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Updated 10:00 AM November 24, 2008




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Poet Hughes' words brought to life in music workshop

The week before Thanksgiving break, students at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance were deeply immersed in the birth of a new composition, a multi-media collaboration that only could be pulled off at a school with the right resources: strong programs in performing arts technology, jazz and voice, and a world-class student orchestra.
U-M alumna and composer Laura Karpman has collaborated on a new work based on 12 poems by Langston Hughes. (Photo courtesy Dworkin & Company)

Two Michigan alumnae — Laura Karpman (BM '81, voice and composition), a Los Angeles-based Emmy Award-winning composer, and Jessye Norman (MM '68, voice), world-renowned soprano — have collaborated on a new work based on a visionary cycle of 12 poems, "Ask Your Mama," by Langston Hughes. The 90-minute performance of music, film and spoken word that emerged was explored in workshops with students at the school in preparation for its world premiere March 16 as the centerpiece of the Honor! Festival at Carnegie Hall.

The University Symphony Orchestra, directed by guest conductor George Manahan of the New York City Opera, participated in the workshop. Students of voice — eight in all, both because of the difficulty of the parts and to maximize opportunity — covered the singing roles until later in the week, when jazz vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Norman arrived. Students in performing arts technology were the "laptopists," providing the audio and visual samples that formed sections of the work. Detroit hip hop artist Jamaal May filled in for The Roots, who will perform at Carnegie. Wilson, Norman and Manahan, conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's, will all be part of the Carnegie premiere in March. Annie Dorsen, a critically claimed director ("Passing Strange"), staged the work.

"Ask Your Mama" draws on myriad genres to create a tapestry of jazz, gospel, hip-hop and orchestra, and features live performers, video projections, and samples of both music and spoken word, including Hughes' own recorded voice. In the original poem, written in 1961 and subtitled "Twelve Moods for Jazz," Hughes included margin notes describing the music he imagined to accompany such a setting of this epic poem. Those notes include allusions to jazz, German lieder, cha-cha, patriotic songs and Afro-Caribbean drumming, all in an evocation of the turbulent flux and flow of American cultural life and a reflection of the times in which he lived (1902-67).

Hughes' notes called for technology that did not exist during his lifetime, but now the score that he imagined can be realized through modern technology. Percussion instruments, including a wind machine, filled half the rehearsal hall. Orchestra members were called on to clap, stomp their feet, vocalize, play the kazoo and ring bells.

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