This week, the Minnesota Orchestra premieres a new work commissioned in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, titled “brea(d)th.” Composer Carlos Simon, currently the composer in residence at the Kennedy Center, has previously taken on social justice topics in his work, including a piece written in honor of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner called “An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave,” which the Minnesota Orchestra has previously performed.
The orchestra also performed Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers,” inspired by a journal entry by Beethoven, and the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
In “brea(d)th,” Simon has collaborated with librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who will also perform his original text in the performance. It’s composed in three movements, with the title referencing the notion of bread as a commodity (and it’s use in vernacular language as a synonym for money), breath, especially in the wake of the pandemic when the act of breathing was dangerous, and the breadth of work that needs to be done toward healing from racial injustice.
The orchestra performs the work with the Minnesota Chorale, Twin Cities Choral Partners and 29:11 International Exchange, conducted by Jonathan Taylor Rush.
The new commission will be paired with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Petite Suite de Concert,” and the Wynton Marsalis Tuba Concerto, performed by principal tuba player Steve Campbell, which premiered in 2021.
Here’s a conversation with Simon about the new piece. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
Sheila Regan: It sounds like you did spend quite a bit of time coming to Minneapolis and the Twin Cities area as part of this project. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Carl Simon: When I started having conversations with the orchestra about the piece, I made it a point to say I needed to make several visits to the area because as a composer, I think it’s important to be in the space as much as possible.
I’m not from Minnesota, I wasn’t on the ground when the uprisings were happening, so that’s one of the reasons why I almost didn’t accept the commission. I didn’t feel like I had enough Twin Cities knowledge about the context of everything. But this issue is worldwide. George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, but the thing is, it could happen to me. It could happen to Marc Joseph, who’s the librettist. That was my entry point. I wanted to make sure that I was talking with people, getting the emotional density of things, but also every city has an energy, has a vibe. And I wanted to tap into that as much as I could.
SR: And what was the vibe?
CS: You know, it’s interesting, because especially downtown, it felt like with any city, there was this large gap between seemingly poverty and the elite. Here I am working for an organization where most of the patrons — as with most orchestras it’s safe to say — are elite.
Marc and I wanted to tell a narrative that appealed to the people who experienced this before George Floyd was murdered at George Floyd Square before it was called that.
We actually spent a lot of time there — it wasn’t just like a drive-by. It was literally just like, we’re gonna sit in the space for several hours and chill and talk to people. What I got was very much what I experienced when I was young, just sitting on the porch. Somebody’d drive by: “Hey Carlos, how you doing? How your mama doing? Tell her I said hey.” That kind of thing. That’s what happened when you sat there for a while.
Even though at one point, the world’s eyes were at this one little intersection, it still reminded me that after the camera crews left—the integrity of the community was still there.
SR: How do Marc Bamuthi Joseph and yourself work together in creating this piece of music? What was the starting point?
CS: Well, I have to start with text. So he was sending me recordings of himself speaking what he had written. Marc is very performative in the way he speaks the things that he writes. I remember hearing this on my phone, the first couple stanzas, and I was like, “OK, you have to be part of this piece now. You’re going to perform in the piece.” So I made that decision creatively speaking— he was OK with it. He sent me the texts of him speaking it and I put it into the recording software and kind of chopped things up and moved things around. Maybe this part should go here, maybe the sentence goes down further, and then I’ll start improvising with that. So it becomes sort of a performance itself. Then I’ll start crafting the music from that improvisation.
SR: How would you describe his voice?
CS: There’s a cadence. It has a rise and fall — it’s almost like he’s singing, to be honest with you. And that’s why I wanted to have it as part of the piece, because it does feel like he’s putting on a performance as a singer or vocalist would. You hear this with any great orator. I love listening to Martin Luther King. That man, he’s literally singing in his speech. If you listen very closely, there’s a tone. And Marc has a similar thing with his voice.
SR: You grew up with gospel music as part of your musical influence. How did that inform your work?
CS: Yeah, listening to the preachers all the time — it’s really from my upbringing, because my dad’s a preacher. That’s why I really started admiring oration. Seeing how people can come to one place every week, expecting some sense of relief or sense of community even.
I actually played in my father’s church — piano. Having been a part of that every single week. It gave me a sense of duty, at a very early age. I’d have to show up, because these people are expecting something, and I’m a part of that.
SR: Do you feel like what you do is kind of a version of that?
CS: In a way, yeah. Somebody came up to me and said— this is ministry. And I kind of flinched at first because I was like, I’m not a preacher. But for some reason, the music that I’d written at that point — he felt like he was being ministered to on a spiritual level. I accept that. That’s one of the joys of being a composer, because you never really know how people are receiving the music. I release the piece once I’m done with it, and I try not to have any expectations of how people receive it.
SR: I was just listening to “Elegy.” It’s very powerful.
CS: Well, when I wrote that piece, I really wrote it for myself, to be honest. I was watching the news. I was angry, I was confused, I was scared. And I didn’t know what to do with the feelings. So I went to music. The piece became therapeutic in that way of just trying to get these emotions, through music. When I first shared the piece — it really felt like I was on stage completely naked, just revealing my soul to the audience. It was terrifying.
SR: When you take on these topics, how do you take care of yourself?
CS: I’m a conduit. And I was talking to a mentor last night about this very thing, and he says the same thing. As an artist, you can’t help to be empathetic with what’s happening, what has happened, but the idea that it comes through you. It doesn’t stay. It comes through you, through the music, and it stays in the art. And yes, it’s painful, that moment where it’s coming through you. He described it like birthing. I’ve never birthed a child, but I imagine it’s sort of like that. Releasing in some kind of way, getting it out into the world.
“brea(d)th” performs Thursday, May 18 at 11 a.m., Friday, May 19 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, May 20 at 8 p.m. at Orchestra Hall. More information here.