Pianist Lara Downes re-centers the music of the Great Migration : Deceptive Cadence Pianist Lara Downes' latest mini-album traces the story of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the south in the early to mid-20th century, with music by Florence Price and Harry T. Burleigh.

Pianist Lara Downes re-centers the music of the Great Migration

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As a young musician, concert pianist Lara Downes was often discouraged by the lack of diversity in her field. Downes is half Black, and growing up, there were very few well-known Black composers or performers in classical music. Now today, she's trying to change that with a project we've been following at MORNING EDITION. Each month for as long as she can keep it up, Downes is releasing a mini album meant to showcase the work of overlooked or forgotten Black composers. And you can hear the music on her label Rising Sun Music.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHARI JOYNER AND LARA DOWNES' PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "OUT OF THE SOUTH BLEW A WIND")

MARTINEZ: This fall, Downes is putting out three EPs inspired by the Great Migration. That's the exodus of millions of Black Americans from the South in the early to mid-20th century. Lara Downes joins us to talk about her new recordings. Well, great to talk to you, Lara.

LARA DOWNES, BYLINE: It's so nice to be here. Good morning.

MARTINEZ: All right. So tell us about this composition we're hearing.

DOWNES: It's called "Out Of The South Blew A Wind," and it was composed by Florence Price in 1946. It's set to a poem by a singer named Fannie Carter Woods (ph), who was the granddaughter of a former slave. And I think that this poem just perfectly encapsulates the energy and impetus of the Great Migration. The text goes, out of the south blew a soft, low wind. On its wings was the joy of a dream. And you can really hear that joy in Florence Price's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHARI JOYNER AND LARA DOWNES' PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "OUT OF THE SOUTH BLEW A WIND")

MARTINEZ: That little run there at the end, Lara, that gave me some tingles, and it made me smile, too. What's Florence Price's story? Was she a migrant, too?

DOWNES: She was. She was born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1887, and she was a brilliant musical prodigy. She gave her first piano performance when she was 4. She published her first composition when she was 11 years old. In 1927, she and her husband moved their family to Chicago after a lynching in Little Rock and a wave of really intense racial violence. And she became a central figure in the Chicago Black Renaissance of the 1930s. She wrote prolifically, and she was actually the first female Black composer ever to have her work performed by a major American orchestra, the Chicago Symphony.

MARTINEZ: Wow.

DOWNES: So she was a real trailblazer, and yet it's only now that her music is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES' PERFORMANCE OF HENRY T. BURLEIGH'S "FROM THE SOUTHLAND")

MARTINEZ: Let's listen to another piece of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES' PERFORMANCE OF HENRY T. BURLEIGH'S "FROM THE SOUTHLAND")

MARTINEZ: All right, Lara, what are we hearing?

DOWNES: This is by Henry T. Burleigh. It's a piano suite called "From The Southland." He wrote it in 1911. It's a set of short pieces with titles like "Through Moaning Pines" and "In the Cold Moonlight." There is a sense of melancholy and loneliness in this music. It really evokes the first steps of a perilous journey to an unknown place or, you know, a night flight alone through dark woods with only the stars above showing your way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES' PERFORMANCE OF HENRY T. BURLEIGH'S "FROM THE SOUTHLAND")

MARTINEZ: Who was Henry Burleigh?

DOWNES: Unlike Florence Price, Burleigh was born in the north in Erie, Pa. His connection with spirituals and plantation melodies came from his grandfather, who had been born enslaved. As a young man, Burleigh supplemented the family's income by taking singing jobs in local churches. And then in 1892, he won a scholarship to the newly founded National Conservatory of Music in New York.

And right at that time, the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak had just come to America to serve as the conservatory's director. He started hearing Burleigh singing spirituals at night in the hallways as Burleigh was doing odd jobs for extra income. And Dvorak was fascinated by these melodies. And this would become a hugely important moment in the history of classical music because not only did Dvorak encourage Burleigh to preserve these melodies in his own concert compositions, but Dvorak himself started writing themes inspired by these songs. And Burleigh's compositions and his arrangements of Black spirituals translated a musical tradition that was born in slavery onto the concert stage, and this music stands now as a masterful example of a uniquely American art form.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARA DOWNES' PERFORMANCE OF HENRY T. BURLEIGH'S "FROM THE SOUTHLAND")

MARTINEZ: Wow. Nice. All right, let's listen to one more piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF IVALAS QUARTET'S PERFORMANCE OF CARLOS SIMON'S "WARMTH FROM OTHER SUNS")

MARTINEZ: You know, if this were in a movie, I would think that you'd be arriving somewhere brand-new - like, the sun coming up on the new place that you were going to settle to.

DOWNES: You're very perceptive. This is called "Settle."

MARTINEZ: Oh, wow.

DOWNES: It's the third...

MARTINEZ: Good.

DOWNES: Yeah. It's the third and last movement of a string quartet - you noticed I wasn't playing that; it's the string quartet - by a composer named Carlos Simon. And it's called "Warmth From Other Suns." And yeah, you're right. This piece reflects the hope and promise of this arrival in a place where you can finally put down some new roots, you can lift your face to the warmth of a new sun, and maybe you can even reach and touch the sky.

MARTINEZ: And unlike the other composers, this is someone writing about the Great Migration from the perspective of today. Tell us about him.

DOWNES: Yeah. Carlos Simon is really one of the most sought-after American composers of this generation. He's everywhere. He's from Atlanta, 35 years old. He's currently serving as the composer in residence at the Kennedy Center. And to me, Carlos represents a new generation of Black artists, a new renaissance. These are writers whose voices combine past and present with a confident and urgent sound. And you can hear that in this piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF IVALAS QUARTET'S PERFORMANCE OF CARLOS SIMON'S "WARMTH FROM OTHER SUNS")

DOWNES: It was really Carlos' piece, representing the beginning, middle and end of the Great Migration, that inspired me to record this music that I'm sharing with you today. I wanted to capture the experience of the migration, both from the perspective of composers who lived it and also from the viewpoint of a young composer who's experiencing a completely different, 21st-century reality because to me, this story is still being written. There's a continuity here. And this journey, it's ongoing.

(SOUNDBITE OF IVALAS QUARTET'S PERFORMANCE OF CARLOS SIMON'S "WARMTH FROM OTHER SUNS")

MARTINEZ: Lara Downes, thank you very much for joining us.

DOWNES: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF IVALAS QUARTET'S PERFORMANCE OF CARLOS SIMON'S "WARMTH FROM OTHER SUNS")

MARTINEZ: She's a concert pianist and the host of NPR Music's Amplify With Lara Downes. And you can hear these recordings on her label Rising Sun Music.

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