The composer Carlos Simon is busy. Six premieres in four months of pressure.
In February, Simon was with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first performances of his “Four Black American Dances,” a romp through a ring shout, a waltz, a tap dance, and a praise intermission. At the Kennedy Center in Washington, where Simon has been a composer in residence since 2021, he accompanied two debuts in April: ‘Songs of Separation’, a sun-still-shining setting of Rumi poetry, and ‘Don’t Let the Pigeon Sing Up Late!’, an irreverent opera collaboration with picture book author Mo Willems.
This month, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra premiered “Troubled Water,” a trombone concerto that poignantly evokes the fears and beliefs of freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. Then Imani Winds inaugurated ‘Giants’, five sketches of color pioneers.
And all before Thursday, when the Minnesota Orchestra will premiere perhaps the most important commission of Simon’s career to date: “brea(d)th,” commemorating the murder of George Floyd.
“If this music is made the right way, if it’s honest,” said Simon in a recent interview, “it doesn’t matter what your language is, whatever your background, whether you’re white, black or whoever – it goes straight to you. And that’s what I always strive for, honesty, in my music.”
Simon, 37, was already on the rise before the pandemic. But he’s gained much more exposure in the past three years as classical music recognizes, embarrassingly late, that black lives, black artists and black music matter.
“I don’t feel like I’m overworked or pushed to my limits,” said Simon. “It feels good to me, but at the same time I’m thankful that I get to do what I do and love what I do.”
It’s easy enough to understand why Simon’s name has become such a common sight on concert lists: the booming, to-the-point “Fate Now Conquers,” a response to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, has been heard by most major orchestras and many others. in addition. He writes quickly, strikingly and invitingly, somewhat in the vein of William Grant Still and Florence Price. His scores often sound like they believe, sincerely but humbly, in their own power to make a difference.
“What I like about Carlos’ music is the fact that he really wants to communicate,” says Gianandrea Noseda, the music director of the National Symphony, who has commissioned and performed several of Simon’s works, including “Songs of Separation.” “There is nothing purely intellectual. There is always an emotional element behind it.”
Jessie Montgomery, a friend of Simon and with him a member of a group of composers calling themselves the Blacknificent Seven, hears a distinctive musical voice in Simon’s scores.
“I feel like the way he connects through his music to his own personal history, his identity, is very direct and poignant,” she said. “He is deeply committed to carrying a story through his music, carrying a story and carrying meaning.”
Simon sees himself as a griot, “a keeper of stories through music,” and many of his stories offer “a positive message, the positive response to the struggle,” he said. For example, “Portrait of a Queen” celebrates the black woman; “Motherboxx Connection” is based on Black Kirby’s Afrofuturistic comics; “Be Still and Know,” a piano trio, peacefully confesses God’s presence and grace; “Breathe” is a calming meditation for chamber orchestra inspired by the theology of Howard Thurman.
But for Simon, carrying meaning as a Black American man in the midst of lingering racism sometimes also means taking on a heavy weight. It is a responsibility to which he brings the fervor and clarity of the preachers from whom he descends.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in his ‘Requiem for the Enslaved’. Mixing the Latin mass with spirituals, gospel and jazz on a text written, spoken and rapped by Marco Pavé, it honors the 272 people who were sold in 1838 to pay off the debts of Georgetown University, where Simon now teaches. At its live premiere at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston last October, it had stunning moral force, simultaneously demanding justice and paying respect to those whose names and ages were exorcised at its opening.
It is a job that Simon finds difficult to perform; for a recording and the concert in Boston he sat at the piano next to Pavé, trumpeter MK Zulu and Hub New Music. After next year, he said, he won’t be playing it again, though others may.
“They never thought I’d be a professor there, or even think I’d perform and honor them,” he said of the people he memorializes. “And that costs a lot.”
SIMON IS BORN in Washington in 1986. Ten years later, his family moved to Atlanta, where his father is a pastor at Galilee Way of the Cross Church. Simon did not read music until he enrolled at Morehouse College; he had learned by ear, improvising to lead the Pentecostal church on Sundays and hitting the right note as worshipers spontaneously sang praises. It was, he said, a weekly lesson on how music can help people.
That left a lasting impression on Simon’s music, said the poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Simon’s librettist for ‘brea(d)th’ and other works.
“Church as an antecedent means there’s an incantation that’s part of the output,” Joseph said. There were moments in their one-act opera “it all falls to pieces”, he added, “where the spirits swelled. And in my experience you don’t find that much in opera. You may be moved by melody and tone , but the instinct to light a fire — that’s a distinguishing feature, I think.”
Simon played with, sang in and wrote music for the glee club in Morehouse; he performed in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and discovered that Still, Margaret Bonds, and many other black musicians had composed in similar traditions.
“It was an encouragement,” said Simon. “I could see myself in them, in their music, and it gave me an impulse to move on.”
He decided to become a composer, rather than a pianist or arranger, and did his graduate work at Georgia State University, where he received his PhD from the University of Michigan. It wasn’t until then, he said, that he felt confident enough to fuse his legacy in spirituals and gospel with classical forms and idioms.
“I think I was afraid of being kitschy and making a caricature of the music,” said Simon. He gave himself more permission to try after seeing visual artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden depict black life with a certain abstraction, and learned how Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok used their own “music of the people” ‘.
His process often involves significant amounts of research to ensure he’s telling a story right. For “brea(d)th,” written for chorus, orchestra, and spoken word, Simon and Joseph visited Minneapolis last April to meet Angela Harrelson, Floyd’s aunt, and Jeanelle Austin of the George Floyd Global Memorial. They made several trips back to connect with community members, some of whom will hear echoes of their conversations in the piece, said Beth Kellar-Long, the Minnesota Orchestra’s vice president of orchestral administration.
At first Simon was unsure about the commission, not wanting to compose another requiem, or a dirge like “An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave” (2015), which he dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and who ” who have been unjustly murdered by an oppressive power.” But Joseph convinced him, he said, that the play “could be a point of action, not just a moment of reflection.”
And that’s the hope that Simon places in much of his music.
“I don’t consider myself a politician,” Simon said. ‘I can’t make laws. But I do think I can help influence thinking and discussion, which can then lead to someone making a law. So in that way it is indirect. But it’s still – it’s better than nothing.