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Classical 101

"Blues in August": A Tribute to the Healing Narratives of August Wilson

"...That each whisper of wind moved to mute song & singing make a world of silence." 

The words of playwrite and poet August Wilson have a certain sorcery to them; the power and freedom of sharing ones' story. With this as inspiration, Dr. Mark Lomax, II has married Wilson's gifted narratives to music for tomorrow night's premiere Blues in August.

After watching part of the dress rehearsal, I sat down briefly with Dr. Lomax last night to discuss the catalyst for this music and its inherent synthesis of blues and "classical" music. The two are often separated and isolated, and too often, marked as incompatible. This work, and this unique ensemble, is clearly an effort not to merely merge the two, but to display the wholeness of music without boundary and the metaphor that lies in such a union.

The Composition:

The composition Blues in August is a five-part work commissioned by The Johnstone Fund for New Music as part of the year-long celebration of American playwright, August Wilson. Four of the five parts chronicle individual plays written by Wilson as an snapshot of the experiences of black Americans. 

In particular, the first episode/movement draws inspiration from Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Mark described this as a portrayal of the Queen of the Blues' struggle between power in the studio and oppression in every other arena of life. Other movements are inspired by Wilson plays such as Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and Gem of the Ocean. The final episode/movement, the titular "Blues in August," might be described as a musical exhortation for a better world; a call to deeper peace.

Honestly, I cannot do the active philosophy of Dr. Lomax's description justice. Don't just listen to the work, definitely ask him about its meaning, if you have the chance. I would read an entire book of program notes for this work gladly.

“Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.”

― August WilsonJoe Turner's Come and Gone

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Credit Jason Wood and Charles Hairston
Mary Davis Fetherston (cello) and Edwin Bayard (tenor sax)

The Ensemble:

The players for this work are integral for its message. Half of the stage is occupied by a string section featuring William Manley (violin), Andrew Carlson (violin), Norman Cardwell (viola), Mary Davis Fetherston (cello). The sound of this string ensemble-in-miniature is diverse within; there are swooning folk fiddle licks, pizzicato remarks that could be from an Umm Kulthum album, and standard blues accompaniment. Each is a synthesis of the sounds Dr. Mark Lomax, II has integrated into his musical vocabulary. 

The other side of the stage, and sonic conversation, is occupied by Mark (drums), Edwin Bayard (tenor sax) and Dean Hulett (bass). Their sense of timing and pocket-playing is nothing short of Rollins, Brown and Roach or even Jones, Davis and Coltrane. The three are seamless. I'll be looking forward to future albums from the them, for sure.

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Credit Jason Wood and Charles Hairston
Dean Hulett (bass)

That said, this music is incredibly demanding from both sections of musicians; it calls them to musically and didactically meld. It was clear from watching the group rehearse and from speaking with Mark afterwards that the blues trio is comfortable feeling each others' solos and group dynamic whereas the string players are more accustomed to the rigor of sheet music. In total, these individual players are flexible enough to capture both tasks.

To marry the practices of improvisation and static, written composition is no mean feat. But it seems that is Dr. Lomax's goal and his wise summation of the power and efficacy of music; to meld, unite, and empower all parties through differences. 

And what could be more necessary these days?

“Go in prayer.” ― August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean

Blues in August premieres tonight, August 17th at 7:00 PM at the Garden Theatre, free admission courtesy of the Johnstone Fund for New Music. 

Sincere thanks to Jason Wood and Charles Hairston of the Ohio Channel for the incredible photography above.