'Ask Your Mama': A Music And Poetry Premiere

Soprano Jessye Norman i i

Ask Your Mama is just one event in Jessye Norman's festival called Honor!, a celebration of Africa-American culture at Carnegie Hall. Carol Friedman hide caption

itoggle caption Carol Friedman
Soprano Jessye Norman

Ask Your Mama is just one event in Jessye Norman's festival called Honor!, a celebration of Africa-American culture at Carnegie Hall.

Carol Friedman

Hear the Music

Hear a sneak-preview section of "Ask Your Mama" in this demo version arranged by composer Laura Karpman. Singers: Medusa and Tammy Jenkins.

For most of this month, Carnegie Hall has been presenting a festival called Honor! Curated by soprano Jessye Norman, it showcases the cultural legacy of African-American musicians. Norman takes the Carnegie stage Monday night, joined by hip-hop artists The Roots and the Orchestra of St. Luke's to perform the world premiere of a new piece by composer Laura Karpman called Ask Your Mama, featuring the poetry of Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes, photographed in 1940

Langston Hughes included musical instructions in the margins of his poem Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, written in 1960. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library hide caption

itoggle caption Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Karpman was going through a bookstore when she stumbled onto a little-known epic poem by Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. It was called Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.

"What attracted me to the piece was not only that it was written by Langston Hughes, who I think is one of the most brilliant poets who ever lived," Karpman says, "but in the right-hand margins of the poem, Langston says exactly how the music should sound."

Hughes' Eclectic Soundtrack

Hughes wrote the sprawling poem late in his career, in 1960, while he was attending the Newport Jazz Festival. He had music in his ears, and dictated a kind of soundtrack in the margins of the poem that included everything from blues to German lieder to gospel and Latin music, all together.

"One of the poems is called The Gospel Cha-Cha," Norman says, "where there's sort of African-American gospel music, but also the music that one would have heard that was coming up from the Caribbean."

Annie Dorsen, who directed Passing Strange on Broadway, is overseeing the physical presentation of Ask Your Mama, which will include video. She says Hughes was paying homage to generations of African-American artists, while experimenting with form.

"You know, he's taking in Charlie Parker, he's taking in bebop, he's taking in sort of innovations from more radical artists," Dorsen says. "And he's experimenting a little bit, late in life, wondering what it all means, what his life as an artist has meant, how he fits into the marketplace, how he fits into black history and how he fits into American history."

A Maximalist Score

Karpman has written something of a maximalist score for Ask Your Mama. She's using hip-hop, a full classical orchestra and jazz instruments. She even has two musicians sitting at keyboards, triggering samples from laptops.

"When Langston asks for old-time, traditional 12-bar blues, instead of making the orchestra do that — which always sounds not-quite-right, to be kind — I actually trigger the sample of Cab Calloway doing 'St. James Infirmary Blues,' " Karpman says.

Hughes has a presence throughout the piece. Karpman found an old recording of the poet reading his poem. She digitized it and then sampled from it, as well.

Norman says she views Hughes' poem as a microcosm of the entire festival.

"All of these names, all of this music that Langston Hughes heard in Harlem at the time, the newer immigrants from Latin America and people coming to this country from Africa that were making their music that he was hearing," Norman says. "All of this is indicated in the margins of the poem. And all of this Laura has been able to bring to this piece."

After Carnegie Hall, Ask Your Mama is scheduled to be performed with Norman at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.