Pianist Lara Downes’ latest solo recording project, America Again, assays the meaning of “America” in these turbulent times through the lens of her own mixed African American and Eastern European background and a breadth of American Music across multiple genres and styles. We spoke with her recently to find out more.
How has our current socio-political climate given rise to your latest project?
I’ve never experienced anything like my time working on this recording, during a period of such intense national crisis. I developed this project last Spring in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina — a defining moment, so horribly resonant with the worst of our American history. The iconography of the black church, the desecration of that, the inhumanity…and coming on the heels of the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice…it had been a descent into despair. None of us knew what to do. One night last winter, Daniel Roumain and I met in the Village and we just played some music together – just to release some of our sadness and anger. I was feeling that it was necessary for me, on a very primal level, to immerse in American music, to connect with what is beautiful in my American birthright. That’s how this recording came to be, and now I’ve lived with it during this time of rising violence – mass shootings, police brutality, the rise of Trump, the fear and anger and the incredible divide that has taken hold in this country. As this year has unfolded, the meaning of this music has taken on new dimensions, in terms of its relationship and relevance to American life and history.
What led you to the project’s title, America Again?
I was sitting in my kitchen last year, with lines from Langston Hughes’s poem Let America Be America Again running through my head – America as “the land that never has been yet – and yet must be”. Our troubles are, of course, profoundly about race, but also about equality and opportunity, all the ways that American dreams are deferred and denied. So many broken dreams: “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek.“ Still, we keep coming back to the necessity of the dream: “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.” This is a poem written in 1938, but still so sadly timely today. I’ve been thinking about the American dream, how it is both our fatal flaw, always promised and often unfulfilled, and also our heart and our strength, because it keeps us moving, hoping and trying. This album is about American dreams, found and lost.
In what ways has your personal story informed this project?
My deepest connection with being an American has been through music. My childhood in California was not all-American — my sisters and I were home schooled and practiced the piano a lot, no TV or junk food. We moved to Europe when I was a teenager, and again there was a feeling of being the “other,” this time by virtue of being American! It wasn’t until I came back to the U.S. in my early twenties that I confronted the complexities of what it meant to me to be American, and an American of color. My path was through discovering a passion for American music, and realizing how it connected me to the American landscape and history.
How do the particular works you have chosen for America Again frame the arc of the story?
I hope that this record depicts a wide swath of American experience. It was important to me to feature composers of color, women composers, immigrant composers – a range of voices. I think that the pieces, as a collection, represent the timelessness of American life, while also being each very much “of their moment.” The first track is a great piece by Morton Gould, an absolute snapshot of 1940’s New York, but also a reflection of a typically, timelessly American sense of humor and hubris. There’s a new piece by Dan Visconti called Nocturne from Lonesome Roads that evokes a long line of lonely travelers, from refugees out of the Dust Bowl to hippies hitchhiking to the Summer of Love. There are inter-generational dialogues: Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy from 1934, in Nina Simone’s version from the early ‘60s.These pieces come from different traditions: classical, jazz, folk, ragtime, African American spirituals, but they all connect at the heart of American music, which is its diversity.
You were recently honored by the Sphinx Organization; does that feel like validation of your work?
It was a tremendous honor to be named a 2016 laureate of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence this year, a happy affirmation of what I’m trying to do as a musician! The news about the award came last June, just as I was starting to work on this recording, so I’ve been able to channel the mission and vision of Sphinx within my musical efforts towards inclusion and authenticity. I’m hoping that the partnership will help me bring this music to audiences outside of the traditional concert circuit, especially to audiences of color and young listeners, to share the power of common ancestry and collective dreams. I think we’re at risk, as Americans, of losing hope. I think that the dream is more important than ever.