Veljo Tormis’ 1989 Four Estonian Lullabies asks how a nonviolent Singing Revolution resounds across an oppressed nation. Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1960 Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima wonders what someone hears when an atomic bomb drops. Ask jazz trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith what the African American Civil Rights Movement sounds like, and he’ll tell you it starts with a heartbeat.
On Friday, Smith (in collaboration with Nameless Sound) will perform the middle portion of Ten Freedom Summers, a multimedia three-part masterwork capturing the psychological experience of African Americans in the decade between 1954 and 1964. Songs focus on Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as democracy and the myth of free press. Resonating in collages of timbres and dynamics, speeds and pitches, it’s a journey that Smith is splitting over three cities. (In total, it runs about seven hours; you can hear the first part in Austin on Thursday and the third in New Orleans on Saturday.)
After seeing August Wilson’s 10-part Century Cycle, a theatrical record of how America has conditioned the African American experience in the 20th century, Smith says he wanted to musically consider the same concept with Ten Freedom Summers but in a smaller time frame.
“Mine is the decade from 1954 to 1964, the most traumatic part of the Civil Rights Movement and also the defining moment of rights and gestures and liberties for people who have been exploited for a long time,” Smith says.
But in composing the work, Smith didn’t want to think about any historical cause-and-effect sequence, instead he wanted to dig into the unconscious and uncover the psychological impact of the decade. How, I wondered, did he conceive of that sound?
“The sound is the curious vibrating element outside of the human being that can go directly to the heart,” Smith tells me. “It doesn’t need translation from the instrument to the person who receives it. That’s an instant connection.”
As a composer, Smith understands rhythmic structure in terms of odds and evens and sound in binary categories: long or short; high or low; sustained or non-sustained. His scores, colorful strokes across curious images, could be hung up in an art gallery.
“In a large work, you have to open up the treasure chest, and pull out a series of all kinds of concepts and philosophies and systems and language to convey a larger idea,” Smith explains. “That’s an odd and an even, and a long and a short relationship. The way I manipulate them is based off of my reflection—I actually experience a connection with them—and that experience is as close as I allow them to release myself from my present state. I research with any form. I act in questions.”
Highly innovative yet retrospective, Smith puts his work alongside that of Bob Marley, Angela Davis, and James Baldwin because it is geared toward what he calls the same non-verbal message planted at the heart of any human being.
“Houston is just like Paris, they all have the same problems—the issues of race and sex, issues that have existed ever since there was a gathering of human beings that involves a social context,” Smith says. “The same message can be taken to any continent on the planet because we’re all suffering from the same problems. Legislation won’t solve it. Nothing will solve it but transformation of the human heart.”
Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers. Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets from $10. MATCH - Midtown Arts & Theater Center, 3400 Main St. 713-521-4533. More information and tickets at matchouston.org.