|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
The Numinosum Blog
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
-excerpt from "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes
Pianist Lara Downes contacted me in the fall of 2015 and asked if I had a piano piece that would fit in with the concept for her next recording. I told her that my previously composed piano pieces did not but that I’d be happy to write a piece for her. Now Lara and I have known each other for a number of years, ever since she contacted me—unsolicited, no less—to say she had admired my music and ensemble Numinous (hey performers and organizations, it’s ALWAYS a good idea when you reach out to acknowledge and appreciate someone’s work, even when you have no immediate opportunity to give them or don’t even know them personally); in fact, before she contacted me, she was already on MY radar when I was struck by her recording 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg (Tritone Records, 2011) and I had been following her career since then. Last fall Lara mentioned that her new recording would be called America Again and inspired by the 1938 Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”. As Lara writes:
Today, as I write these words, we are living again in troubled times. For too many Americans, circumstance and skin color still keep the promise out of reach, the dream deferred. The hard-won rights and long-sought justice for which our parents and grandparents fought are too easily slipping away. The rifts and rivalries that divide us as a nation seem to run deeper than ever. But still, we dreamers keep dreaming our dream. This music is a tribute to the generations of Americans who dream the impossible: black and white, men and women, immigrants and pioneers. It tells the story of their journeys, their loves and longings, their hardships and their hopes. American music is made of everything we are, coming from so many different people and places, expressing so many different dreams.
She asked if I knew of the poem and would I write her new piece based directly on the words, with the possibility of using some audio of recitation of the poem to accompany the music. Getting to work shortly after agreeing, the first step was to reread the poem—I had first read the poem as an undergraduate—and after revisiting Langston’s words I was immediately confounded that 78 years later it STILL represents a particular ambivalence that some Americans have (and always had) for America. As I wrote to Lara updating her on the composing of the piece:
First, the title is “Never Has Been Yet” and obviously comes from a line in the poem. [Johannes] Brahms and in particular his Intermezzo Op. 118 no 2 was part of the musical inspiration for the piece (although it doesn't sound or feel like the Brahms Intermezzo). The standard dichotomy of Brahms as a Classicist as well as a Romantic is used as a metaphor for how Langston's poem balances the love of America and the hope that it will fulfill its promise someday, with the fact that America is far from fulfilling that promise to many. This fact does not make those of us critical of America not reaching its potential have any less belief that it's possible, despite the long history to the contrary. In particular those of us brown and black faces who often have the most reason to distrust or believe, often are the ones that continue to cling to the fervent hope that one day, that promise could fully include them/us as well. Emotionally in developing the music I focused on the line “Let it be that great strong land of love” as a way to show our hope and belief in America's ideals, however, the music is also tinged (I think) a bit with quiet sadness, resignedness, tension, and unfulfilledness as well (“America never was America to me”).
A quick preview from Lara performing an excerpt from "Never Has Been Yet"
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One might give a little side eye in my connecting a German #DWG (‘dead white guy’) with the very much living #BLM struggles of people of color in America, but those roiling contradictions and paradoxes within Brahms are within us all and is mirrored so beautifully in many of his late introspective compositions such as the Opus 118 set. And like Brahms (“He was a classicizing Romantic, a loner who was a creature of the musical mainstream, a backward-looking artist who anticipated and inspired the future of music. Brahms scorned women and loved them and fled from them, but inescapably needed them.”) people of color often possess a similar divided nature about inclusiveness and opportunity within the American system (“I have found…no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be towards me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites…it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second”).
A few years earlier I had already trotted in similar duality between the great American theory and its uncomfortable actualization with my composition “Dreams of Wonders Undreamt” from my collaboration with choreographer Edisa Weeks, To Begin the World Over Again. “Dreams” featured the words of Thomas Paine in counterpoint with those of John Winthrop’s famous ‘city upon the hill’ sermon and Nicholas Black Elk’s powerful words on the massacre at Wounded Knee ("Now that I can see it all as from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people's heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people's dream that died in bloody snow"). I often described to Edisa that I thought of “Dreams” as a ‘love song to the idea of the promise of America’. In many ways “Dreams” is the abstract, general dissonance between that love and disappointment while “Never Has Been Yet” is inspired by the very specific quantum-like state of occupying “two places at the same time” many people of color feel in regards to America. (Interestingly, Thomas Paine—without whose stirring words in Common Sense and his exhortation to George Washington and his troops on the banks of the Delaware River that winter in 1776 would be instrumental in even HAVING an America—was excommunicated and slandered from the Founding Fathers 'patriarchy' for daring to criticize the institution of religion as well as for questioning whether America’s democracy was actually democratic). And that the country has never reckoned with its past ‘original sin’, Langston’s line “America has never been America to me” takes on marrow deep resonance for many of her brethren, particularly the brown, black, and Native ones.
This dichotomy has been center stage lately with Colin Kaepernick’s (and now, many other athletes) refusal to stand during the national anthem at sporting events (for some context, read Will Robin’s powerful history of the Star-Spangled Banner as a political statement). Currently I’m rewatching the seminal video series on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s Eyes on the Prize as part of my research for my forthcoming musical drama/”opera” The Grey Land and have been struck by how some of same arguments against the protestors then—“disrespectful”, “ridiculous”, “offensive”, “arrogant”, "things were ok until they stirred up hatred", etc.—are still in the playlist of today’s critics of social justice protests (oddly, many critical refrains that mostly distill down to 'it’s not what Martin Luther King would do' don’t understand the disruption and upheaval needed to affect change, nor the subsequent hatred engendered by MLK and others in the 1960s); enough so that even liberal stalwart Notorious RGB--“a justice--admirable but imperfect…who argues passionately for minority rights in the abstract without fully understanding how each new generation puts those principles into practice” can lob ill-informed barbs about the motivations and goals of the protests and protestors (although since, she's walked back her critique). Whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the LGTB movement, or many other social movements, they all seek to resolve the great American equation closer to its equality ideal; and those callers for justice that point to historical and continued systemic hypocrisy and inconsistencies in a society that claims to uphold, for ALL its citizens, the sanctity of its meritorious principles and promises is the very definition of patriotic.
I don’t understand what’s more American than fighting for liberty and justice for everybody, for the equality this country says it stands for. To me, I see it as very patriotic and American to hold the United States to the standards it says it lives by.
Unfortunately back in the spring Lara and I decided that “Never Has Been Yet” would not be on her album America Again, but Lara will still be performing the composition in conjunction with some of her performances in her tour for the album. So the premiere will be at the Mondavi Center in Davis, California on October 29, 2016 8 pm and you can hear Lara in NYC at LPR on November 21, 2016, although she will not perform "Never Has Been Yet" (unless you ask nicely…) so you’ll have to wait until winter for the New York City debut. Check out www.laradownes.com to see if there’s a show near you.
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.