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Carlos Simon (b1986)

Symphonic Works

National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
 
 
Download only Available Friday 23 August 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: National Symphony Orchestra
Recording details: Various dates
Concert Hall at John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, USA
Produced by Blanton Alspaugh
Engineered by John Newton
Release date: 23 August 2024
Total duration: 66 minutes 53 seconds
 
The block
The block is a short orchestral study based on the visual art of the late Romare Bearden. Most of Bearden’s work reflects African American culture in urban cities as well as the rural American south. Although Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, he spent most of his life in Harlem, New York. With its vibrant artistic community, this piece aims to highlight the rich energy and joyous sceneries that Harlem expressed as it was the hotbed for African American culture.

The block is comprised of six paintings that highlight different buildings (church, barbershop, nightclub, etc.) in Harlem on one block. Bearden’s paintings incorporate various mediums including watercolors, graphite, and metallic papers. In the same way, this musical piece explores various musical textures that highlight the vibrant scenery and energy that a block on Harlem or any urban city exhibits.

Tales 'A folklore symphony'
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 Organization 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.

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, signals 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 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.'

Songs of separation
Even before Carlos Simon began his tenure as Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence in the fall of 2021, local audiences could get a sense of his versatility from performances here of his brief but powerful string quartet, Elegy: A Cry from the Grave, and his one-act chamber opera, Night Trip. Both works also underscore Simon’s commitment to addressing issues of social justice and racial inequity in America. The young composer, who was born in Washington, DC, believes in music’s power to give voice to the marginalized and to shape aspirations for a better world.

Simon grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, in a family that encouraged his love of music as a way to participate in singing and playing for the services at the African American Pentecostal church his father founded. He likes to compare his role as a composer to what his father, part of a multi-generational line of preachers, does from the pulpit. Simon has again become a DC resident: in 2019 he joined the performing arts faculty at Georgetown University, where his work on the Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation Project inspired him to write Requiem for the Enslaved. A work featuring spoken word with lyrics by hip hop artist Marco Pavé, Requiem, was released as Simon’s debut album for the Decca label; it was nominated for the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category in the 2023 Grammy Awards®.

Songs of separation for mezzo-soprano and orchestra was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra in connection with Simon’s residency. The ordeal of the COVID-19 pandemic concentrated his attention on experiences of separation and loss. Searching for texts for this orchestral song cycle, which he wrote for J’Nai Bridges, he found himself drawn backward in time to the work of the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalāl al-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.

'We all, as humans, experience separation in a variety of forms', Simon writes in his note to the score. 'Whether it be through the death of a loved one, a break-up, a divorce, or a permanent relocation from family and friends, a parting of ways is a part of life for us all.' He explains that the timeless eloquence of Rūmī appealed to him in particular because he realized it could serve as a vehicle to grapple with 'negative things that we tend to shy away from'. Summing up the personal message he finds in these poems—'What hurts you, also blesses you'—Simon describes how the pain of loss can lead to gaining something as well, which he says is 'the real inspiration and hope of the piece'.

Using the translations of Rūmī’s texts by Coleman Barks, Simon selected four poems that 'depict moments of grief and sorrow as well as hope and encouragement': The garden, Burning hell, Dance, and We are all the same. He wrote the four songs specifically to highlight the unique beauty and power of Bridges’ wide range. Simon prefers not to pre-program audiences with guideposts about what to listen for but encourages them to bring their own background to the experience: 'Everybody’s dealt with loss in a certain way. So everyone will bring something different.'
Thomas May

Wake up!
This concerto for orchestra is inspired by the poem, Awake, Asleep, written by the Nepali poet Rajendra Bhandari. In this profound poetic offering, Bhandari warns of the danger of being obliviously asleep in a social world, but yet how collective wakefulness provides 'a bountiful harvest of thoughts'. My goal in writing this work was not only to wake a sleeping hall with the sound of the orchestra, but to leave those who hear the piece with the question: Am I asleep? For these reasons, I chose to compose a two-note rhythmic motif that acts as a 'wake up call' throughout the composition—as if the orchestra is speaking to the hall and the audience, 'WAKE UP!'

Awake, Asleep
To slumber amongst the awakened
is more difficult
than staying awake amongst the slumbering.
slumbering can be contagious,
one slumber leading to another,
another … and another
till an epidemic of slumber explodes.
During the pandemic of sleep
the despot sings of peace.
The slumbering public is innocent,
like a slumbering child,
smiling in its sleep.
Asleep, it does not know when it bedwets,
asleep, it is photogenic,
asleep, it does not cast stones at the mirror
does not ask for aeroplanes and guns,—
Things, a despot knows better
than a poet.
Like sleep, wakefulness too is contagious,
One rubs his eyes as he awakes,
sighs and coughs …
another coughs, another sits up, talks.
all talk to each other,
the talking growing into a din …
Like a sprouting shoot of thought
One thought sprouts, and another … and another.
becoming a bountiful harvest of thoughts.
Things, a poet knows better
than a despot.
(© Rajendra Bhandari Translated from Nepali by Pankaj Thapa)

Carlos Simon © 2024

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