Blue Lotus: New Muse 4tet Improvises as a Vehicle for Social Activism

From the album artwork by Lois Mailou Jones to the notes emanating from New Muse 4tet, Blue Lotus is a vehicle of social activism and cultural consciousness composed by violinist Gwen Laster. In 2015, violinist Hsinwei Chiang, violist Melanie Dyer, and cellist Alex Waterman joined forces with Laster to birth the improvisational disruptor that is New Muse 4tet. At the root of their work is a passion for freedom and social justice that sparks discourse, and the quartet is one of the many shining examples of self-expression within its genre.   

Music has been and can be central to the fight for social justice. It not only emboldens movements but encapsulates the very essence of the struggle. Musicians like Laster and New Muse 4tet create what we know as freedom songs: compositions by contributors to the civil rights movement, also known as “civil rights anthems” or “civil rights hymns.” Although the civil rights movement lasted from 1954-1968, many of today’s social justice movements embody the same energy and message.

Blue Lotus is a journey that ebbs and flows inside form to outside improvisation, through notated and un-notated music–it’s anything but a monolith. Absent of heavy dialogue, the album tells a tale that many marginalized Americans are all too familiar with. Like most modern stories, the album seems to be the epitome of a traditional six-act structure, with the first act being “dealing with an imperfect situation.” The first composition, adorned by the same name as the album, is imperfect in that it’s dedicated to the now-deceased esteemed American jazz pianist, composer, and educator Geri Allen. As Waterman’s cello creeps in, closely behind are the whines and wanes of the viola and violins. The notes bend and stretch, almost as if they are singing a remorseful song. The music builds to an intensity that spirals back down to where the structure of jazz meets the essence of 21st-century classical improvised composition. 

Gwen Laster--Photo courtesy

Gwen Laster–Photo courtesy

The second act, also known as “learning the rules of an unfamiliar situation,” is brought to life through an apropos title, Awakening. Laster composed this work to the poetry of Claudine Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for an anti-racism worship service. The violins lead this time, dancing soberly with an edge of hope that evokes a relaxed state; they sound like a realization, like an awakening to the times and conditions.

The third act exudes “stumbling into the central conflict.” With the sounds of Ehren Hansen’s tabla depicting the mood and energy of urban life, City Echos places us in the locations most affected by the injustices the album strives to address. Starting at a moderate pace, the tabla, violins, viola, and cello increase in speed and repetition as the composition progresses, building the movement up. 

The final three tracks are part of the Black Lives Matter Suite commissioned by Arts Mid Hudson. The first movement, “Cigarette,” is dedicated to justice for Sandra Bland and takes on the fourth act’s “implementing a doomed plan.” Bland’s murder is a representation of the doom overshadowing Black life at the hands of white supremacists structures. The strings fluctuate from calm moments to an intensity that mirrors that of a horror movie soundtrack, which is more than fitting considering the focus of this track is the murder of a Black woman–a horrific act, to say the least. 

Three to Eleven,” takes us into the second to last act: “trying a long shot.” The opposition against Samuel Harrell is the officers who took his life at the Fishkill, NY correctional facility. The beginning pegs a familiar tune, then leads into an improvisational mix as each string instrument speaks its own truth. “Three to Eleven” is the shortest track on the album, but the length doesn’t take away from its impact and intensity. 

New Muse 4tet--Photo courtesy

New Muse 4tet–Photo courtesy

Closing out Blue Lotus is “Entrapped,” which completes the six-act structure with “living in an improved situation.” Social justice is striving for an improved situation–it’s a call to what has been improved and what is left to still be deconstructed. Opening the movement is Poet Gold’s spoken word about the Newburgh Four, victims of an FBI informant who entrapped them in a conversation about blowing up a Synagogue. Poet Gold’s words cut through the composition like a knife on room temperature butter–it’s potent, reflective, and informative. 

Overall, Blue Lotus is a journey into unfortunate but familiar territory. It recants a dark history and calls for solutions to social problems that frankly shouldn’t exist. More than the message, the music presents as improvisation but plays out like a composition. Laster’s genius is undeniable and New Muse 4tet only amplifies this fact, making for a meticulously formulated social justice piece distinct from the freedom songs known and loved.


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