For composer Carlos Simon, Together strikes a particularly personal chord. This is the music he grew up with in Atlanta as a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Here are the hymns he’d play on the piano in church, where his father was a preacher, and for his grandmother at home when she visited him. It’s a sound that digs deep into the roots of Black America’s past. “My music comes through my self-expression as a Black American,” Simon says. “But I also believe it should also reflect the times in which we live—and we live in a very tumultuous time.” Coming out of the pandemic, and a need to be surrounded by like-minded musical friends, the album marks his collaboration with mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and baritone Will Liverman, who, like Simon, were raised on gospel and classically trained. Also in the Collective are violinist Randall Goosby, who recently followed in Simon’s footsteps as a recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, and Seth Parker Woods, a cellist Simon has known since they were both undergraduates. “Composing music can be a very lonely profession,” Simon says, “but when you’re with your friends, you’re relaxed and having a good time—and that’s what Together is about.” Here, Carlos Simon takes us through each of the tracks on his powerful album. “Gather Up” “It feels right to start the album by thinking of the people who are less fortunate than we are. ‘Gather Up’ takes its text from a poem by the Harlem Renaissance poet and social activist Langston Hughes (1901-67)—it’s a prayer for the sick, the deprived, and the hungry, and for those people who are often forgotten in our society. I wrote it in 2017, when I was looking at ways of using gospel music in my composition, so you’ll hear vocal melismas in the gospel blues style.” “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” “I often think about love and how we allow pride to ruin relationships, and how in the end love always wins. When I was growing up, we would only listen to gospel music at home, so I didn’t hear Sade until I was 18 and went to Morehouse College. This song was my favorite—I listened to it all the time; it was in my spirit, in my psyche. When, more recently, I heard it on my way to the studio I decided to arrange it. What you hear here is grounded in improvisation.” “Amazing Grace” “Originally composed by John Newton (1725-1807), an English Anglican clergyman, poet, and slave owner who moved to the States, this hymn is around 350 years old. It’s a piece that’s often sung in church. When it came to recording it with the violinist Randall Goosby, I asked him to feel free to add embellishments and ornamentation as if a gospel singer were singing it; I improvised and made chord substitutions to add something completely new.” “Near the Cross” “J’Nai and I share similar childhood experiences of the church—like me, she grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was one of the first organizations founded by enslaved people, and ‘Near the Cross’ was a hymn we’d often sing on Sunday. It came at the end of the service as an altar call for those who wanted to give their life to God, or when the service was dealing with a specific issue that needed prayer. The congregation would sing as people came up and were prayed over. When it came to our recording, J’Nai wanted to tap into the softer delicate texture in her voice, while embracing the hymn’s gospel elements and bluesy style.” “Memory of Summer” “A lot of musical ideas suggest themselves to me when I sit at the piano and simply immerse myself in a particular thought or idea. This is how I came up with ‘Memory of Summer’—it’s just an improvisation.” “Loop” “During the pandemic, the New York Philharmonic went out and performed chamber pieces across the five boroughs of New York City, and I was one of the composers they asked to write something. The only directive they gave me was: ‘Hey, don’t write anything slow or soft because it’s going to be performed outside, with people, sirens, and trucks passing by.’ In this trio for violin, viola, and cello, the main agitated idea keeps coming back in different guises—you hear the frustration, the lockdown feeling of: ‘I want to be out, I want to go travel, I want to go to a party, I want to dance.’ It’s influenced a lot by funk—George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic; the ending is directly inspired by the hiatus you hear in James Brown’s ‘I Got You (I Feel Good).’” “Settle” “This piece comes out of a larger string quartet I wrote in 2019 called Warmth From Other Suns. It’s based on the book by Isabel Wilkerson, about the Great Migration during the 20th century, when around six million Black people moved from the American south to northern, midwestern, and western states. In this, the last movement, folks are looking to settle after fleeing like refugees. I wanted to create the idea of that move, and explore what it feels like to be at home but not really belonging to a space. The string chords at the beginning swell and breathe deeply, as if to say, ‘I’m finally here,’ but then there’s this small agitation figure on the viola, a nagging reminder that ‘You’re not there yet.’” “Angels in Heaven” “This hymn is not written down anywhere; it was the one we always sang during baptism—everybody would gather round the water and sing it, usually a cappella. I wanted to do something different with it, so, when it came to working with Will Liverman, I reharmonized the melody. There’s a part at the end where there’s a call and response element, and when we first performed the piece at Carnegie Hall in 2021, I asked the singer to gesture to the audience to sing the last phrase together—‘The angels in heaven done signed my name’—so that the audience became the congregation.” “Traveling Song” “My grandmother loved hymns. Every time I saw her during her visits when I was growing up in Atlanta, she’d get a hymn book and I’d go sit at the piano—for a couple hours, she’d call out numbers and I’d play the hymns she wanted. At the end of her life, she struggled with Alzheimer’s: it was a slow decline from being this very vibrant, flamboyant woman to not being able to speak, not knowing who I was. And when she died two years ago, I made a point of recording her hymn, ‘When He Calls Me, I Will Answer,’ and played it for her. I called it ‘traveling’ music because the song is a way by which she could travel to heaven.” “Between Worlds” “‘Between Worlds’ came out of a visit I made to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, where I was inspired by the work of Bill Traylor (1853-1949). A self-taught artist who was born enslaved in Alabama, he lived through some of America’s biggest social changes, from the Civil War to The Great Migration. The piece is based on his life: his seeing black and white, urban and industrial, rich and poor. It’s performed by Seth Parker Woods, a cellist who is originally from Houston; like me, he’s a native son of the American South.”

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