“A Complete Journey to Another World”: A Conversation with Wadada Leo Smith
Though it means "work of largest scale," the term "magnum opus" is often taken to mean "work of greatest quality." But that distinction is irrelevant in the case of "Ten Freedom Summers," the massive work that represents four decades of trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith's musical career and has been acclaimed by critics, audiences, and Smith himself as his finest creation.
The 2012 recording was over four-and-a-half hours in length; since then, Smith has continued adding new pieces to it. Two of these—"March on Washington D.C. – August 28, 1963" and "That Sunday Morning"—will receive world premieres as part of Smith's performance of "Ten Freedom Summers" at Atlas Performing Arts Center this Friday and Saturday (performed over three separate concert programs).
Ahead of that performance, an enthusiastic and inspired Smith spoke to Washington City Paper about the trials and rewards of creating such vast work, as well as the drawbacks of 21st-century fundraising and the next major project on his plate.
Washington City Paper: How are you?
Wadada Leo Smith: I'm great—I'm coming to D.C.!
WCP: That was actually the first question I wanted to ask you: What does it mean to you to perform this piece here, on the 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington?
WLS: Well, I planned it like that; not the whole piece, but definitely the new commission, "The March on Washington D.C.- August 28, 1963." I had a year and a half before I decided I wanted to get a piece together for the anniversary. What's really important and exciting for me is that we get a chance to play all 23 pieces, including the two new pieces. You can't get better than that.
WCP: I'm glad to hear you were able to finish them; last I heard you had done a Kickstarter for them.
WLS: Yeah. I did a Kickstarter. I just keep myself right off it: Kickstarters are too hard for artists, and the reason is that it takes them away from the most important thing, which is making art, and makes them just this guy looking for money. It really distracts from what we do.
It's changed the situation a lot. And people are not aware of how much it's changed the situation, because they're so glad to have the opportunity to get directly at people. But when you get directly at people, you end up losing something, because your time is spent now fundraising. And fundraising should be done by people whose specialty is fundraising. You wouldn't ask a fundraiser to write "Ten Freedom Summers," or "The March on Washington D.C."
WCP: You premiered "The March" this summer in Brooklyn, but do I understand correctly that "That Sunday Morning" will be a world premiere?
WLS: Both of them will be world premieres. What happened is, I did a version of "March on Washington" in New York City, and then I revised and reshaped it a little bit, and added a part for percussionist to it. So I consider it, because of those changes, to be a new piece. I'm calling it a new piece now.
WCP: So do you consider these to be part of Ten Freedom Summers, or are they standalone pieces?
WLS: Right now they are a part of the Ten Freedom Summers collection, and the two new pieces as a performance event will stay like that.
But right now, I've started working on another big piece that's tentatively titled The Souls of the Americans. It comes from the title of W.E.B. Dubois's book The Souls of Black Folk, but I'm looking at this whole other part of America. That piece is specifically about race, whereas this piece, "Ten Freedom Summers" looks at the issue of freedom and liberty and justice.
So it's a new piece for me that I'm planning to premiere in 2015. It won't be as large; it'll be a two-hour performance, but it'll be expanded ensemble: Golden Quartet, Pacific Reef Coral, and Organic. I'll have three of my bands, and all three will make up what I call my Silver Orchestra, but there will be individual parts as well.
WCP: Speaking of which...what will be the lineup that plays with you in Washington?
WLS: It will be Golden Quartet: [pianist] Anthony Davis, [bassist] John Lindberg, and [drummer] Anthony Brown. Pacific Reef Coral will be there too—string quartet, harp, percussionist, tympanist. The whole shebang: that's the pudding on top of the cake! Or the jelly, as Michael Jackson would say (chuckles).
WCP: With the three-program configuration of performing this piece, I have to imagine you have people who only come in sporadically. It's so hard to attend three concerts like that. Do you take that into account in creating and planning this?
WLS: It works, for example, so that if you heard one day, that would be satisfying, and you'd get a feel or a sense of the scope of this whole work though you didn't hear all the pieces. If you do it two days, you get this larger view of what it's like, and it's like standing outside the gates of paradise but you can look inside. And if you hear all three days, it's a complete journey to another world. It's a physical ordeal as well as a spiritual and reflective one.
So all three days, you have this way of journeying and merging the emotional and intellectual feel of the performers along with the audience on this three-day trek. And it takes you somewhere else. When we finish performing all three collections over all three days, at the end we're completely wiped but at the same time very, very uplifted. It's so uplifting, it's so much of a human, social boost—a social event where people are dreaming in the same space. Usually I talk for a few seconds afterward so I get an inner connection with the audience.
It's kind of beautiful. Kind of like when you run a marathon, and let's say you win it; that makes you feel even more in touch with your body and spirit. It really takes you down energy-wise, but there's something inside of you that's pushing you up because you're collecting the energy from everybody else at the performance and everybody else onstage.
WCP: When you wrote "Ten Freedom Summers," did you write out basic structures first, and then go back and orchestrate it later? Or do you do it all at once?
WLS: I do everything at once. I do the orchestration, I write the parts and I orchestrate them at the same time. I don't hear them as something that I can go back and piece together and do. I hear them as something that comes in as inspiration, and I capture that while I'm sitting there writing.
WCP: How long did you spend writing it?
WLS: Well, if we go back to the oldest piece, which is "Medgar Evers," in 1977, it's almost now 37 years.
WCP: So in a very real way, this is a life's work for you.
WLS: It is a life's work. It's half my life, plus. But while doing this, I continued to write other music. I'm one of those real guys: I write, compose, perform, think, and research. All the time!