Monday, October 21, 2013

Two Premiere Performances Embellish Original Ten Freedom Summers in Washington, DC, October 25, 26, 2013


D.C. Premiere for Wadada Leo Smith’s “Ten Freedom Summers”

Three-part multimedia performance set for Oct. 25-26

Trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith will perform his critically acclaimed work Ten Freedom Summers for the first time in Washington, D.C., Oct. 25 and 26 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The event, according to a press release, “will also premiere the 23rd work in the TFS collection: That Sunday Morning: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley: We Carry You In Our Hearts, which remembers the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Smith will also be premiering new music written for the 22nd composition in TFS: The March on Washington, D.C. — August 1963.”
Lyn Horton
Wadada Leo Smith and Larry Kaplan in performance ofTen Freedom Summers in October 2011
The seven-hour performance will take place at 8 p.m. on the 25th (Ten Freedom Summers I); 3 p.m. on the 26th (TFS II), and 8 p.m. on the 26th (TFS III) at the Theresa and Jane Lang Theatre, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Advance tickets are $33.50 per concert; tickets are $35.50 per concert at the door beginning two hours before the show. Tickets for all three concerts are $85.50 and can be purchased in advance or at the door. Student tickets, $20 per concert, available at the door, only. Call 202-399-7993 ext. 2 or log on to Atlas Arts for tickets and information.
Joining Smith for these performances are the Golden Quartet with Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass, Anthony Brown on drums and Smith on trumpet; Pacifica Red Coral with violinist Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian, violist Andrew McIntosh, cellist Ashley Walters, harpist Alison Bjorkedal and percussionist Lynn Vartan; and video artist Jesse Gilbert.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Benjamin Franklin: October 8, 2013

Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers – Jazz/Classical Album Review by Benjamin Franklin V of Music Charts Magazine

Date = 8 October 2013

Musician’s Name = Wadada Leo Smith

Genre = Jazz/classical

Title = Ten Freedom Summers

Record Company: Cuneiform

Review = Wadada Leo Smith initially recorded in the late 1960s with the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and other musicians associated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM).  He has participated in more than a hundred recording sessions and has released over twenty albums as leader.  Yet despite his decades of activity, the number of his recordings, and the awards he has won, including a Guggenheim, Smith is not widely known, possibly because his music is generally considered avant-garde, a mode that attracts few listeners.  Ten Freedom Summers (2011) has increased his visibility.  A four-CD set, it has been much touted in the jazz press. Largely as a result of this release, Musica Jazz (Milan) designated Smith the 2012 international jazz musician of the year.
Francis Davis has compared Ten Freedom Summers with John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme; Thom Jurek, with DukeEllington’s Black, Brown, and Beige and Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.  I think Wynton Marsalis’s Blood on the Field is the best comparison.  Usually considered a jazz oratorio, Marsalis’s work, which focuses on the lives of two slaves, lasts for over three hours.  Presumably offering musical interpretations or depictions of key events in the history of civil rights in the United States, Smith’s composition requires almost five hours to perform.  (Its premiere in Los Angeles was spread over three evenings; recording it took three days.)  In both pieces, writing is more important than soloing, though musicians improvise on both.  Despite probably being technically ineligible for the award, Blood on the Field won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Music; a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer, Ten Freedom Summers did not win the award. Yet it strikes me as more listenable and possibly more ambitious, though less jazzy, than Marsalis’s work.  Divided into nineteen sections—each a discrete piece–Smith’s composition is performed by two groups:  Southwest Chamber Music, a nonet conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt, and the Golden Quartet/Quintet (trumpet plus rhythm section, with a second drummer sometimes added), though members of the latter occasionally play with the chamber group. 
Smith focuses mainly on events that occurred during the decade following the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, but does not limit himself to this period: He ranges chronologically from Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.  Among the selections are “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless,” “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days,” and “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy.”  Smith advises that “none of these pieces are meant to simply be listened to.”  Matthew Sumera, who wrote the notes to the CDs, interprets Smith’s comment as meaning that this music “is not intended for disinterested listening—it is a demand to America to fulfill its democratic promise.”  What does this mean?  What is America’s democratic promise? “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? “Liberty and justice for all”?  While these are fine, noble ideals, is attaining them within the realm of possibility?  Will we know if the democratic ideal has been attained?  And precisely how does Smith’s music demand fulfillment of this promise? What kind of action does it propose? Or does the nature of the action matter?  Neither while listening to the music nor when pondering it later did I feel inspired to become a social activist or to assist people less fortunate than I more than I do already.  Though I support everyone’s civil rights and at one time belonged to groups that also do, and though I am frequently moved by music, I am unmoved by the supposed call of Ten Freedom Summers for political action, probably because I do not comprehend such a call. Does this mean that Smith’s music has failed?  Does it mean that I have not listened to it as I should?  Both?  Does Sumera interpret Smith’s words correctly?
Smith explains his goal in other terms: “In composing Ten Freedom Summers, I tried to achieve a creative expression through music of the psychological impact of the Civil Rights movement on American society.” This statement—as much aesthetic as political–is different from demanding fulfillment of the democratic ideal. Though Smith correctly observes that the civil rights movement affected the America psyche profoundly—could anyone disagree?–I cannot say that this music reminds me of the civil rights movement generally or of any of its events, even though I recall many of the events vividly because I was sympathetic to the cause as an adult the 1960s. Yet the composer characterizes his ultimate goal as “creative expression.” Without question, he expresses himself creatively; but after listening to this music I perceive no connection between it and the civil rights movement or the movement’s impact on American society.  Two selections illustrate the nature of his work.
“Black Church” surprises.  I would characterize this piece played entirely by the Southwest Chamber Music string section as intellectual rather than emotional, though it is not without feeling.  It is, as the name of the group indicates, chamber music. Totally absent from it is even a hint of raucousness, of foot stomping, of passion, of letting loose.  The church depicted here is not sanctified.  Instead, this selection apparently portrays a church that is subdued, reflective, and dignified, a place where a tambourine is not played.  In popular culture, this schism between the unrestrained and the sedate black church is central to the plot of the movie St. Louis Blues(1958), for example. So what does Smith intend to suggest about the black church?  Might he mean that there are many kinds of churches patronized by blacks and that in “Black Church” he characterizes one that values somberness and quiet reverence, one that is more passive than active? Does he imply that, to him, at least some black churches favor, say, Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” or even Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata “The Atonement” rather than Edwin Hawkins’s “Oh, Happy Day”?  I do not understand how this piece constitutes a call to political action, nor do I see how it reflects “the psychological impact of the Civil Rights movement.”  Attractive music?  Yes.  Political music inspired by an institution or a historical event?  Not that I can tell.
“The Freedom Riders Ride” also surprises, but not to the degree that “Black Church” does.  Knowing the title and that freedom riders, black and white, rode interstate buses in 1961 to challenge Jim Crow laws in the South, one can imagine historical events while listening to it.  About half this piece performed by the Golden Quartet is tranquil, especially for four minutes at the beginning.  Does this seeming serenity suggest the activists’ mood at the start of the ride? I would expect these people to have been tense, even afraid. Do the somewhat hectic final four minutes represent confrontations between the riders and their adversaries, including beatings?  How is one to know?  Does knowing matter?  As with “Black Church,” “The Freedom Riders Ride” does not move me to political action; without knowing what this piece is about, I would not have been able to identify the event the composer intended to commemorate, to sense that it concerns any aspect of civil rights, or to think that it has to do with anything at all.  
If one listened to Ten Freedom Summers ignorant of its political context, it would please on a strictly musical level.  It may be enjoyed in the same manner as A Love Supreme and Black, Brown, and Beige when the listener is unaware that Coltrane’s performance reflects his spiritual questing and that Ellington intended his composition to suggest aspects of blacks’ history in the United States. Response to Freedom Now Suite is necessarily different from that to these two pieces, though, because its beauty and meaning are inextricable, and the message is obvious because of the screaming of Abbey Lincoln and the words she sings. On a strictly musical level, I, unlike the Pulitzer committee, find Blood on the Fieldponderous, all but unlistenable; it strikes me as an example of a political message explaining and conceivably redeeming uninspired music, of politics trumping aesthetics.  Despite Smith’s comments about Ten Freedom Summers and Matthew Sumera’s explanation of them, this work may be enjoyed, as I appreciate it, as a composition of various parts mainly in the classical mode.  If listeners find a correlation between it and extra-musical events, fine; if not, then also fine. Smith writes attractive music that at least in this case does not warrant the term avant-garde.  It might not even warrant the term jazz, as traditionally defined, because it lacks such elements as a driving rhythm section, backbeats, soloists’ interplay, blues feeling, and so forth.  What matters is the music, not the label attached to it.  The music speaks for itself. Trust it, not the words of its creator or his interpreter.

Author = Benjamin Franklin V

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Pop Matters: Josh Langhoff: Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers, August 31, 2012

All those descriptions of “monumental” make sense. Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers is first of all BIG: a four-disc 19-track monument to the Civil Rights movement, performed by the 70-year-old Smith on trumpet along with the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble and the latest incarnation of Smith’s Golden Quartet (or Quintet, if two people are drumming). Whenever he can corral them all to perform the thing live, the concert lasts three nights and covers audiences with heaps of music: free improv, modal jazz grooves, and classical composition including (why not?) a string quartet movement. Though bracketed by tributes to Dred Scott and Martin Luther King, Jr., the work is so sprawling it can’t even be constrained by its Civil Rights framework. Songs keep spilling off like free-associative ideas with ungainly titles: “Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press”, “The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times”, and so on. Monuments seek to overwhelm, andFreedom does its best.

Is there precedent in jazz for such a work? Cecil Taylor’s box sets are even bigger, but they lack a connective framework beyond their performance scenarios. Wynton Marsalis has written extended works for large ensembles, notably the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, but unlike Marsalis, Smith refuses to put too fine a point on his ideas. Freedomforgoes singers, and you never catch it winking at the audience; there’s no Marsalisian pastiche or cutesy humor here. Smith’s music speaks with a statesman’s seriousness. These pieces transform their subjects into musical invention and moods; they’re not literal or programmatic. Freedom‘s closest forebears are contemporary classical pieces—“Creative Music”, the AACM veteran might say—that invite meditation and make their points through abstraction.

This shouldn’t imply that you need a music degree to enjoy it. More than anything, Freedom is about sound: the tangible, physically beautiful sounds of Smith’s imperative trumpet and of different instruments in combination, testing their own limits. Most of the lengthy pieces are split into distinct sonic areas, with each area receiving the spotlight in turn. “The Freedom Riders Ride” (song 10, if you’re keeping track) builds from an uncertain opening, the Quartet scattered and thinking out loud, into a ravishing group improvisation. Anthony Davis’s lush piano chords coexist with stripped-bare dissonances, and tempos shift according to some precise telepathy. Then, four minutes in, an ominous stop-start section tumbles into a blazing free walk, with trumpet, piano, bass and Susie Ibarra’s drums all racing along in the sort of collective freedom that jazz exists to celebrate—beautiful beautiful beautiful. But it doesn’t last. Things fall apart, as things do, to focus on the different instruments—sawing bass, skittering drums—building until another fast walk ends the piece. If lightning-fast swing is the reason you turn to jazz, Freedom has plenty such passages, but its explorations of space and stillness are just as crucial.

Other indelible moments:

—the fuguelike section in “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless”, where strings, harp, and quartet enter bit by bit and swirl into cacophony;

—in “Buzzsaw”, an aggressive, mournful groove, the contrast of John Lindberg’s bowed bass against propulsive piano, drums, and trumpet;

—in “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954” (whew!), the swinging bass groove that gradually disintegrates over the course of eight minutes;

—the smearing, sliding strings of “Black Church (String Quartet No. 3)”;

—the times that recall Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way”, with Smith’s clear tone soaring over wobbly rhythm section drones, and sometimes fighting against them, in “America, Parts 1, 2 & 3” and “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days”.

For all these and more, credit Smith’s musicians and his compositional methods. Like many modern jazz and classical composers, Smith has developed his own system for organizing improv. He calls it “Ankhrasmation,” a graphic notation that helps musicians coordinate their jumping-off points. While he doesn’t seem to have used that system in Freedom, his goal is similar. Pre-ordained motives move inexorably to moments of spontaneous creation and back again. Even during the slow parts, when the music threatens to crawl to a stop or turn into a hazy Terence Blanchard score, violin and cello and trumpet hold their notes slightly out of tune, vibrato and dissonance beating with portent, and the effect is riveting. Every instrument pops; sound and silences pulse with vitality.

If Freedom resembles a monument, at least in my mind, it’s the Gateway Arch in St. Louis—“just a big piece of modern art on the bank of the river,” a friend once affectionately described it. It’s abstract and even austere, sure, but that only makes it more universally accessible. A short walk from the courthouse where Dred Scott sued for his freedom, the Arch embodies different shades of symbolic meaning. Depending on your sympathies, it can be a soul-stirring paean to Western expansion, a costly reminder of American imperialism, or a fun place to go on a field trip. All sorts of stuff, good and bad, baked into an inverted steel catenary. Freedom lacks the Arch’s simplicity of line, but its takeaways are just as complex. It’s never simply a celebration or a lament, a history lesson or a big piece of modern art. You don’t have to choose, Smith seems to say; this music contains everything.

Freedom is even sort of shaped like the Arch; it climbs to a rarefied peak. The album’s 24-minute centerpiece, “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964”, stretches austere abstraction to its limits, but it contains moments that rival Stravinsky’s famous Rite chord for time-stopping sound, moments you could reach out, touch, crawl inside, and settle down with. It’s quantum music theory: the strum of a harp contains the world. Live with this music long enough and it seeps into the rest of your life. These days I can’t look at Robert Caro’s massive LBJ biography, or even think about America’s elongated battle over health care reform, without hearing the roiling timpani that define “Great Society”, giving voice to slow-motion legislative wars in every age.

Monuments overwhelm, but they do so by speaking to us personally. Like visiting a sacred site or reading Tolstoy or Proust, listening to Freedom is an emotional and intellectual luxury, a chance to commune with greatness. Years after I’d taken my last field trip to the Arch, I graduated from school and moved back to St. Louis, for the first time living on my own in a cramped little apartment. One day I parked at the library and walked to the river, and as the Arch loomed before me I was overcome by emotion. Besides being a symbol of Western expansion, the Arch had become my expansion, at once my freedom and homecoming, my destiny tied to the country’s destiny. Ten Freedom Summers speaks like a great civic monument. In four and a half hours, Wadada Leo Smith writes one of America’s defining events in sound, and the story is all of ours.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Chicago Jazz Fest: Wadada Leo Smith: August 30, 2013

The Blue Moment: Richard Williams: Ten Freedom Summers, August, 2013

A blog about music by Richard Williams

Fifty years ago, a wholehearted embrace of American culture made even those of us 3,000 miles away feel we had a stake in the country’s destiny. So although we may have been neither American, nor black, nor even socially or economically disadvantaged, the March on Washington — which took place on August 28, 1963 — in some way felt as though it involved us, too, even if all we could do was cheer from the sidelines.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington DC this weekend to mark the anniversary. What I’ve been doing is reading my sometime colleague Gary Younge’s fine new book The Speech, which describes the process by which the Rev Martin Luther King came to write his “I Have a Dream” address, and listening to Ten Freedom Summers, a suite by the trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. If you don’t already know the latter, this is a set of four CDs containing four and a half hours of music divided into 19 individual movements based on themes from the civil rights struggle, performed by Smith’s quartet/quintet and a nine-piece chamber ensemble. Recorded over a three-day period in November 2011 and released last year on the Cuneiform label, it was one of three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize.
The titles of the individual pieces are sometimes suggestive — “Black Church”, “Democracy” — but usually more explicit in their references. “Dred Scott: 1857″ is the first movement, referring to the Missouri slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in that year. “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott: 381 Days” is another. There are references in other titles to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till, to JFK and LBJ, to the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and to Malik Al Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X.
Unlike some of the music that accompanied the civil rights struggle, from John Coltrane’s miniature masterpiece titled “Alabama” (a threnody for the four black schoolgirls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in September 1963, barely a fortnight after the March on Washington) to Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, there is nothing in Smith’s work here that explicitly evokes his subject, no overt gestures that would indicate a relationship to his chosen titles. This does nothing to diminish its extraordinary power.
Smith, who was born 71 years ago in Leland, Mississippi, first came to notice at the end of the ’60s, as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, along with Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and others. His bands included the Creative Construction Company, with Braxton and the violinist Leroy Jenkins, and New Dalta Ahkri, whose personnel included  Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake and Anthony Davis. Along with other members of the AACM, he spent time in Paris in 1969 and became acquainted with the new generation of European free jazz musicians. His many recordings have appeared on the Kabell, Nessa, ECM, Leo and Tzadzik labels, as well as Cuneiform.
As a trumpeter, he had his own character from the beginning. If you wanted a shorthand description, I suppose you could say that he occupies the space between Don Cherry and Lester Bowie. But the originality and substance of his playing are more than enough to command the attention all the way through this mammoth undertaking, in which his is necessarily the dominant voice. I’ve always liked his tone, open or muted, and the crisp assertiveness of his phrasing, and the sense of poise he conveys.
The long-standing nature of his partnership with the pianist Anthony Davis, who appears here, is evident in the closeness of their dialogues. Like Smith, Davis is a quietly original musician who, in his own compositions as well as his playing here, demonstrates complete comfort with the idea of bringing together elements from African American and European musical practices. The basic group is completed by John Lindberg, an exceptional bassist, and two drummers, Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan Ak Laff, who alternate on some pieces and play together on others.
Sometimes Smith employs gestures immediately identifiable as drawn from jazz: “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs Board of Education” finds Lindberg anchoring the piece with a slow-grooving funky bass figure, while the interplay between Davis and Ibarra on “The Little Rock Nine” is outstanding. Elsewhere the climate resembles that of classical chamber music: passages for flute, harp and strings in “Medgar Evers: A Love Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey for Liberty and Justice” have a watercolour delicacy that reminds me of Toru Takemitsu. But more often it seems, to employ Duke Ellington’s phrase, beyond category. The chamber group — basically a string quartet plus harp, clarinet, flute, percussion and an extra violin — appears both by itself and with the quartet/quintet. So organic and unselfconscious is Smith’s writing that the frontier between the two groups disappears, as does the line between composition and improvisation.
The prevailing mood, not surprisingly, is soberly reflective. Even so many years after the events Smith is commemorating, there is much to reflect on. This is not a bruising experience;  the writing and playing are characterised by a sustained lyricism. Nevertheless few  will want to absorb all four and a half hours in at one sitting, and it may a take listener years to become as familiar with these individual pieces as with the much shorter jazz classics of earlier eras. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Smith’s work exists on its own terms, a marvellous tribute to its immense subject.
* The photograph of Wadada Leo Smith was taken by Steve Gunther and is from the booklet accompanying Ten Freedom Summers. Gary Younge’s The Speech is published by Guardian Books.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Wide Acclaim for Ten Freedom Summers

Wadada Leo Smith has received a remarkable amount of attention for his landmark composition. As peoples in the world, we are fortunate that we have a chance to experience it.

From Braithwaite & Katz Communications in Boston, MA:

Wadada Leo Smith has earned wide acclaim for Ten Freedom Summers including:

  • 2013 Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music

  • 2013 Composer of the Year - DownBeat Magazine's 61st Annual Critics Poll

  • 2013 Musician of the Year - Jazz Journalists Association Awards

  • 2013 Trumpeter of the Year - Jazz Journalists Association Awards

  • International Musician of the Year - 2012 Musica Jazz Magazine

  • Musician of the Year - 2012 New York City Jazz Record

  • Musician of the Year- 2012 El Intruso Creative Music Critics Poll

  • Album of the Year - 2012 El Intruso Creative Music Critics Poll

Ten Freedom Summers received equal acclaim on CD. Released in May 2012 on the Cuneiform label, it earned a place as the #3 jazz record of the year in the Rhapsody Jazz Critics poll, where respected critic Francis Davis wrote: "A stunning achievement·. It merits comparison to Coltrane's A Love Supreme in sobriety and reach."

The work is "stirringly beautiful... an astounding aesthetic achievement," (Michael Casper, Oxford American), "an emotional and intellectual luxury, a chance to commune with greatness," (Josh Langhoff, Pop Matters), "the work of a lifetime by one of jazz's true visionaries... Triumphant and mournful, visceral and philosophical, searching, scathing and relentlessly humane, Smith's music embraces the turbulent era's milestones while celebrating the civil rights movement's heroes and martyrs." (Bruce Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery), and "his magnum opus; it belongs in jazz's canonical lexicon with Duke Ellington's Black Brown & Beige and Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite." (Thom Jurek, All Music Guide).

As Stuart Broomer writes in Point of Departure: "If one had to answer quickly what work will matter most this year in American music (as if matters of mattering arose with some regularity), Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers would trip readily to the tongue."

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ben-Beaumont Thomas: Interview with Wadada Leo Smith, Fall, 2012

Back in August I interviewed Wadada Leo Smith for The Guardian, resulting in this piece. But given the constraints of the commission, I had to leave out the vast majority of our two and a half hour chat, which took in civil rights, Rastafarianism, the blues, Mitt Romney, Islam, the AACM, and the politics of improvisation. Over the next three posts I’ll publish an edited transcript of our full conversation.
The interview took place in Smith’s rented apartment in Islington, after he played a two-night residency at Cafe OtoTen Freedom Summers, a 4CD reflection on the US civil rights struggle that he’s worked on since 1977, was released earlier this year and is 2012’s most spectacular and moving record.
BBT: How did you come to start writing Ten Freedom Summers?
WDS: I had been thinking about maybe seeing what I could do with music, not vocals, not an opera or something like that, something I could do instrumentally. I had only just started contemplating it. Leroy Jenkins called me up and said hey Wadada, I got a new group, it’s Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Davis and me. Can you write me a piece? We were very close friends, and he respected my compositioning. He would always ask me for a piece. So this time I thought maybe this is the time to start this and see what it is. I had no idea it would be as large as it’s gotten to be. I thought I would do a few activists out of Mississippi, maybe that would be it. So I started working and decided that one would be Medgar Evers. Primarily because he was a pretty high profile person in Mississippi, and he showed absolutely great courage to really stand up against all those problems that desegregated societies present. I started with him, and I composed it for the drum, piano and violin. They performed it in Florence, Italy, and I played on the same bill so I got a chance to hear its première. I did a piece here, a piece there.
After I started reading August Wilson’s plays [The Pittsburgh Cycle], I realised I didn’t want to make a historical document, I wanted to make a cultural document, and look at it from that point of view. His plays is all about culture, he looked at the cultural experience of African-American society, so I thought that was a perfect way of thinking about it. Most people, looking at the issues and problems in a social system, they look at it historically, rarely do they look at it culturally. I thought he touched on something very unique. So I modelled my Ten Freedom Summers off of his hundred years. So I now know it’s going to be a collection of stuff, but I don’t know how many pieces. The Society of Chamber Music in America commissioned three pieces from me, and I did Brown vs Board of Education, Little Rock Nine and Freedom Summer. At that point it was fixed. I knew it was going to be larger than I ever expected, but I never expected it to take three days to play all of them! I decided to write it without even thinking about how much.
I started asking for commission money to do it – the Guggenheim Foundation commissioned five pieces out of it, the James Irvine Foundation commissioned some pieces, I got eight different commissions back to back which was unheard of. I don’t know any of my colleagues who got eight hits in a row. It gave me four and half years of complete work on it – I did other work, other performances, but every week I went back to one of the pieces.
You ended up going as far back as Dred Scott, and as far forward as September 11 – how did that come about?
I discovered another thing that I wanted to do – I wanted to look at the psychological impact of what happens in society and how they respond to it. Dred Scott, in 1857, his master, just before the guy who owned him died, some of the free people and forward looking white American citizens decided that they, along with him, would challenge this idea of property, that a human being could not possibly be property. Because in the constitution it’s written that we were two thirds human, and we were property just like cattle. They challenged that, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the judge wrote that there were no rights that a black person had that a white person ought to respect. So he was defeated. But in the meantime it opened up this vast debate in American society about race, and the issue of property and citizenship. He became one of the most famous slaves that couldn’t live free, people came from all over the world to interview him. So I want to start there in each performance. That’s the first instance of a really active debate about who could be an American, what is property, and the humanism that should be afforded to every citizen.
Before I did 9/11 I did the DC Wall [piece], that’s about the war in south east Asia, in Vietnam. All of this stuff is dealing with my own personal experience. I go to Washington DC for my daughter’s graduation, because she’s in Howard University, and my father and wife and I went to this event. After we stayed around for two or three days, and we went to this wall and walked this wall. And I tell you, you know about the wall and it doesn’t affect you – you think this is something really decent and nice that society has done to respect those men and women who lost their lives. But when you walk and read the names, it wipes you out, literally wipes you out. I lived in a town that was less than 3000, and we had three or four men die in that war. Before I got to the end [of the walk along the wall], I knew I was going to do something about it.
That piece also creates such a debate about America’s foreign policy, and they were the most uncelebrated warriors in American history. People hated them because they fought the war, not realising they were following the principles that was laid out by their commander and the President of the US. People did them very wrong, they got very little benefits, it was a very strange treatment of those people. It also made a vast disturbance within the society, people took sides, people got killed, various universities, Kent State, Jackson State. It was tied up with the American experience, and I wanted to identify that the black experience is American experience, not really this kind of racial isolations. Italian-American, Irish-American, German-American – once you get into this melting pot, and you begin to create your own identity within that spectrum, it’s about America. And it shows the multi-dimensional quality of culture, and it’s a very unifying principle if people think of themselves as Americans but maintain these cultural roots. Culture is one of the things you can’t destroy. I have a theory that Allah, God, the Creator, made culture a significant part of the human being that allowed them to be treated in all kinds of ways, but see it in the context of themselves and a larger context. That can’t be destroyed. Even during slavery, you still had people making art objects, painting, writing, composing music, creating dance. People maintained families, even though their master would come in and take the wife or the oldest daughter and treat them in the most horrible sexual way, the family structure still maintained. Even when the husband was sent to another farm, that family would keep in contact. It wasn’t like you could lose this kind of family or structure that gave the identity of these people.
Do you try and create specific images with the music, or is it broader than that, about a general set of emotions?
Every piece in there is written within a narrow context. Like the Freedom Riders Ride? That piece is about the anxiety and meditation that was had on that journey going south, and it locks itself up into being those three guys who got wiped out. It’s about that ride, but the spiritual context of that ride – anticipating what it was, no-one knew they would be killed, but once they got there and started to get involved with the voter registration, the next point the piece picks up, because it’s in three movements, is where they’re riding on this back road in Mississippi and there’s this light shining, and one knew immediately it was the police. He said speed up, and the others said no, we can deal with it, because they were thinking these people would deal with them in a civil way. So they stopped. And the cops came up and took them out and killed them. It’s about that ride, the contemplation, anticipation and anxiety. And that narrow ride, I don’t know how long it lasted, but I start with the point where they see the light and the car stops. I don’t try and make a pictorial image of that, I look for the psychological thread in that – what did they feel, in my imagination, and what do I feel, from their experience? That’s what I write from. I try to put my own version of feelings about such tragedy inside of that. That piece has a very relaxed feel with the melodic content, and then the solo parts are very intense, and then the duets that break into solos… it’s a very strange piece. The first time I heard it was during rehearsals in October 2011, and I was stunned, I said whoa, I didn’t know it had that in it. I know when I wrote it I felt very confident in what I was writing, but many of those pieces in there I actually discovered later I was in a zone when I wrote them. Emmett Till, I knew I wrote it, but I don’t know how I was able to construct it in the way that I did. The same thing with Freedom Riders Ride, the Malcolm X piece – I know that I wrote the stuff, but when I’m constructing it and putting it into compositional form my emotions and my experience take over, and I’m very much aware I’m writing it but there’s another kind of space that I’m in. I didn’t calculate how to put the notes together, it was kind of inspired to put them together.
So you immersed yourself in the emotions and your reflections on someone like Malcolm X, and that becomes a world in which to inhabit, and compose out of.
Exactly. His piece is about the very moment he was shot, and he fell to the floor, and the guy came up and shot him again, and someone said his finger did that [index finger gently tapping]. Most people don’t know what that is, but in every prayer that Muslims do, this finger in the last part of it, when you’re making salaam to the prophet Muhammad this finger comes out. That’s what was happening, he was making his final prayer. That’s why I use the mute on that, that’s why there’s this sustained quality. I imagine that once he was shot, he actually completely relaxed, and did his prayer in a slight instant rather than the normal duration. The last words are ‘there is no God worthy of worship except Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger’, and I don’t know if you saw the killing of Saddam Hussein, he asked not to be covered, and he showed no fear, and he said the same thing. Because that finger was shaking like that, that’s what I think he did, he made his last shahada.
So what’s the writing process – at what point do you start to notate, for example?
There’s probably six notes in the whole piece, and I did those notes, I wrote them out and I let them settle for a while, until I got ready and felt comfortable that I could express what I wanted to express. That’s when I started putting it into composition form and when I began to use my own emotion and energy to see what I could come to, and find the psychological reality in that whole thing. When you look at Malcolm X, he’s the most celebrated American Muslim. I have the basis of a really strong psychology I want to express about what his achievements were, but looked at in that narrow window of that shooting and that prayer.
Is it a similar process for all of the pieces – you begin with a melodic line, and you consider them and expand on them?
Exactly, I walk around and reflect on them, I don’t jump right in. If I start something and there’s a few notes that I know that’s going to be representing that, I’ll jot them in my notebook. It may be six months, it may be a year, but when I start to look at it again and get ready to put it into compositional form, I’m now thinking about it in this other deep way, and then I reflect on it for days, weeks, it just depends. I know when it comes, I know when I’m ready. I like to write in the morning, after I’ve done my prayer and my walk, go to prayer, go to mosque before sunrise, I go out and I walk from there, and as I walk the sun comes up, I go home and I write. That state, going from that into the music, the flow is much looser.
When you come to that point when you’re expanding out the world of the piece, do you notate in a traditional way?
Most of Ten Freedom Summers is notated in a somewhat traditional way, and it’s only the notion of using the five line staff that makes it traditional, and there are specific pitches. There are a few figures ofankhrasmation throughout, but the bulk of it is in that traditional zone. But there’s no counting, there’s no beating by a conductor, the figures themselves have to be determined and worked out by the individual. In JFK there’s this strange unison in the strings that happens all the way through, at least three melodic units that I put there, lower, middle and higher. Between the first two and the second and the last, there’s these two other sections which are much more open, and it shifts your attention from this really beautiful dramatic line that goes across.
That piece is only about the motorcade from the White House to Arlington cemetery, it’s only about that. It’s not about the space age at all, not about his career as a President, it’s just about the motorcade. That’s why I’ve got that unison in there, because there were hundreds of dictators from all over the world marching in that, and they all walked. In that front line was Haile Selassie, and all those dignitaries, and they’ll all walking very regal and ceremonial. That’s what that melody is about. And those free, open, expansive sections that use the piano, I tried to map the quality of the tragedy, seeing that scene and what people realised what that tragedy was. I mention the space race [in the title] because he was the guy who opened up the space, that was his legacy. That and civil rights, because Johnson’s civil rights package was the same that JFK made, Johnson co-opted his legacy. But it’s OK. His part is about the signing of that voters right act, but Dwight David Eisenhower, he introduced this civil rights bill, guess who blocked it? Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was really about politics, he didn’t want a Republican president doing a civil rights bill, so he ended up in 1964 signing a relatively similar bill. And it becomes his biggest legacy, because Vietnam became his biggest weight of problems, because he escalated that war so much. That’s the whole problem with presidential power – when you have just two parties, you’re very limited to the social responsibilities of those two parties. If you’ve got a divided congress, they won’t do anything – they’ll just sit there, and take out money.
Like Fannie Lou Hamer, she and her husband presented the greatest courage you’ll ever see. They had very little education, they maybe had three or four years of school in their life. Never enough to gain the kind of skills you need for this society. And they went down and registered to vote. Immediately the word got out that these two black people had registered to vote. The owner of the plantation drove up in his pickup truck, jumped out, went to their porch and screamed come out, come out. They came out, he says go downtown and unregister right now or get off my plantation. They walked off the porch, past him, and left. They didn’t take nothing out the house, they just left. They have no job, nothing, and immediately they start this activist involvement. She spoke at the national democratic convention, she created the Mississippi Free Party, this is a person who didn’t finish school didn’t get to junior high! And she has this kind of knowledge and courage to become active. Really brilliant. Two guys, Hubert Humphrey and so other guy was running for President, and she told that guy, Hubert Humphrey, that I know you want to be President but it would be much better for you to do right about these civil rights than to become President. She was right – he kept trying to become President, he didn’t become President, he known for nothing but losing the presidency twice. He could have been an important person, had a legacy as a human rights activist. But no.
And these are all things you’re considering when you’re writing?
I’m considering just that instance when the man says go round and unregister, them walking off to a world where they had nothing, but became activists.
And then you and your fellow players, in sections that are less notated and you allow more space for improvisation, how do you craft a performance in a way you’re happy with?
I tell them some of the [historical] events, but I only do it spontaneously not as a matter of course. If we’re rehearsing and I feel something come into me, I’ll say something about it. Primarily, the space for improvisation I control it either with the trumpet, or eye cues, or nodding, some kind of cue. I allow them to put whatever they want in that space, but the structural content of it I do it by some slight signal.
You want those passages to contain the truth and emotion though – do you have to trust in your players to invest those feelings in the music?
I do trust in them. John Lindberg, Pheeroan akLaff, Anthony Davis – they’re familiar with my music for over 30 years. Davis the longest, I met him when he was a teenager, akLaff was 19 when I met him, John was 19 – I’ve got people I’ve had connections with for over 30 years. We feel each other, when we get to playing, there’s that kinetic energy where we know instantly how to proceed, how to shape the space, how to release an idea.
How do you create the same dynamic with players you haven’t played with as long?
All the men and women I played with in this context [at Cafe Oto, August 2012] deeply respect me. I’ve played for the last five or six or seven players, I can feel them, they can feel me. Charles [Hayward] for example – Charles and me did a tour in Ireland last year, an instantly our hearts got knitted up. Last night he said after the performance, he felt like I had an eye or consciousness spreading out from the back of my head. Which is really great – he was in touch, I was in touch with him. 
The brass that night [at Oto] had only two instructions, one to use quiet and soft material, and one to use strong robust stuff. I would signal at some point a chord – an unspecified chord, I didn’t give anyone notes, so I just got everybody’s eye and went boom. Those three little components makes the music free but with this organic structure within it, that allows it to have continuity and also shapes one’s perception of how the space is going to move, and does it in an uninhibited way. You can still be as creative as you like, orchestrate architecturally and visually how you feel about the space, but the commonness of those three little components is constantly on you, and conditions what you do.