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Wadada Leo Smith: Sounding America’s Freedom

By Published: June 18, 2012
Composed as a collection of 19 tracks with titles such as "Dred Scott: 1857," "Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Acts of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964," and "Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy (listen here)," Ten Freedom Summers documents the psychological trajectory of the civil rights movement and its impact on the American psyche through a series of compositions for quartet, quintet, and chamber orchestra. When asked about the specificity of these titles and his ultimate goal, Smith makes clear that the titles were chosen deliberately to provoke.

"I made them to be complete poetic statements. I made them to be absolute cultural referents. I wish to provoke a further attitude and logic towards research when thinking about this piece. I would like that [listeners] find [for] themselves a rational conclusion of how our society—and, in the larger context, our world—should and can solve the problem of racism and sexism, because those are the two largest problems embedded from the very earliest times of recorded history right up until today."

Smith further explains, "We are talking about a...period of time in which people made big sacrifices, and that runs straight through all of the pieces. We are talking about times in which there were great victories, and that runs through all the pieces. The psychological thread that runs through all of them is celebrating—or, rather, ritualizing—and having a ceremonial relationship to, the tragic events, and then moving forward to those that were victories."

To understand Smith's treatment of the civil rights movement, it is necessary to recognize that Smith does not attempt to present programmatic music or literal depictions of the aspects and moments of the civil rights movement that he references. Smith has described his process as an effort to translate from the historical, to the psychological, to the musicological. In his words: "When I think about the civil rights movement or any other political issue in our society I look at the psychological impact of those issues and ideas. In my music that is what I am trying to translate: the psychological impact of it, or the psychological reality of it. Not the actual event itself, but the psychological impact that event has on society."

Smith also cautions that Ten Freedom Summers should not be seen as a single suite, but rather as a collection. "A suite generally speaking should have a consistent use of the same thematic material but disguised or expressed in a different kind of way. In my case, I have not used the same thematic material." Instead, Smith has crafted each piece as an individual referent to the character or event he examines, each complete in itself. Smith acknowledges, however, that there is overlapping musical material throughout the work. As an example, Smith points to where he employs a quote from the piece "Emmet Till" as a transition to "Black Church" in order to signify the psychological transition "from Emmett Till the character to Emmett Till the person who is now in a spiritual state that is being ritualized in the church (listen here)." This example offers an additional window into the overall structure of Ten Freedom Summers. Because the collection operates as an examination of the psychological development of the civil rights struggle, the repetition of musical elements depicts the ongoing impact of earlier events or persons on later developments, as represented in the other pieces that make up the body of work.

Smith goes on to emphasize that just as it is not technically a suite, the album also should not be thought of as a "jazz" work. Smith rejects that designation, preferring the term "creative music." This distinction is important because, although Ten Freedom Summers clearly contains aesthetics from the jazz, classical, and blues traditions, the collection belongs to none of these genres. Pointing out that the collection exceeds four hours in length, Smith unpacks this distinction:

"[W]hen you use large forms, you have to incorporate [many] elements. This form that I am using is akin to the dramatic form that we call opera or the symphonic form. It's looking at how you make an interesting progression of musical material that must also show some transformation of the notion of style, of form, and how you move content. You move it by using these particular referents like jazz and blues and traditional classical music and you find that that mobilizes the material that you are trying to present (listen here)."

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