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  • American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century
  • Renée McBride
American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century. By Jeannie Gayle Pool. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009. [xxi, 278 p. ISBN 9780810863767 (paperback). $50.] Illustrations, music examples, appendices, bibliography, index.

This first biography of composer, pianist, and music educator Zenobia Powell Perry (1908–2004), is an extension of author Jeannie Gayle Pool’s Ph.D. dissertation The Life and Music of Zenobia Powell Perry: An American Composer, completed in 2002 at Claremont Graduate University. Pool, currently music archivist for Paramount Pictures, is herself a multifaceted musician—composer, musicologist, film [End Page 313] music consultant, producer, and devoted proponent of women in music. Her biography of Perry is the latest in an impressive series of efforts to bring to light more information about women composers, such as helping establish the International Alliance for Women in Music, producing concerts, radio shows, and recordings of music by women composers, and writing extensively about women in music, including her publication Peggy Gilbert & Her All-Girl Band (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008).

As suggested by the title of her biography of Perry and subtitle of her dissertation, Pool emphasizes Perry’s “distinctively American” qualities throughout, covering Perry’s childhood in the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma; her varied musical mentors and educational experiences; and influences on her music and life from minority traditions: Perry’s father was African-American; her mother, of mixed African-American and Creek heritage. Pool also approaches Perry’s life with an eye to reevaluating how success as a twentieth-century American composer might be determined, noting that “Zenobia Perry’s story challenges . . . mainstream musicological thinking about achievement in composition, particularly in the black community” (p. 9). Pool questions how arranging is viewed in the world of composition, observing that marginalization of arrangers of spirituals and other folk music adversely affects the legacy of many composers. In addition to arranging numerous spirituals and using melodies from spirituals in her instrumental works, Perry based many of her melodies on Creek songs. Pool raises the provocative question, “Many of the compositions of [Béla Bartók], Zoltán Kodály, Antonín Dvořák, Franz Liszt, Georges Enescu, and even Aaron Copland are based on folk materials. Would anyone dare say this practice was not composition?” (p. 156)

Perry’s story additionally offers the opportunity to reconsider what constitutes success as a composer simply through the way her life unfolded. Her life was a “set of discontinuities” (p. 9), a phrase coined by Mary Catherine Bateson in her book Composing a Life (New York: Plume, 1989). Bateson, the daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, explores the lives of women as creative works through comparative biographies of herself and four close friends. Pool cites her observation that “each of us has worked by improvisation, discovering the shape of our creation along the way, rather than pursuing a vision already defined” (p. 8). She finds Bateson’s ideas useful in considering Perry’s life and applies them to her work, emphasizing how Perry “compose[d] [her] life by refocusing and redefining [her] multiple commitments and goals,” as opposed to “overfocus[ing] on the stubborn struggle towards a single goal” (p. 9). Pool approaches Perry’s biography with the intent of revealing how Perry turned the discontinuities in her life into opportunities through her deeply held values of independence, self-reliance, justice, equality, and community service.

Perry’s musical education and career did not follow the so-called traditional path in the least. Her childhood in an all-black town as the eldest daughter of a physician father provided a secure environment that many African Americans did not experience. In a 1993 interview Perry said, “When I got to graduate school where I had a mixed class, I never felt intimidated like the other blacks in the class did. I never did” (p. 33). Perry studied piano and violin as a child, although she was neither from a family of musicians nor a child prodigy. As an African-American woman in the early twentieth century, she lacked role models in the world...


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