Our mid-summer CD release announcement celebrates Scenes in Tin Can Alley, a stellar collection of recordings by pianist Josh Tatsuo Cullen of African-American composer Florence Price’s beautiful piano solos. Being an avid Florence Price fan, I jumped at the invitation by Gail Wein, of Classical Music Communications to interview Mr. Cullen on his CD.
Listening to the CD transported me back to Florence Price’s era. It’s an honor to share this labor of love with my students and readers. And now, for the story.
LRW: As an art teacher, the cover art of a CD gets noticed right away. May I ask who designed your CD cover art? Were they hired by the record label or did you get to choose?
JTC: Brittany Symone is the artist. She is a Virginia-based artist I discovered earlier this year. We’ve never met in person, but I’ve been able to watch her work through her Instagram livestreams. Her style is distinct, and she has a passion for creating art that connects to others through our shared human experience. In her work, you can clearly see the deep connection she has to her personal identity, her values, and her lived experience, which she shares bits and pieces of, in her livestreams. When I commissioned her to do the artwork, the first thing she asked for was to listen to the recording. I was happy to share it with her, knowing that she would use it as inspiration. It was a collaborative process between the two of us, and the result is something that I feel truly reflects both of our experiences getting to know and honor Ms. Price’s life and her music.
LRW: What a wonderful discovery and collaboration! Congratulations to you both on the creation of your CD’s artwork. Your CD is entitled “Scenes in Tin Can Alley”. How and why did you choose that title?
JTC: Florence Price gave that as the title for one of the works on the CD. Actually, when I first discovered that work, my eyes read it as “Tin Pan Alley.” The pieces were composed around 1928, and as I played through them, I thought the rhythm and style was consistent with the music of Tin Pan Alley, which came from the same time period. But one day I looked a little more closely and realized it wasn’t “Tin Pan,” but rather, “Tin Can!” And suddenly the pieces took on a new meaning. The titles of the pieces in the set—The Huckster, Children at Play, and Night—are all perfectly plausible in a set of pieces from Tin Pan Alley. But within the context of Tin Can Alley, they take on a totally different perspective, one of deep pain and struggle, though not without interludes of unbridled joy. So much of the music on the CD takes on this theme of social commentary, and I thought titling the CD after this work was a poetic way of tying the pieces together. I also decided to highlight the image of a tin can in the album artwork as an unconscious hint for anyone else who might have also misread the title as “Tin Pan.”
LRW: Wow! I misread it as Tin Pan Alley, too. My Russian Jewish maternal grandmother had shared her stories with me of growing up in the Tin Pan Alley area back in the early 20th century, which is likely why I misread the title at first. Thank you for clarifying and the insight. Very meaningful, indeed. I noticed you’ve selected works exclusively by Florence Price. Why this composer? Why these pieces? Why now? Details, please.
JTC: Florence Price is an absolutely first-rate composer whose music deserves to be heard. When I first played through these scores, I fell in love with them right away. Many of them had never been recorded before, so I wanted to record as many of them as I could. As for why I chose Florence Price in particular, there are many reasons. I spent 11 years in the army as an interviewer and interrogator, in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting to hear first hand the stories of people whose lives were very different from my own. I developed an addiction for storytelling, and while I love playing the music of more famous composers, there is something uniquely satisfying in sharing music not many people have heard before.
LRW: Agreed. I’m a huge Florence Price fan as well, which is why I jumped at the chance to interview you on your fabulous CD collection of her piano solos. Thanks for sharing this eloquent performance from your YouTube channel. I can see how the opportunity to hear stories first-hand from diverse people definitely can bring a deeper understanding to piano performance which is indeed a form of storytelling. I’m also a champion of lesser known composers and applaud your efforts to record and bring Florence Price’s never-recorded works to light. Please go on.
JTC: Florence Price has a life story that is incredibly interesting, compelling, and inspiring, and there is a wonderful biography of her life written by Dr. Rae Linda Brown for those who want to know more. As for why these pieces are only just now getting recorded, this is mostly because many of the manuscripts had been lost prior to 2009, when they were discovered in Price’s abandoned summer home in St. Anne, Illinois. Dr. John Michael Cooper has been editing and preparing these rediscovered manuscripts for publication, and they have been gradually getting published by G. Schirmer. Many of them having become available just within the past couple of years.
LRW: Indeed! Thanks for recommending the biography by American Musicologist, Rae Linda Brown. So glad her manuscripts were discovered and grateful they are getting published by G. Schirmer. I’m also grateful to local classical radio station KUSC for playing Florence Price’s music. I first heard Florence Price’s Lake Mirror while driving home from work. I literally pulled over the car and waited till it ended, just to hear the announcer mention the composer and piece. I rushed home to order it and am enjoying playing this hauntingly beautiful piece. So glad to find a fellow admirer of these works. I read that you chose to record your CD on a Steinway concert grand piano in Lansing, Michigan. How did you find that instrument and the recording venue? Story, please.
JTC: The recording took place at the in-house recording studio for Blue Griffin Recording which they call “The Ballroom.” I had come to know the label and its engineer, Dr. Sergei Kvitko, from other recordings my colleagues had done with them over the years. Sergei happens to be a pianist as well, making for a comfortable and efficient recording process. The fact that the studio was located in Michigan felt serendipitous, as I had grown up in Michigan, and it was also just a few hours’ drive from Chicago, where Florence Price had been living and where these works had been written.
LRW: Ideal, all around! Chicago’s energy and vibe no doubt infused itself into the recordings. May I ask, is this your first album of solo piano works? Have you recorded CDs with other musicians? If so, may I ask what were they and if they are available for streaming or purchase?
JTC: I had made a few CD’s of piano concertos when I was younger—I did the first one of those when I was nine! But those have been out of print for many years now. This Florence Price album is the first CD I’ve released as an adult. I have a couple of other pieces I’ve released as singles on Spotify and other digital platforms. These include the world premiere recording of Recuerdos Diaspóricos, which was composed by fellow University of Michigan alum James Lee III, as well as George Walker’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, which I recorded with my violinist friend Sheng-Ching Hsu.
LRW: How cool! I found your Spotify page and gave these two pieces a listen. I encourage my readers to do the same. Is this CD part of a series of albums dedicated to Florence Price rather than a standalone recording?
JTC: This is the only Florence Price album I’ve recorded. I’d certainly be open to recording more of her music, though!
LRW: That would be awesome. Please keep me posted if you do. Thanks! Now that concert halls are reopening, do you plan to perform these works live? If so, how may my students, readers and I be kept informed? Is there a mailing list we may subscribe to? For fans who are unable to travel, would you happen to be planning a live stream event of some of these remarkable works? Maybe a YouTube video or a series? If so, may we please know the link where to view them? Thank you
JTC: The day before I made this recording, I actually performed all of these works live in a recital at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. I don’t have any other performances currently planned, but I am definitely open to performing these works at other venues. And for those who can’t travel, I am always in favor of live-streaming my performances whenever possible. I invite you to follow me on social media, and you can also sign up for email updates through my website.
LRW: Nice. I would love to share any live-streamed performances of yours with my students and readers. Thanks for the sign up tip. I’m subscribed. Where may my readers purchase your CD? Is it also available on music streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple iTunes, etc.?
JTC: The best way to get a physical CD is to order one from me directly through my website. It’s also available for streaming and digital download on all the major platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music.
LRW: Good to know. I encourage my students and readers to explore the music on this CD and purchase it for their collection. It was a pleasure interviewing you and I wish you all the best.
To learn more about this remarkable pianist, please enjoy perusing his website and social media platforms below.
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Pastimes For a Lifetime Art and Piano School is located in Valley Glen, California. 818-766-0614. School is open Tuesday – Saturday year round, except major holidays.