‘A Conversation Between Black And White America’
In one of the most effective instances of a difficult form to pull off, composer Laura Karpman lets you know from the first moment that she’s got this under control.
Her full-album 12-part treatment opens with the unadorned sound of an archival recording of Hughes introducing his 1961 poem, Ask Your Mama. You hear him sign on, full-voiced, relaxed even in formal address:
This is Langston Hughes, and I am reading from my new book of poems,Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods For Jazz. In fact, I think I might call the book a single poem because, although it’s divided into 12 sections, it’s thematic unity holds it together, I believe. This book was written in segments beginning at Newport, Newport Jazz Festival, in fact, two summers ago, and I suppose that’s why as I wrote most of it, I could hear jazz music behind it.
And in the pause right there, at 0:37 in the album’s opening track, “Dedication,” Karpman makes her move. Something profoundly deep and more than slow, something tragic stirs under this fine, frank voice of the great poet who died in 1967. Darkening strings have begun to embrace that voice and are met by a wry, knowing figure from David Loeb on piano.
The album, from Avie Records, just out on the third of July, is this week’s Album of the Week at New York Public Radio’s pivotally important Q2 Music, the free 24-hour contemporary classical stream that focuses on living composers. And it’s yet another reminder of how lucky we are to have this still-young service on the musical scene, not six years in operation yet. In addition to Ask Your Mama, I’d like to recommend the lively Meet The Composer segment on Meredith Monk, Nadia Sirota’s new audio profile of another seminal artist of our culture.
In Karpman’s Ask Your Mama, a 2009 commission from Carnegie Hall, Hughes’ voice is going right on, blithely explaining about notating his text with the sort of musical motifs he imagined as he worked.
But Karpman is beyond him already. She knows something Hughes did not know: she knows how pivotal his “book of poems” would become in American literature, and she understands it as a song cycle of sweeping importance to the African-American aesthetic. Like Gershwin’s rising-tide orchestrations, Karpman’s score lovingly enfolds and then engulfs the poet’s voice. And time seems to pass now at Lowcountry speed from the moment he says “The Hesitation Blues, the old traditional blues.” Without hesitation, Karpman is in control.
“This is Langston Hughes” you hear again now, over those strings. But that’s a different voice. And another is heard, this time a woman, “This is Langston Hughes, and I’m reading from my new book of poems, Ask Your Mama.” In under two minutes, a team of nine vocalists has overtaken — and taken over — the man and his voice and his work. This is easily one of the most moving, respectful, and authoritative evocations of a narration-based symphonic setting you’ll hear anywhere.
And one reason that Karpman pulls this off so well is that she’s Hollywood.
The result is a kind of sonic landscape that wants good headphones, a deep Campari, and some time during which you can listen uninterrupted. Karpman has made even Hughes’ notes about that jazz in his head all hers. And that’s where we start our interview.
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By Porter Anderson
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Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com