Concerto for Hammond Organ: Commentary on Modern-day America Through the Eyes of the Past
Updated: Jan 14, 2020
Throughout the many eras of history, artists have presented genuine, visceral symbolic reflections and commentary upon their moment in history; creating time capsules for future generations to study and learn from. Today, as a composer living in the United States (and one of color I might add), I find myself doing the same, preceded by a deep history shrouded in darkness and struggle, but also great courage and light. The results of such a history present America with many challenges, but a generation of people more determined and capable of rising up to take them head on. I join other musicians, poets, painters, authors not only as a recorder of the times, but as a vehicle of change. I join the people who seek to create a future of enlightenment, spread visions of equality, hope and prosperity.
So, the art of concerto writing has quite a vast history with many musical quirks and compositional techniques wired into the fabric of its identity. Today many composers like myself are experimenting, creating new contemporary models of concerti as we head into the cusp of the 21st century.
I seek to do this in my Concerto for Hammond Organ and Orchestra. Why the Hammond organ? You know, as a young emerging artist, I want to be very clear about the integration of who I am and where I come from in my music so that all of my ideas are not fashioned by the propensity of composers creating something different for the shear sake of being “new,” but rather me using ALL that I am to promote the future of the classical art form.
I grew up the son of a pastor in the African-American Baptist church, in the heart of the southeast US, Birmingham, Alabama, the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s and a beautiful example of change and social growth. My mother is a Hammond organist/pianist. I was literally in the womb while she was on the organ! I would say that Gospel is literally flowing through my veins! I have also had the pleasure of being a Hammond organist for the past 12 years ever since I started leading several church services and choirs from the age of 14. The Hammond and gospel music are inseparable! I also grew up loving jazz. With Birmingham being in the heart of the southeast (not too far from New Orleans), all of those musical styles have crept their way into that region. The Hammond and jazz are not strangers either. And of course, I grew up hearing some of the great southern rock bands, like Lynyrd Skynard and so forth. How could I not with songs like “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama?!” Thus, even in rock you’ll find the Hammond. As you can see, this one instrument has played such a personal role in my development as an artist, I truly feel like I’m “going home” with this piece.
The story of this concerto is a 3-fold look and commentary on America as we know it today.
The first movement is a combination of all the things we “know” and “claim” America to be. We "know" it to be this cultural melting pot; a place of freedom and prosperity for any and everyone. America’s been influenced by an incredibly rich, tumultuous history, all the way from colonization to slavery which leads musically to gospel, which in the early 20th century leads to blues, jazz, and rock n’roll. Then, the Hammond organ is born, created by Laurens Hammond in the early 1930s and gets musically integrated into all of it! The reason I believe the Hammond Organ has the ability to symbolize American stories through music is the fact that it’s found in so many contrasting genres of American music. This can be symbolic of the beauty of America's diversity; being an instrument that is consistent through SO many different genres that contain SO many different people with unique stories and perspectives. I’m exploring and tipping my hat to all of them in this movement, sending the orchestra through a whirlwind of genres. There’s Latin flavor, modern jazz, hard rock, all thrown into a contemporary classical context with double winds, a fat brass section, 4 percussionists with the 4th doubling drum set, electric guitar, bass guitar, harp, piano, and strings….oh and of course the solo Hammond Organ!
II. Invocation: Threnody for the Innocent Victims of Racism, Violence, & Bigotry
After all the “glits and the glam” of the first movement, the second movement blasts in presenting a lot of hard truths that concern the well being of our nation’s people. Unfortunately, even in this current day and age, America is no stranger to tragedy. Within recent years, we've had numerous isolated events of terror: mass School shootings, church shootings, shootings in public places, unlawful killings of unarmed African American citizens by corrupt law enforcement officers, killings of many innocent people no matter what color you are, meetings of unjust racist and hate groups who threaten our ability to simply have peace by pushing an agenda of hate and division. America simply has not had a chance to breathe. This movement is a threnody. I wanted this movement to be a moment where we pay homage to all of those innocent people, but most importantly reflect on where we are, and reexamine what our core values are, what we can't and won't tolerate going forward if we are to live in a nation where everyone regardless of who you are, where you come from, and how you got here, can prosper.
The movement features the introduction of a choir and four vocal soloists (soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass) to accompany the solo Hammond Organ and orchestra. I wanted to incorporate the use of the negro spiritual in the movement because of its ability to be mapped onto all Americans, no matter what we look like, as people enslaved at the hands of violence and hatred looking for freedom. The soloists each present spoken word and their own rendition of a certain negro spiritual that contains all the grime, grit and pain we feel because of all of the turmoil we’ve faced in recent years, paralleled with the unimaginable horrors enslaved African-Americans endured on their long-fought quest for freedom. Juxtaposing that is an SATB divisi choir accompanying the soloists singing verses of similar accord from the Latin Vulgate Bible that talk about love and charity for your fellow man, etc. So, you have these 2 entities, one of very established spiritual practice, and the other of very cut-throat visceral pain and anguish layered to create this all-encompassing atmosphere of community and fellowship; while the organ sweeps in and out of this texture representative of us as a people on this rocky road towards peace. At the very end the strings split into 14-part divisi and voices throughout the orchestra gradually gather and ascend to a roaring climax, each individual voice creating a counterpoint representing the souls of the innocent victims ascending to heaven to be at peace.
Then finally, we have the third movement that is essentially one BIG praise break between the organ and orchestra. It is a glimpse of what freedom sounds like and the peace that we’ll have when we all understand, as Dr. Maya Angelou said, that “we are more alike, than we are unalike.” This movement is lightning fast, bringing about the sound world of the African-American church, where echoes of praise ring out among the musicians. The choir and soloists return after the fast material reigns in these themes of hope. The piece ends on a dramatic high with the organ in front of the pack, leading the charge, pressing toward the mark of what we hope to be a bright future not only for our country, but eventually extended to the world.
I’ve had to work out so many logistics to create a piece like this. First, I had to consider the ease of access for the organ itself. I have designed this piece to be generic for not only the classic Hammond A-100, C-3, and B-3 models, but also the digital Sk2 and B-3mk2 models for performers who chose to put various drawbar settings as presets for easy transitions during the piece.
Upon writing the piece, I’ve discovered that many of the effects that the Hammond Organ can produce don’t have official notational guides for the player. I’ve designed a symbol system to be imported into the score that gives the player clear instruction for these various effects such as percussion (how hard and soft it is), Leslie chorale and tremolo, hand position on the manuals, etc. It’s a really cool and mind-boggling thing to try and navigate the over 253,000,000 possible sound combinations within the drawbars alone while simultaneously pairing that with an orchestra containing an equal amount of sound/timbre combinations.
Finally, it is my sincere hope to have this piece taken on to be performed very soon. I’ve received interest and A LOT of support from fellow composers, colleagues, and dear friends. Who are we to be artists if we do not commentate and inform the public of what’s going on from ALL of our individual perspectives? We can then gain so much more understanding from each other and have conversations that push towards a future of unity.
That’s my 2 cents!