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Carlos Simon (b1986)

Tales – A folklore symphony

National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
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Label: National Symphony Orchestra
Recording details: March 2022
Concert Hall at John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, USA
Produced by Blanton Alspaugh
Engineered by Dirk Sobotka
Release date: January 2024
Total duration: 22 minutes 31 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph of Carlos Simon by Yassine El Mansouri

The first release from the NSO to feature work by current composer in residence, Carlos Simon.

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I am beyond thrilled with the release of my symphonic works with the National Symphony Orchestra—my orchestra, my family. To have my music performed, recorded and released by such a world class ensemble is truly a dream come true. Tales is an exploration of African American folklore and Afrofuturist stories, and I am so proud and confident to know that the best musicianship and artistry has been brought to this recording. Thank you to the Sphinx Organisation and the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra for commissioning this work, and to Maestro Noseda, the NSO staff, and each and every musician for how you have brought it to life here.

Tales – A folklore symphony
Motherboxx connection
“Where are all the black people in comics?” This is a question posed by the creative duo, Black Kirby (John Jennings and Stacey Robinson). Based heavily in Afrofuturism, Black Kirby’s characters show black people as heroes using ancient customs and futurist motifs from the African and African American diaspora. This piece is inspired by the many heroic characters found in the work of Black Kirby, but mainly Motherboxx Connection.

According to scholar Regina N. Bradley, Motherboxx Connection is “a pun on Jack Kirby’s motherbox, a living computer connected to the world. The Motherboxx, too, is a living computer with a heightened awareness of racial and sexual discourses surrounding the black body. The Motherboxx is the technological equivalent of the ‘mother land’ in the black diaspora imagination. She is where black identities merge and depart.”

To represent the power and intelligence of the Motherboxx, I have composed a short, fast-moving musical idea that constantly weaves in and throughout the orchestra. A majestic, fanfare-like motif also provides the overall mood of strength and heroism. I imagine the motherboxx as an all-knowing entity that is aware of the multi-faceted aspects of blackness.

Flying Africans
Once, all Africans could fly, but lost their ability after they crossed the Atlantic Ocean as enslaved humans. This story tells how one African maintained the ability and secretly passed the gift to others. The Negro Spiritual “Steal away” is referenced in the woodwinds, as well as the cello section, while the upper strings hover effortlessly in the higher register.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home
I ain’t got long to stay here

Go down Moses (Let my people go)
The Hebrew biblical story of the Plagues of Egypt resonated with the enslaved, and they created songs that related to this story of bondage. While the horrific plagues that swept across Egypt are compelling in and of themselves, the focus of this piece is recounted from the perspective of the stubborn Pharaoh, who unwillingly loosens his grip on the enslaved people. The Pharaoh’s hardened heart is conveyed through two sharp, accented chords. The spirit of God, represented by light, heavenly, metallic sounds from the percussion, signal the beginning of each new plague. Frogs, pestilence, and sickness are not enough to break the Pharaoh’s will. It is only with the “Angel of Death”, which takes the life of the Pharaoh’s first-born child, represented by dark, brooding harmonies, that he relents in despair. The orchestral texture grows thinner and thinner as the Pharaoh wallows in emotional anguish. The once prideful Pharaoh is now broken down to a powerless whimper. I use the Negro Spiritual, “Let my people go (Go down Moses)” as a musical framework throughout this movement.

Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell ol’ Pharaoh to
Let my people go!
When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go!

John Henry
The story of John Henry is traditionally told through work songs, each with wide-ranging and varying lyrics. The well-known narrative ballad of “John Henry” is essentially the battle between man versus machine. Enslaved prisoners would often sing the story more slowly and deliberately, often with a pulsating beat suggestive of swinging a hammer. These songs usually contain the lines, “This old hammer killed John Henry / but it won’t kill me.”

Writer Scott Nelson explains that “workers managed their labor by setting a ‘stint,’ or pace, for it. Men who violated the stint were shunned… Here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast: they died ugly deaths; their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly, you guarded your life, or you died.”

Carlos Simon © 2024

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