Having been extremely impressed by Mark Lomax’s massive musical achievement, 400: An Afrikan Epic, I felt I just had to interview him by email to discover some of the influences in this set as well as how such a massive project gestated. Happily, he was gracious enough to answer all of my questions and even provide a few bits of information I didn’t previously know. You can find my review of his 12-album set in three parts at Older Blog Posts (just enter “epic” in the search bar and they’ll come up).
Art Music Lounge: In reviewing your epic set of recordings, I was struck by a number of things, primary among them the diversity of compositional styles. In a few pieces, I thought I heard the influence of Charles Mingus. In others, particularly the music for strings, I was reminded of some of Ornette Coleman’s music for that combination. At other times I heard echoes of John Coltrane. Who were the composers, if any, who influenced you in your compositional style? Classical influences count, too!
Mark Lomax: Thank you, Lynn, for taking the time to listen to, and write about 400: An Afrikan Epic.
Compositionally, I’m influenced by many composers of all genres. I love the work of Hale Smith, Undine Smith Moore, Florence Price, TJ Anderson, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Maurice Ravel, Jean Sibelius, Witold Lutosławski, Dimitri Shostakovich, Stevie Wonder, Béla Bartók, Curtis Mayfield, Frank McComb, Georgia Muldrow, and others.
For this work, I didn’t think about influences as much as how the music could be used to shape the narrative. Mingus, Coleman, and Ellington wrote that way and Coltrane played that way, so it makes sense that you’d hear associations with their body of work.
AML: Another thing that struck me in some of the CDs, particularly on Song of the Dogon, was the way in which the different pieces flowed into each other as if they were part of an extended suite. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or was this in a way accidental?
ML: Each composition (album) is a chapter in the book, as it were. The way each is structured depended on the narrative structure. I also wanted to make sure that there was variety from chapter to chapter so they wouldn’t all flow the same way, be the same length, same instrumentation, etc.
AML: I’m wondering how long it took you to write all of this music. It’s certainly an ambitious project!
ML: Indeed! I began composing in 2016 (Song of the Dogon) and finished the last composition in July of 2018.
AML: In going through your website, I came across a comment (and correct me if I got it wrong, I’ve been unable to pull up that page again) that you once submitted a composition while a music student based on a spiritual and were criticized harshly for doing so. Is that correct? If so, it seems to me that your teacher was being biased. Many composers have based classical pieces on not only folk songs but spirituals, blues, ragtime and even just pop music of a certain era. It isn’t what the source is, it’s what you do with it that counts.
ML: That’s a true story. As a student, I was often both criticized for basing my work on blues and gospel themes, and infusing my “classical” compositions with “vernacular” musical effects. I was actually told that blues, jazz, and gospel “isn’t the stuff of art” when it comes to source materials for “art music.” The bias stems from the inability for non-Black people to value the traditions of Afrikans in America, or even Afrikans in Afrika when coming from the pen of a person of Afrikan descent. BUT, I believe that composers like Bartók and Sibelius found their most authentic voice when using the folk melodies of their people.
AML: When I was writing my book on the long-standing cross-influence of classical music and jazz, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, I was astonished to learn from the composers and performers themselves how difficult it is to find critics and even audiences who are open to the fusion of these two types of music, which I personally feel is inevitable if either form (being both art music) is to thrive and survive. Even such an excellent piece of work as Darryl Brenzel’s jazz rewriting of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has met with stony silence and a cold shoulder from the jazz community. Have you found that the classically-oriented pieces in your suite are getting a positive reception, outside of the academic community?
ML: Honestly, I don’t care what people think about it in this particular context. I think that one of the problems with finding a true organic hybrid of the two genres is that most people don’t have the same respect for Black or Afrikan derived music as they do for the music of Europe. The composer has to care equally for both. They have to have spent time listening deeply, learning about the cultures from which the music came, and understanding what the sounds mean in context. Without that type of commitment, the musics can’t truly exist together. Funny how similar that is to how people build relationships and, by extension, community!
AML: It has also been my experience, not only in my own lifetime but even in earlier times, that African-American composers who write such complex music as this, particularly the classically- influenced pieces in your suite, often meet with indifference, which I feel to be a particularly racist stance. It’s almost as if they are being patronized, told (sometimes subtly, sometimes just by being ignored) that their work is not of a high enough quality. I know that this may be a touchy subject for you, but since I admire what you did so much I was wondering if you’ve gotten a similar reaction”
ML: I’ve been told that. A lot! But I have something that composers of previous generations didn’t have… the internet! Technology has made it easier to record ones work and release it to the world. Honestly, if I had to depend on commissions and performance fees to make a living, I’d lose half my body weight in a few months! Following the example of Charles Ives, I decided a long time ago to put myself in a position where I could compose and release my work without the burden of having to sale records etc. I’d rather focus on creating the most authentic expression I can than whether or not I’d be able to eat and earn a living. Defining success in this way negates those voices who would consider me and my work “less than.”
AML: I’m wondering how you selected the groups of musicians to work with in this epic suite, not only the classical players but also the members of your trio and quartet. Was it a long process, or one that came to you rather easily?
ML: William Menefield, Dean Hulett, and Edwin Bayard are members of my working group. We’ve been playing together in various configurations since 2001. The classical musicians, William Manley and Andy Carlton (violins), Norman Cardwell-Murri (viola), and Mary Davis (cello), were musicians I hired from the central Ohio area to perform the premiere of Blues in August in 2016. Andy moved out of the region and I was introduced to Erin Gilliland, who replaced him for the studio recordings of Blues in August. Mary plays with UCelli, which is how they came to be a part of the project, and the Afrikan drummers (Baba Mehib, Baba Barago, and Freddie Kelley) are folks who play at my father’s church (First Afrikan Presbyterian Church) in Atlanta, Ga.
AML: Thank you for mentioning the names of the other drummers! I couldn’t find them in the album credits, or on your website. On only one of the albums, Up South, you credit other musicians (Edwin Bayard and Dean Hulett) as co-composers. Were these pieces actually composed on paper by all three of you, or were their contributions more in the manner of improvisations that you worked into each piece?
ML: Up South is a concept piece that I described to Eddie and Dean right before we went on stage. We’d been in the midst of a profound conversation and I wanted to capture that vibration on the recording, so I gave them a prompt and asked that they play as if we were in a typical vocal conversation. That’s why they are credited as composers, otherwise, I’d have been talking to myself!
AML: Was the choice of the Columbus Cello Quartet (UCelli) for Four Women made because they happened to be conveniently made up of four women, or because you wanted to write for four celli and they were the group most readily available for the performance and recording?
ML: I knew Mary and they commissioned a piece from me to pair with the David Baker cello quartet, Refractions. I presented the Four Women concept and asked that they allow me to connect the new work to the 400. They agreed and here we are!
AML: I was also intrigued by the fact that in the Urban Art Ensemble performances, your bassist, Dean Hulett, sometimes played as a fifth player with the string quartet in addition to acting as a jazz bassist within the ensemble. Did he have any prior experience acting as a classical bassist, or are these performances with the Ensemble his only activities in such a context?
ML: All of the musicians in my improvising ensemble have played in a variety of musical situations and have trained in the Black church, night clubs, and concert halls.
AML: I was wondering if you or your pianist, William Menefield, have ever played the vibes? There were a few moments in which I felt that the color of a vibraphone would have been an interesting mix.
ML: Dr. William Menefield was a musical prodigy. He began on cello and was signed as a recording artist at 15 to play improvised music on piano. He hasn’t played vibes to my knowledge, but our music is all about rhythm. The piano is a drum, and he understands this in both a conscious and intentional way and intuitively.
AML: In Ankh & the Tree of Life, it sounded to me that, despite the use of an improvising trio, nearly all of the music was through-composed…at least, I didn’t hear very many passages that sounded improvised. Or am I wrong?
ML: Ankh & The Tree of Life is another concept record that was completely improvised within the context of the spiritual symbols in the title.
AML: Wow, that’s really amazing work! Who were some of the drummers that influenced you the most? I don’t think you might have ever heard Vic Berton, but he’s the only drummer I’ve ever heard besides yourself who used timpani as part of his drum kit.
ML: I don’t use timpani as part of my set up. My drums were made by Bruce Hagwood at RBH Drums. We spent a few months talking about the sound I wanted, different wood combinations and sizes, and how the instrument functions in my ensembles. He made a beautiful instrument that has its own spirit and voice. I get the sound I do from a combination of hard and soft mallets. I’ve heard the drum this way since I was younger (10 or 12), but have only had the courage to investigate that approach since 2013.
AML: That’s extremely interesting! There were some moments when I could have sworn I heard timpani, but now I know.
This was such a massive project to write, play and record that I couldn’t help but wonder if some individual or institution helped to underwrite it. How did the recordings come about?
ML: I determined to get this done by any means necessary. It’s not a passion project as much as it is a mandate. The Ancestors chose me to tell our story in this way because they know that I mean to use this very Human story to bring all of Humanity together. The blue sky budget came in around $400,000. I didn’t have that, so I spent $7,500 on microphones and recording equipment. After having recorded and mixed half of the cycle, I was honored with a residency at the Wexner Center for the Arts, which helped me complete the work. With the Center’s support, the help of the Johnstone Fund for New Music, and the Kridler Family, I was able to get all the musicians to Relay Recording Studio in Columbus, Ohio and recorded 7 1/2 albums in four days. We had recoded Song of the Dogon and The Coming during my residency at Denison University, but the audio quality wasn’t pristine. We recorded them again at Relay with fantastic results. John Fintel is a superb engineer. He mixed and mastered half the cycle. I mixed the other half and Storm 9000, another fantastic engineer, mastered my mixes.
AML: That’s a terrific story. Anyway, I just wanted to say, by way of closing, that I found it a very impressive achievement overall even though I could understand some listeners feeling overwhelmed a bit by the two full albums of drumming that bookend the project.
ML: The Drum is the central storyteller in this work. It stems from Afrikan cosmology which teaches us that the Drum is the first Ancestor. The cycle begins with the Drum because it represents the first vibration; a time when we were last happy, healthy, and whole. I believe that Afrikans in America have been programmed to an altogether different rhythmic vibration as Western European military march rhythms are linear where Afrikan rhythms are not, so we must return to the original vibration for healing from the trauma of the Ma’afa. That is the significance of the next 400 years!
AML: Thank you for your valuable time!
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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