Gospel music does not apologise. It comes straight out, fiery and quick. It’s like lighting a firecracker – you start with a sizzle and that’s it. Every section of my concert at the Barbican on 5 November will have a ‘pow’. When we hear Mozart and Haydn we think of their restraint, but this music says, ‘To heck with restraint.’ It goes straight to people’s hearts and understanding. Nothing is hidden – it’s wide open, even the Gospel Mass.
In the 1960s, Catholic churches in the United States were empty – parishioners weren’t coming in anymore. The leaders tried a number of things – folk and jazz, but nothing helped. Then Father Clarence Rivers, a priest in Cincinnati, asked Robert Ray if he could write a Gospel Mass. Apart from the lines ‘Kyrie eleison – Christe eleison’, everything in Robert’s Gospel Mass is in English, so anyone can identify with it immediately. It’s about accessibility, breaking down barriers that stop people from understanding and feeling the music.
I took part in the very first performance of the work in 1979 at the University of Illinois – Robert was a professor there and I was a doctoral student. It had an incredible reception. Audiences – especially people of colour – thought, ‘That’s our kind of church.’ When jazz-lovers heard it, they thought, ‘Church music has come a long way!’ It even fitted in non-Catholic churches. Since then, it has had innumerable performances by professional choirs, school choirs, community choirs all over the United States.
Florence Price’s 1951 anthem ‘Praise the Lord’ is a setting of psalm 117. Price was the first African–American woman to have her work performed by a major symphony orchestra in the United States – in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony – but as a Black woman, her music hasn’t been deemed necessary in orchestral settings. We still have this tendency, but we’re trying to correct these issues. As people become more socially conscious, Price is being rediscovered and she is now the golden child of orchestras around the world.
The atmosphere will go back and forth between up-beat and meditative, but always extrovert. The music is all about hope for a new world.
Donald Lawrence has become very impactful in gospel music in the United States. There was a period in churches when gospel music was only written for small groups and not full choirs. Donald said, ‘No, the choir is still good,’ and he has proved it. We open the concert with his, ‘The best is yet to come,’ which is very hip music – it sounds like the band Earth, Wind and Fire.
My own pieces are spiritual settings that express an explosion of joy, including ‘Shout for joy’ and ‘Band of angels’, which is like taking a trip to New Orleans in 1950 or 60s, with parades going down the street.
The atmosphere will go back and forth between up-beat and meditative, but always extrovert. The music is all about hope for a new world. We’ve been waiting for so long – when is it going to come? When you watch American news channels you wonder if there is any reason to get up in the morning. I have a one-year-old granddaughter and I hope that her world will be better than this one. I also see the things that people are trying to do to make the world better. We’re saying, ‘Hold on. Don’t give up yet.’
I hope that people will leave feeling uplifted … I want people to feel better than they did when they walked through the door.
I hope that people will leave feeling uplifted. We aren’t dealing with trauma or social justice – we have other concerts to do that. I want people to feel better than they did when they walked through the door. If we do our job, they may even remember a tune that helps them. My ancestors used music to make it through their day in the fields and in their homes. Music was crucial for our survival during slavery and it was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. Music, art and drama allow you to share your culture with other cultures, to help to build understanding. Music is not a hoarding thing. It’s all about sharing, not appropriating. That is its incredible power.
Gospel music is not generally conceived symphonically. It is usually performed with a smaller set of instruments, and we are now putting it in a symphonic envelope. Orchestras in the US are pushing heavily for this, which means that orchestrators are busy creating parts and I’m making many transcriptions. Part of my role as Associate Artist is to find and create arrangements that work for the LSO – I’m like a police detective tracking everything down!
The very first time I came to work with LSO, even before I was Associate Artist, the reaction of many people in the community, was, ‘Wow, there’s actually a Black man on that podium.’ I didn’t realise how important it was for many of them in order to buy into coming to a symphonic concert. If I have done nothing else, I’ve introduced them to some music that they haven’t known before or given validity to music that they already know. Many of them come from a variety of denominations of Black churches in London, but they all recognise and understand this music. They’re hearing it at the Barbican, and that creates a bridge between the LSO and their community. The audience has got used to seeing my face, and when they see it, they let go. When I turn around and look at them, I think, ‘I’m home’.
As told to Ariane Todes