Carlos Simon Sparks Conversations About Social Justice Through Music

For composer Carlos Simon, music is a place where communities can come together. “I want people to be inspired,” he says about his compositions over Zoom. But he also sees music as an opportunity for artists to initiate conversations about social issues and the things that are happening in our world. “Every community is not treated fairly, and there’s a plethora of injustices in several communities, and so [I’m] using music to talk about these things, talk about the history of these things,” he says.

Just a few days before our call in late July, the New York Philharmonic gave the world premiere performance of Profiles, which meditates on the work of visual artist Romare Bearden — an experience Simon describes as a “bucket list” item. Much of Simon’s music tells stories about the history and lives of Black Americans, building from his own life and interests and broadening outward. “I’m always wanting to use music as a platform for discussions and ultimately, change,” he says. Profiles, for example, emulates Bearden’s colorful paintings of the vibrant culture in Harlem by using a bevy of musical textures. Other pieces like 2020’s Warmth from Other Suns, a pensive string quartet inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s book, tells the story of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the northeast, midwest, and urban west.

Carlos Simon--Photo by Terrance Ragland

Carlos Simon–Photo by Terrance Ragland

Simon’s musical life has been busy over the past couple of years: He’s the Kennedy Center’s Composer-in-Residence, a 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence winner, and an assistant professor of music at Georgetown. This coming season, he’s set to have performances in the United States and abroad, from new works for the Minnesota Orchestra to premieres by the London Symphony Orchestra to concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. When we spoke, he was in London visiting his management team for the first time in-person since signing with them. He was also meeting his new label, Decca Classical, and recording a music video for his recent album, Requiem for the Enslaved.

Simon’s introduction to music making came at his father’s Black Pentecostal church in his hometown of Atlanta. There, he played piano and organ, improvising music every Sunday and writing for the church’s choir. Later on, he fell in love with the sound of the orchestra while watching films, hearing the colorful, dramatic music of composers like John Williams. That led him to music written by composers like Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and to music by African-American composers like Margaret Bonds, who blazed a trail and showed him he could become a composer, too. “It gave me a sense of direction, knowing that someone else had done it before and showing other composers that they did it,” he says.

Simon’s interest in building community also stems from his family. His parents, who have been married for over 30 years and love to bike together, have spent their lives as leaders. “It’s always been about other people in the community in my family,” Simon says.

These influences coalesce in Simon’s recent projects. Requiem for the Enslaved tells the story of the 272 enslaved people owned and sold by Georgetown University to keep the school afloat. The requiem brings together elements of Western classical and Black music driven by vibrant instrumentals and dynamic texts written by Marco Pavé that interweave in forlorn whispers and exuberant shouts. He was inspired to write the piece when he joined Georgetown’s faculty. At the time, he wanted to learn more about the school’s history and connections to slavery. After getting approval and support to write the piece, he traveled to Maringouin, Louisiana, the town that the university had sold many people to, and spoke with their descendants, spending a week soaking up the place.

Simon often embeds himself in the communities he writes about when he’s researching a new piece. He recently took two trips to Minneapolis for a commission he’s working on for the Minnesota Orchestra, Brea(d)th. He’s writing the piece with librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and they have been intentional about inviting the Minneapolis arts community to be involved in the process. “It’s important, I think, especially if you’re not from the area, you don’t know a whole lot about it, it’s good to travel and be a part of it,” he says.

We don’t want to talk just about the moment and document that moment…We want to talk about the resolution and the antidote.

Brea(d)th, which will be premiered in 2023, initially came about to honor George Floyd. After many discussions, Simon and Joseph decided they wanted to write a piece that addresses systemic racism as a whole — and the work being done towards healing and racial equity. To write Brea(d)th, they’ve made an effort to try to build a connection between the local arts community and the orchestra. In the end, for Simon, it’s as much about having the community’s blessing and sharing the process with them as it is about the final musical product.

By spending time in local areas like George Floyd Square, Simon and Joseph have gotten to know Floyd’s aunt and learned details about Floyd “you won’t hear on CNN.” During these trips, people drove by and waved, or stopped to say hello to Floyd’s aunt as they all chatted together. Being there, Simon was able to experience the community’s social fabric. “How helpful that was, to just be in that space,” he says. “It felt like family, and something my family would do.”

Carlos Simon--Photo by Terrance Ragland

Carlos Simon–Photo by Terrance Ragland

Simon has chosen to write pieces that speak about police brutality on Black bodies before, like his 2015 breakout work, Elegy: A Cry from the Grave, a reflective small ensemble piece that is dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. For Brea(d)th, he wanted to find something new to add to the conversation. “We don’t want to talk just about the moment and document that moment,” he says. “We want to talk about the resolution and the antidote.”

As Simon reflects on his recent work and what he’s looking forward to this fall — a London Symphony premiere of his 2017 dissertation piece, Portrait of a Queen, stands out — he comes back to his early experiences with community and music. Those church services he played showed him music’s strength, how one extraneous note or subtle shift in dynamic or tempo change could lead a listener to feel something deeper. “Music has that ability to go straight to the core of something,” he says. “I just hope to do that through my music that I write now.”


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