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Music Review

Langston and the 'Mama' of invention

September 01, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

If Langston Hughes' incantatory 12-poem cycle "Ask Your Mama," published in 1961, has been oddly neglected, that only adds to its feeling of freshness and uncanny currency. The 10th poem, "Bird in Orbit," contains these astonishingly prescient two lines: "Did I vote for Nixon? / I said, voted for your mama."

When a '60s recording of the Harlem Renaissance poet's warm, dry, still voice -- the R of "your mama" danced over -- came over the Hollywood Bowl loudspeakers Sunday night, I felt a freaky chill wind on the warm, dry, still evening in a city on fire where the air stung the lungs. It might have been freakier still had not the night included the obvious visual exclamation point of images of the president and his wife dancing at the inauguration seven months ago.

But then, that was "Ask Your Mama!," an uneven new evening-long work by Laura Karpman, created in collaboration with soprano Jessye Norman. Given its premiere in March at Carnegie Hall, the sprawling composition had its second performance at the Bowl on Sunday with Norman (in thrilling voice), two excellent jazz vocalists (Nnenna Freelon and de'Adre Aziza), the Roots (the compellingly eloquent duo of rapper Black Thought and drummer ?uestlove) and the versatile Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (expertly conducted by George Manahan). A filmed collage of historical footage was part of the multimedia mix, which also included the archival audio recordings of Hughes, who died in 1967.

Words as music

There was much to admire. Hughes, in these poems, broke new ground, his Modernist language finding a voice for a rising national awareness of what was then called Negro culture. Leontyne Price had just broken the color barrier in opera but still had to enter too many other venues by the back door. The civil rights movement was nascent. Hughes' wondrous words read like music.

In fact, Hughes' words are music. He imagines, in the margin of the poems, a soundtrack. A rhythmically scrapped guiro is interrupted by a solo flute. A German lied morphs into "Hesitation Blues." The drums start up.

Karpman speaks Hughes' multifaceted musical language. She advertises a background in bebop, Beethoven and Modernist master Milton Babbitt. Karpman works in television, racking up Emmys. She's on the Los Angeles Opera's radar. And in "Ask Your Mama!" she set out to realize all that music that Hughes alluded to. She added the exclamation point to the title. She directed much of the video herself.

Translating great poetry into song is as much the art of allusion as illustration, which means that Karpman tends to go overboard by taking Hughes at his musical and visual word. When the poet wants a flute call or a delicately fading piano, he gets them. When he mentions the Niagara Falls, recalling runaway slaves crossing over to Canada, he gets those too, picture-postcard banal on the screen.

Elsewhere, though, Karpman honors the words for themselves. She seamlessly melds musical styles (so much so that her own voice isn't always evident). In long passages she adds genuine dimension to Hughes whether by relying on Norman's force-of-nature lower register to express elemental sadness or utilizing the combination of Aziza's and Freelon's soulful sizzle. She makes powerful use of the juxtaposition of Hughes' restrained voice on recording and the excitable rhythmic recitation of Black Thought (Tariq Trotter).

In her orchestral writing, I preferred Karpman's meditative passages for strings to her feistier collages. But she did come up with some pleasing theatrical effects, such as an antiphonal brass opening to "Blues in Stereo" and, later, a marching tuba band. "Jazztet Muted" began with a long, subtle drum solo by ?uestlove (Ahmir Thompson).

Unfortunately, the predictable video imagery undid much musical good.

The most objectionable was the film for "Is it True?." Directed by Rico Gatson, it made one-to-one rhythmic connections between word and picture that were suited for elementary school. The cheap ending for "Show Fare, Please," the final poem, was a sped-up video cliche of all that had preceded it.

Added context

This was the third occasion this summer at which the Bowl featured an evening devoted to a classic African American work. "Porgy and Bess" was the summer's opera. The collaboration of trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans was re-created (including their version of "Porgy"). "Ask Your Mama!" also had "Porgy" references. Whether coincidental or not, all of these were collaborations of black and white artists (Karpman is white).

Still, "Ask Your Mama!" suffered from a Sunday night at the amphitheater. This is a cultural celebration ill-suited for this evening's texting, talking and dining. Many left at intermission (the work shouldn't have a break). "Ask Your Mama!" needs to come indoors and be taken seriously, which also means throwing away the video.

A staging, though, might work, especially given what a mesmerizing theatrical presence Norman presents.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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