“Sing Freedom! African American Spirituals” [TrackList follows] – Conspirare / Craig Hella Johnson – Harmonia mundi

by | Jan 7, 2012 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

“Sing Freedom! African American Spirituals” [TrackList follows] – Conspirare / Craig Hella Johnson – Harmonia mundi U.S. multichannel SACD HMU 807525, 72:07 *****: 
Craig Hella Johnson, in his notes to this recording, quotes Antonin Dvořák’s semi-prescient remarks about the African-American spiritual and its relationship to later American music: “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. . . . In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” To prove his point and to lead the way, Dvořák, in his works written in America, incorporated melodies inspired by spirituals and native American music, though he wasn’t enough of a scholar of folk melody to fully distinguish between these two influences: Dvořák naively averred, “I found that the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical.” Besides this confusion, Dvořák’s prognostication about the future of American music wasn’t entirely on target either; while American composers in the immediate wake of Dvořák’s pronouncements did incorporate African-American melodies into their serious works for the concert hall, the greatest influence of the spiritual, as Johnson intimates, has been in the area of American popular music, from ragtime, jazz, and blues through hip-hop.
And yet, as many commentators have noted, the spiritual is a deeply expressive musical form that in terms of melodic beauty and emotional content rivals the finest art songs of Western music. So it’s understandable that beginning shortly after the American Civil War, there’s been a long tradition of harmonizing the original melodies that started appearing, according to Johnson, as early as 1700. Thus it’s not surprising to find important composers of art music among the arrangers on this program, including David Lang, Michael Tippett, and British composer of North African extraction Tarik O’Regan, with whom Craig Hella Johnson and his group Conspirare have formed a special relationship. (Their recording of O’Regan’s Threshold of Night was nominated for a Grammy in 2008).
As Johnson further explains, some of the arrangements attempt to create a kind of quasi-operatic scena based on the original spiritual; in the first number, the famous “Motherless Child,” arranger Johnson creates a sense of utter desolation: “The opening. . .portrays the starkness and isolation of this ‘motherless child.’  The solo voice begins humming alone followed by a single unison in he men’s voices. Eventually, all the of the voices cry out together with full-voiced yearning and in the end, the solo voice returns.” Some of the arrangements, such as Johnson’s own setting of “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” employ strikingly dissonant harmonies with a very modern ring to them; the opening of this piece sounds more like the start of Schoenberg or Krenek motet than a spiritual. That’s true, as well, of O’Regan’s subdued yet harmonically kaleidoscopic arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Most of the arrangements eschew harmonic complexity for more traditional treatments, such as Wendell Whalum’s “Lily of the Valley” or Alice Parker and Robert Shaw’s “My God Is a Rock.” In any event, these arrangements offer a variety of approaches, including texture (solo voices, duets, singing by sections, and unison singing) that help shed light on both text and melody, as well as provide a highly satisfying listening experience. The important takeaway is that this music is a living tradition that will continue to inspire the art of the arranger until, in the words of poet John Dryden, “music will untune the sky.”
The most unusual selection is the piece that suggests the title of this album. While constant themes among these pieces are the tragedy of bondage and the hoped-for release offered by life beyond the grave, “Freedom Song,” a spiritual of the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, is a militant appeal for freedom and justice. Undergirded by the sound of “a large staff or stick beat on the ground,” it not only effectively projects the rhythmic heart of African-American music but also enshrines an unbending response to bondage that is unique and very moving.
The singing of Conspirare is beautiful and beautifully expressive throughout, including the solos by Melissa Givens (“Motherless Child”) and Charles Wesley Evans (“My God is a Rock”), among others. It would be hard to improve on Harmonia mundi’s SACD recording, which is rich, deep, and wonderfully transparent—a truly immersive experience. This is a disc to savor.
TrackList:
Motherless Child (arr. Craig Hella Johnson)
A City Called Heaven (arr. Leonard de Paur)
Soon Ah Will Be Done / I Wanna Die Easy (arr. CHJ)
Soon Ah Will Be Done (arr. William L. Dawson)
Hard Trials (arr. CHJ)
Hold On (arr. Moses Hogan)
Been in de Storm / Wayfaring Stranger (arr. CHJ)
Oh Graveyard (Lay this Body Down) (arr. David Lang)
Ain’-a That Good News! (arr. William L. Dawson)
Steal Away (arr. Michael Tippett)
Walk Together, Children (arr. Moses Hogan)
I Got a Home in-a Dat Rock (arr. Moses Hogan)
Lily of the Valley (arr. Wendell Whalum)
Plenty Good Room (On the Glory Train) (Kirby Shaw)
My God Is a Rock (arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw)
Freedom Song (Robert Kyr)
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (arr. Tarik O’Regan)
—Lee Passarella

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