help you become more settled into Waco?" And that showed a genuine investment not only in me for what I can do for Baylor but what the investment of time and effort into my comfort and my family's comfort here. I think that's genuine. I think it's almost unique, and that's why I like it here.
Derek Smith:What about working with your colleagues on music in different areas? You mentioned gospel. Baylor has the Black Gospel Restoration Project with Bob Darden. We have a number of professors who research music in historical forms. How does that work for you, getting to interact with colleagues and maybe seeing the ways in which your unique approaches intersect and ways they're different?
Horace Maxile:I think it's wonderful, because you actually get to learn more. If you think you have it all, you won't grow. I enjoy working with Bob Darden and even some of my other musicology colleagues, because I'm learning more about how they present their ideas and how to approach different things. And I can blend that with how I do things. And it works out really, really well. I've learned a lot from Bob in just his standpoint of just how genuine passion can forge basically a path of scholarship and create a space for something as large and as significant as the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. So just an idea, some passion, and some know-how, and a supportive university, can really make a difference.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Horace Maxile. And now Dr. Maxile, as promised, I wanted to ask you, I know it's tough to narrow this down, but are there some maybe starter pieces, we might call them? If what you've talked about has piqued people's interest, and they'd like to learn a little bit, is there a piece or two you could turn our direction or our attention to?
Horace Maxile:Sure. I'll have to go with Florence Price's piano sonata in E minor as a starter. Secondarily, of course, I shouldn't say of course, many people might not know the work, William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony. That's another good one. Margaret Bonds' Troubled Water, which is a piece based on Wade in the Water. It's a piano piece based on Wade in the Water. A number of other pieces that are perhaps a little more modern in taste that might not suit everyone's palate. But those three are definitely of the more tonal character and have elements of familiarity that I think will pique a lot of listeners' interest.
Derek Smith:I hope people will check those out and learn a little bit more. Dr. Maxile, thank you for pointing our attention onto some of those pieces and for the work that you do in highlighting, and as we said, maybe there is a void in the scholarship. Exciting that that's taking place here at Baylor.
Horace Maxile:Thank you.
Derek Smith:Thank you so much for joining us here today on Baylor Connections. Dr. Horace Maxile, Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Baylor School of Music, our guest today. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us on Baylor Connections. s.