ASK YOUR MAMA
From Africa to the Americas, the South to the North, cities to suburbs, opera to jazz, gospel to be-bop, and "shadows to fire"—these are the pathways of Langston Hughes's epic and visionary poem cycle Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods For Jazz which came to life at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening, March 16, 2009 to a sold-out audience that “thundered its approval” (New York Times), in a remarkable collaboration between Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman and world-renowned soprano Jessye Norman. Karpman's impressive 90-minute score of music, film, and spoken word stood as the centerpiece of the Honor! Festival at Carnegie Hall, curated by Miss Norman.
The panoramic score weaves a compelling tapestry of orchestral music integrated with recorded selections drawn from a dozen traditions. Using Hughes's own voice at the core of the work, this musical journey includes quotations from Louis Armstrong, Big Maybelle, Pigmeat Markham and Bill Bojangles, all seamlessly integrated with projected images by Rico Gatson and archival video as well as Hughes's vibrant poetry. Performers include Miss Norman, jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, The Roots, vocalist de’Adra Aziza, and The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by the esteemed George Manahan.
From the outset, Hughes (1902-67) conceived ASK YOUR MAMA as an interdisciplinary creation, actually penning an imaginary soundtrack in the margin of each page as an accompaniment to his words. As his subtitle "Twelve Moods for Jazz" suggests, Hughes imagined a kaleidoscope of styles -- hot jazz, German lieder, cha-cha, patriotic songs, post-bop, Middle Eastern music, Afro-Caribbean drumming-- to which Karpman turns to evoke the turbulent flux and flow of American cultural life. Ubiquitous is The Hesitation Blues, which asks "How long will I have to wait?," an auditory emblem of the American dream deferred, of justice and equality lying just out of reach.
ASK YOUR MAMA first appeared in 1961, yet its heady mixture of high culture and street talk is startlingly current. Technology has evolved as well: the boundary-crossing score that Hughes "composed" to accompany his text has finally been brought to life, jumping from Harlem to Rio, from hot jazz to Hip-hop, with the click of a mouse or the beat of a baton.
The multi-faceted Laura Karpman is no stranger to multi-media projects, having worked in virtually every musical milieu, including film, theatre, concert, television, and video games. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and holds masters and doctoral degrees from The Juilliard School, where she studied with Milton Babbitt. Among the first composers selected as a Sundance Institute Film Scoring Fellow. Karpman is a four-time Emmy Award-winner and twelve time nominee, and her concert works have been hailed in performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cabrillo Festival Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, Juilliard Chorus, and the Detroit, Richmond, Seattle and Prague Symphonies. She has worked with film directors Steven Spielberg, Robert Greenwald, Barbara Koppel, Ken Olin, Rodrigo Garcia, Kathy Bates, and JoBeth Williams. She looks forward to new works for Evelyn Glennie, Tonya Pinkins and the 110 Project, a work newly commissioned by the L.A. Opera that is a paean to the city's first freeway, the redoubtable I-110, which turns 70 in 2009.
Karpman's score is the first major vocal setting of Hughes's great text. ASK YOUR MAMA bursts the boundaries of time, place, and verbal expression to trace the currents and tributaries of cultural diasporas, an altogether timely and true intersection of art and politics. The work receives its West Coast premiere at the Hollywood Bowl on August 30, is performed at the Baltimore Symphony February 4-6 2010, and travels throughout the country in coming seasons.