Violinist-violist and educator Brendan Slocumb was first introduced to readers with his best-selling 2022 debut novel The Violin Conspiracy which shone a light on the issues of race and class in Western classical music. The power of imagination in tackling social issues while also displaying a writer’s own knowledge and rhetorical talents is often underestimated — writers such as Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin have often had their works dismissed as simply “genre work” even as they embed truly revolutionary thoughts into their new worlds.
The fearless approach that Slocumb continues to take in his follow-up book Symphony of Secrets envisions histories of Black composers and performers of diverse experiences pushing against oppressive systems, fighting for their lives and their art, and indeed winning. It offers hope as historical contributions by musicians of color continue to be excavated, and diverse modern-day masters continue to get increased recognition.
Perhaps the most magical thing of all is Slocumb’s ability to write fiction that inspires belief: a belief that there is still, after so many years of Western classical music polemic and history, more truth to be found in such an old art form.
Symphony of Secrets is cast in five major sections (aptly named “Acts”), and begins with a shocking preamble — in 1936, once great, now has-been composer Frederic Delaney, who we’re told is due to die in sixteen hours, awaits the premiere of his new opera RED backstage, bound to re-launch his career. In present day, Virginia Tech musicology professor Bern Hendricks, an alumni of the now venerable Delaney Foundation’s nationwide music education and outreach programs (and an utter Frederic Delaney devotee), is called by scions of the Delaney family — who incidentally are also the Foundation’s top brass — to their NYC offices to begin work on a newly uncovered original version of RED, one which could rehabilitate Delaney’s reputation and prove his compositional genius stayed with him till his end.
Bern’s devotion to this work, we learn, is not simply out of gratitude to the Delaney Foundation saving him from the streets and prisons of Wisconsin — we learn that Frederic Delaney reportedly was one of the most progressive composers of his time, incorporating influences from Black and Native American music at a time where most white composers turned up their noses at the very thought of such sounds. Alongside computer analyst and former colleague Eboni Washington, Bern is first inured into the world of classified information and offered unfettered access by his proximity to the Delaney Foundation. He pushes back on Eboni’s insistence that he retain a degree of healthy skepticism of the Foundation’s activities.
Without spoiling the plot, we learn that Eboni’s precautions are well-founded: after the pair dig deep enough to reveal the existence of a certain Josephine Reed both in Delaney’s supposed first drafts of RED and in photographs, the Foundation turns rapidly on them, going so far as to put out a warrant on them. These most graphic scenes in the book unflinchingly depict both police brutality and the willingness of “liberal” nonprofits and organizations to turn on workers of color who dare to stand up for truth and for themselves. It’s here that Slocumb’s writing becomes hauntingly nonfictional. His grasp of the double consciousness and code-switching that Black cultural workers must participate in for their own survival in academic and administrative spaces is undeniable.
In a way, Eboni’s preparedness for all circumstances (including a raid on her own data storage) seems fantastical, only possible through the author’s pen, until we remember that her ascent through schooling and the workforce was only made possible through hypercompetence, a clear illustration of the adage, “You have to be twice as good to get half as much.”
Thankfully, Slocumb offers us some satisfaction at the end, tempered with a dose of reality. While in Josephine’s day, her prodigious talents were no match for the overwhelming power of racism and misogyny, the team of Bern and Eboni — and the people that came before them — are able to receive justice both for themselves and for Josephine’s legacy.
Throughout, Slocumb’s writing displays both an expertise with Western classical music that should appeal to any musician and an easy flow that keeps the pages turning. The characterization of each lead was particularly appreciated — the switching of chapter narration added interest (though a chapter or two from Eboni’s point of view could have been welcome). As a neurodiverse individual myself, it was heartening to both see an intelligent take on Josephine’s voice that didn’t infantilize her and also bittersweet to see her family members’ limited recollections of her.
The experiences of neurodiverse individuals are unique even from their family members, who themselves may be minoritized in some way, but Slocumb deftly sketches the very complicated concepts of masking and unmasking, examining the idea that some may be tolerant or even accepting of diversity in race or sex while also being uncomfortable with neurodiversity.
As more musicological work is done revealing the varied ways that minoritized people across the spectrum have contributed to the opus of Western classical music, it’s easy to recommend Symphony of Secrets as a worthy read not of historical or speculative fiction, but as a standalone work that poses the question: Who worked behind-the-scenes to establish the conditions for great composers to create their masterworks? Perhaps people like us, or perhaps people not like us. Either way, they deserve to be known.