Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be / Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed / Let it be that great strong land of love. That's part of the poem by Langston Hughes that inspired pianist Lara Downes's new recording, America Again.
Julie Amacher: Lara, what does that poem means to you?
Lara Downes: It means everything, you know? It's a poem that's been with me all year. It just kind of keeps me strong. It's a poem about the essence of the American dream as a real thing. I think when we talk about the American dream it's easy to think about a TV commercial, a white picket fence or something. But I've been thinking about the American dream really as the heart of who we are as a nation and as people and the importance of pursuing it even in — or especially in — the hardest times.
Julie Amacher: How did this concept become the heart of this new project?
Lara Downes: This goes back to a year and a half ago. I was planning an entirely different recording project. And the shootings in Charleston happened, and my reaction was extreme shock and sadness. And I was reading Langston Hughes and I was thinking about a way that I could respond: 'How I could pull my music together and say something about what I feel about being American and our potential and our promise and just to help us get through?' All these terrible currents that seem to be gathering. So I started thinking about music that to me represents the American story, the American experience, the American dream and this came together out of that.
Julie Amacher: So which story would you like to begin with? Picking up this recording for first time where would you like me to start, as a listener?
Lara Downes: I think that looking at it now, the piece that maybe pulls everything together in one piece of music is the version I play on this record of Gershwin's "I Love You Porgy" in an arrangement by Nina Simone. Because you have Gershwin, who is just sort of an icon of American music and represents that coming together of the popular and the concert tradition and represents so many things — the immigrant experience, Tin Pan Alley, the evolution of our popular music. And then you have Porgy and Bess, which he wrote in the '20s, which was an opera with subject material that was very ahead of its time and out of the ordinary. And then you've got Nina Simone coming along in the '60s, coming from a classical background, taking this Gershwin song, pushing it right straight through jazz and into something new and unique and incredibly powerful. So here's this conversation between generations, between traditions, between very different versions of the American experience, and it comes together in four minutes to represent everything that I was trying to capture here I think.
Julie Amacher: The piece, "From Blackbird Hills," by Amy Beach, was inspired by an Omaha tribal song; it's her tribute to the ghosts of this country's first people.
Lara Downes: And what's really interesting to me about it is that it starts with this very lively, rhythmic dance and then it goes very quiet in the middle and she talks the ghosts of long dead Indians looking sadly over the shoulders of happy children at play. So it's this kind of contrast where she's celebrating the music and the tradition but also remembering the truth of what happened to these people.
Julie Amacher: I was also quite taken by the waltzes of Lou Harrison. They're very charming, I'm not familiar with those pieces.
Lara Downes: No, they're not actually published and they're so unexpected for him mainly because we think of him as so firmly rooted in the West Coast. He had just a brief stint in New York, and not a very happy one — it was hard for him and he wanted to get back out west. So I love those pieces because they're very sweet and charming and kind of affectionate. But also a little conflicted. One of them is called Hesitation Waltz. And it makes me think of those days … anyone who has lived in New York City has experienced this feeling of being in love with the city while it is maybe beating you down at the same time.
Julie Amacher: The Ernest Bloch piece — it's perfect for this time of year as well. thinking of the Pilgrims coming over to America. It's an homage to all those hard voyages across stormy seas.
Lara Downes: Yeah, I think that for me, an important piece of the American dream is that for all for us, our American story started with someone's dream of America, someone's willingness to make that journey. The journeys are so important. So there are a couple of pieces here that represent that experience of venturing across oceans on a wing and a prayer looking for something better for ourselves or our children or our future.
Julie Amacher: I was just thinking about this book called Dreams Do Come True, which I read to my kids as they were growing up. As a parent, you have great faith in the future, as does David Sanford who wrote the piece called "Promise."
Lara Downes: Yeah, and this has turned into something really exciting for me. David wrote this piece a few years ago and it was inspired by a poem of Rita Dove's called "Testimonial" from On the Bus with Rosa Parks. And the phrase that directly inspired this piece is: "I gave my promise to the world and the world followed me here." And it's a poem about childhood and about the promise of the future and of course that was central to this whole story — the promise of the future. And we've just launched a project called The My Promise Project where we're asking people — all kinds of people, I hope especially young people — to submit little 10-second videos that they can shoot with their phone, holding up a sign they make that describes their promise to the world.
I've been traveling a lot, talking with kids about Langston Hughes and the American dream and what did that mean for your parents, your grandparents and what does it mean for you today. And I think that zeroing in now on what is our promise, what can we give, contribute, promise to the future of our families, our communities, our nation, our planet — that's what we need to be doing. And I hope we'll get lots of stories out of this project.
Music that represents the American story, the American experience, the American dream, on, America Again, with pianist Lara Downes.
Lara Downes - official site
New Classical Tracks podcast (on iTunes)