Composer Carlos Simon first worked with ACO as a participant in the 2016 EarShot Readings in NYC (previously known as the Underwood Readings). From there, he was awarded the annual Underwood Commission, which resulted in Portrait of a Queen, premiered by ACO at Symphony Space in May 2017. As part of the Connecting ACO Community concerts that ACO created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Carlos wrote Another Rising for countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which ACO premiered in June 2020. In the coming months, we will announce details about a co-presentation planned with Apollo Theater and National Black Theatre for the 2021-22 season, which will include Carlos’ music.
ACO’s Artistic Director Derek Bermel spoke with him recently about his musical background, recent successes, and projects on the horizon.
DEREK BERMEL: How did your experience growing up in Atlanta, your connection with church and gospel music, shape a larger artistic vision?
CARLOS SIMON: Atlanta is amazing place that has a unique and cultural history within the landscape of America. Atlanta was the center of the civil rights movement. All that culture is still there. It has such a rich history. I grew up seeing references to that time in our history. Gospel music is very much a part of who I am because my dad is a preacher. Gospel music was, and is, part of my musical DNA. Even when I try to embrace other styles and idioms, it always creeps back in.
DB: How do you relate gospel music to the conservatory approach of musical study that we have in America? Where does it intersect, transcend, or go in different directions?
CS: Many similarities. I know this because my wife went the conservatory route where she studied piano classically. I didn’t start my formal classical training until I was well into college. Up until that point, I was doing things by ear. Learning things on my own and with my family, who is very musical. Being put into the fire at an early age, forcing myself to learn by ear, that was my Ear Training 101. The difference is improvisation. Much like jazz, gospel music can be more free. There are overlaps. I always try to find these in my music. For a while, I was struggling to blend these styles together. There are many other composers that blend gospel, pop, and jazz idioms with a Western Classical tradition. Listening and studying this music really helped me. Composers like William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and even you, Derek.
DB: Did that kind of listening and studying inform your approach to form as well?
CS: Form for me is really enhanced by looking at traditional composers like Beethoven and Brahms. They churned out pieces because they had these set forms. Sonata Allegro and Rondo, and other forms, that they could just put the music into. Most of my music is through composed. Occasionally – if I have to write something quickly – I will go to an ABA form.
DB: I met you when you were studying at University of Michigan and you were interested in writing Film scores. Now you’re teaching film scoring. What did you get from listening to film music? Do you still have dreams of writing for film?
CS: Yes. This all really goes back to my background. If you’ve ever been to a Black Pentecostal Church, you know that music has a way of moving the service, and really tapping into the emotions of the congregation. It’s a huge part of the church. When I write music for film, I’m always going back to the experience of playing organ at my dad’s church. It’s really about tapping into the emotion and understanding what is the music doing here? Even if the harmony is different, it really is about telling a story. I like to do a lot of different things. Film is just one aspect of where I see myself as a composer.
DB: You came to ACO’s EarShot Reading in NYC in 2016. You won the Underwood Commission. What was the experience like, and how did it effect your future writing?
CS: The Underwood experience really opened my eyes to the whole world of the orchestra. There is an art as a composer to working with an orchestra. I learned how to talk to the orchestra. How to convey a note in a way that isn’t disrespectful and that is effective, and clear, and quick. That was my first time working with a large orchestra of that size. The piece was called Plagues of Egypt. Having feedback from players, from mentor composers like you, Robert Beaser, and Sarah Kirkland Snider – feedback that was both technical and artistic – was life changing for me.
DB: You’ve been working with a lot of orchestras recently. What does the orchestra mean to you? What are some of the opportunities it gives you? What can’t you do anywhere else? What are some of the frustrations?
CS: There are so many sounds and textures that we can use with an orchestra. I think of it as color. It’s like painting for me. In addition to being a preacher, my dad was also a painter. Every Saturday, I would watch him paint. He took his time with things. Different brushes, brushstrokes, and colors. Working with an orchestra is similar. I take my time. I try to figure out what colors to create with orchestrations, different pairings and combinations. The orchestra is an amazing resource with different textures.
DB: I often find rhythmic limitations with an orchestra to be frustrating. Do you?
CS: I’m still trying to figure out the balance of how to get rhythms right within an orchestra. Do I overwrite and make it exact? Or do I leave it looser for the players to interpret?
DB: In your piece that you wrote for ACO, Portrait of a Queen, I remember that you worked with poet Courtney D. Ware. Do you tend to work with non-musical inspirations often? Have you found collaborators who inspire you?
CS: I love collaborating. I love bouncing ideas off of other artists and creatives. Raj Brueggemann, a visual artists and cartoonist, has been a wonderful collaborator for years. He’s helping to craft visuals that go along with the music that I write. I’d like to explore multimedia experiences more. What does it mean to go to the concert hall and experience the orchestra and visual elements? All the senses can be heightened. I want to experiment more with that.
DB: I also heard that you’re working on an opera. Can you tell us more about that?
CS: I’m working on an opera with Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in DC to celebrate its 50th Anniversary in 2022. Marc Joseph Bamuthi is my librettist. I’ve also just started a composer-in-residence position at the Kennedy Center.