Music For Writers: Laura Karpman’s ‘Your Mama’

Laura Karpman / Image: Lupe Palacios
Laura Karpman / Image: Histeria Producciones

‘Conversation Between Black And White America’

In one of the most effective instances of a difficult form to pull off, composer Laura Karpman lets you know from the first moment that she’s got this under control.

Her evening-length 12-part treatment opens with the unadorned sound of an archival recording of Hughes (1902-1967) introducing his 1961 poem, Ask Your Mama. You hear him sign on, full-voiced, relaxed even in formal address:

This is Langston Hughes, and I am reading from my new book of poems, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods For Jazz. In fact, I think I might call the book a single poem because, although it’s divided into 12 sections, it’s thematic unity holds it together, I believe. This book was written in segments beginning at Newport, Newport Jazz Festival, in fact, two summers ago, and I suppose that’s why as I wrote most of it, I could hear jazz music behind it.

And in the pause right there, at 0:37 in the album’s opening track, “Dedication,” Karpman makes her move. Something profoundly deep and more than slow, something tragic stirs under this fine, frank voice of the great poet. Darkening strings have begun to embrace that voice and are met by a wry, knowing figure from David Loeb on piano.

Ask Your Mama coverThe album, from Avie Records, just out on the third of July, is this week’s Album of the Week at New York Public Radio’s pivotally important Q2 Music, the free 24-hour contemporary classical stream that focuses on living composers. And it’s yet another reminder of how lucky we are to have this still-young service on the musical scene, not six years in operation yet. In addition to Ask Your Mama, I’d like to recommend the lively Meet The Composer segment on Meredith Monk, Nadia Sirota’s new audio profile of another seminal artist of our culture.

In Karpman’s Ask Your Mama, a 2009 commission from Carnegie Hall, Hughes’ voice is going right on, blithely explaining about notating his text with the sort of musical motifs he imagined as he worked.

But Karpman is beyond him already. She knows something Hughes did not know: she knows how pivotal his “book of poems” would become in American literature, and she understands it as a song cycle of sweeping importance to the African-American aesthetic. Like Gershwin’s rising-tide orchestrations, Karpman’s score lovingly enfolds and then engulfs the poet’s voice. And time seems to pass now at Lowcountry speed from the moment he says “The Hesitation Blues, the old traditional blues.” Without hesitation, Karpman is in control.

“This is Langston Hughes” you hear again now, over those strings. But that’s a different voice. And another is heard, this time a woman, “This is Langston Hughes, and I’m reading from my new book of poems, Ask Your Mama.” In under two minutes, a team of nine vocalists has overtaken — and taken over — the man and his voice and his work. This is easily one of the most moving, respectful, and authoritative evocations of a narration-based symphonic setting you’ll hear anywhere.

And one reason that Karpman pulls this off so well is that she’s Hollywood.

“I did feel concerned about the ramification of setting this work being a white Jewish woman. …Hughes’ biographer, Arnold Rampersad, gave me the assurance that Hughes had collaborated with many people of all races.”
Laura Karpman

Karpman is known for her work in film and television, four times an Emmy winner, seven times an Emmy nominee, a member of the Academy, winner of the BMI. She’s known, for example, for soundtracks for Steven Spielberg’s miniseries Taken and the PBS series The Living Edens. She works in dramatic idioms and knows how to position resonant references to “nearby” works in a mosaic of shifting influences from jazz to spirituals, art song to opera, percussion to the eerie wail of a military trumpet.

The result is a kind of sonic landscape that wants good headphones, a deep Campari, and some time during which you can listen uninterrupted. Karpman has made even Hughes’ notes about that jazz in his head all hers. And that’s where we start our interview.

'Ask Your Mama' is a commission of Carnegie Hall. Image provided by Dworkin & Company
‘Ask Your Mama’ is a commission of Carnegie Hall. Image provided by Dworkin & Company

‘That Increasingly Rare Place, The Bookstore’

Thought Catalog: Laura, you’ve written so well in your documentation of the project about the discovery of Hughes’ “Mama” with his notes on it. I think the part of the story I’m not getting is how did you come to make this discovery? Were you researching his work for the Carnegie Hall commission already? Or did the discovery of the annotated text precede the commission?

Laura Karpman
Laura Karpman

Laura Karpman: Well, I was actually rifling around that increasingly rare place called the bookstore. It was during a time, let’s say “in between projects,” and I was looking for inspiration. I came upon the collected works of Langston Hughes. I was actually looking for jazz poetry for another project. It was then I came upon Ask Your Mama. When I saw Hughes’ musical directions in the right-hand margins of the poem, I knew I had to set the poetry and realize his vision.

TC: But not right away.

LK: Ask Your Mama sat on my desk while I waited for the perfect opportunity to come along. I think in everyone’s life there are those moments, those epic turning points, and I have had a few of that magic, but the greatest moment of all was the December morning when Edgar Beitzel called me and asked me work with Miss Jessye Norman. He was proposing a setting of Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont — and as exciting as that was, Ask Your Mama was the perfect project for Jessye Norman. She embodies so much of what the poem was about, and I couldn’t imagine anyone more appropriate to sing this text.  I also felt that her life experience was so much a part of the poem and she was the living embodiment of so many of the references. This would not be simply setting a text for a great artist, but we could really collaborate, and our skills, experience and temperaments could complement each other.

By the end of our first meeting, we had agreed to embark on this journey, and use this opportunity, through music, to have a real, honest and impassioned conversation between black and white America. I immediately dove head-first into creating the first major vocal and orchestral setting of Ask Your Mama.

TC: Have you always had such a connection with literature of one kind or another? Is this something cultivated during your childhood in LA?

LK: I have always loved to read. I was obsessed with novels and drama early on. As an undergraduate at music school I read all of Dostoyevsky’s works, all of the plays of Eugene O’Neill just for my own amusement, Sartre, Faulkner, everything really. I love Shakespeare, and dreamt of scoring his plays, which now I have. I think it was kind of a precursor to my becoming a media composer — I love drama in all forms. I am also a singer, so setting text comes naturally to me as well.

Taken largeTC: The sheer structure of the piece — and I’m using “structure” to refer to how you have music and words working together — is one of its most electrifying elements. How clear was this approach in your mind as you started? Could you hear this impressionistic clamor of so many snatches of Hughes’ verse as we’re hearing it now, or did that catch up with you as you worked with it?

LK: What an excellent question. I created a libretto, and assigned the texts to different voice types, although that has changed with different performances and in the recording. And of course, that parsing evolved as I was working. The text is so musical, and really, the prosody easily emerges and it’s an easy text to set.

Before I started composing, I assembled Hughes’ “playlist”; that is, I discovered many of the references that he asks for in advance, and made additional decisions. For example, in the first movement when he asked for the “traditional 12 bar blues,” I decided on the St. James Infirmary blues. When he asks for a piece of delicate German lieder and references Leontyne Price, I found a piece of lieder that both Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price had in their repertoire. Gretchen Am Sprinnade was a perfect choice because both women sang it, and because it has a delicate piano introduction that could be turned into jazz.  I wanted the music to be authentic, so often, I would just trigger a sample of the music Hughes heard.

Hughes’ own voice plays a dramatic role in Ask Your Mama. He is the past, the observer… Black Thought speaks in the present, moves us to the future and evaluates the past. They are the living and the ancestor, an important thematic motive in the poem.

“I had all of Ella Fitzgerald’s scat solos memorized by the time I was 11. I love jazz, I play jazz, I can’t understand why the whole world doesn’t love jazz.”
Laura Karpman

Some problems emerged and I developed rules that would apply to the whole work – Hughes calls for a TACIT. Note that tacit is a different spelling from what we use in music (tacet, which means “do not play”) and tacit, according to Webster’s, means implied or indicated (as by an act or by silence) but not actually expressed. Very early on, I developed what I affectionately call “monster rules” for the instruction of TACIT. The first treatment is the obvious one. The music simply stops. The second “rule” is to speak or sing text against un-pitched rhythm. And the third is to speak or sing text without musical accompaniment.

I think the impressionistic clamor that you refer to is kind of the way I hear music. It’s Ivesian really, it’s this world where things float in and out, passing each other, sometimes crashing into each other. It’s magical realism in music, which is such a big part of my musical sensibility.

TC: Charles Ives, right, “Ivesian” is the sound of so many influences colliding. Artfully. As far as such mechanical details go, how long did this take to compose? And could we know a little of your process? — do you scamper off to a safe remove from the world to do something like this in a sort of monastic focus? Or can you create this kind of complexity in “normal life,” with a few hours a day at work?

LK: I don’t scamper off… I live on the beach, so it’s its own kind of paradise, but I’m a busy composer. The hardest part of composing Ask Your Mama was alternating it with commercial work… going between composing Ode To Dinah [the fifth section of 12 in Ask Your Mama] and Ace Ventura Pet Detective Three. A little crazy, but that’s the way I like it. The piece took about eight months from start to finish, but there were many, many breaks to do other projects.

‘The Gaping Wound Of Slavery And Racism’

TC: You write eloquently in your liner notes of feeling Hughes as a sort of collaborator, your “director.” But was there in this case also an element of concern for properly honoring this man and the racially-resonant points he made so profoundly? Did you feel constrained at times because of the sheer social importance of the material?

LK: Indeed, I did feel concerned about the ramification of setting this work being a white Jewish woman. One of the first things I did was meet with Hughes’ biographer, Arnold Rampersad, who gave me the assurance that Hughes had collaborated with many people of all races, and that if I felt I understood the material, I should tackle it. It took me a long time to understand the poem, its multiplicity of references. But now I feel I do understand it, and it’s an American masterpiece. It’s easy to say that Langston Hughes is an African-American poet, but he is one of the greatest American poets. I think and I hope, and, in fact I pray that this setting of Ask Your Mama clarifies the text.

I did have angels along the way — Jessye Norman of course, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and was extremely helpful with references and first-person accounts. And dear Derrick Bell [Harvard Law School critical race theory professor , died in 2011], my angel who functioned as my thermometer for risk-taking, especially in some of the most difficult and painful portions of the poem.

Living EdensTC: A purely technical curiosity: I know you were doing jazz all the way back at Juilliard. How much of you is jazz? Is there as visceral a connection with it for you as I think I hear?

KP: Well, I had all of Ella Fitzgerald’s scat solos memorized by the time I was 11. I love jazz, I play jazz, I can’t understand why the whole world doesn’t love jazz, and jazz is very much a part of my own compositional voice.

TC: And to finish here at the beginning of this work, I’m struck by how you have the vocalists take over the voice of Hughes and make it their own. I wish Hughes could hear it. Can you share with us a little of what you came to realize that Hughes’ work means? Once you’d made it so thoughtfully your own, what did you find there?

KP: I guess one of the really amazing moments in the poem is the end where Hughes writes [in all-caps here, as in the original] SHOW FARE PLEASE, MAMA, SHOW FARE.  Earlier, he shouts, FOR ONE’S COUNTRY IS YOUR MAMA.

He is asking for the fare to the movie that he can’t afford, but he is also asking for his country to be fair to its people, his people.

We’ve waited so long for justice for African-Americans. It so sickens me that this poem remain so relevant – Hughes opens with The Hesitation Blues and that couldn’t be more apt. Every day there is some violent demonstration of the stain, the shame, the gaping wound of slavery and racism in America. I can’t help but make art about it. TC mark

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