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Laura Karpman Headshot

Ask Your Mama: Collaboration With Langston Hughes and Jessye Norman

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I think in everyone's life there are seemingly small moments that end up changing everything. One appeared during a winter afternoon, in a bookstore in Santa Monica, when I was killing some unexpected free time. Leafing through the poetry section, I came across the collected poems of Langston Hughes. I read some favorites, and then turned to the back of the book and found a long poem I had never seen. Not only did its first pages contain the notated music of "The Hesitation Blues" and "A Shave and a Haircut," but in the margins of his text, Hughes wrote exactly how the music should sound, often asking for well-known songs and requesting rapid stylistic changes from German lieder to traditional 12-bar blues. Hughes had actually scored a poem! Crazy! Outrageous! Genius! As a film composer, I had certainly been asked to be versatile -- sometimes even gymnastic -- in musical thought. In "Ask Your Mama," there was the possibility of working with the most brilliant, erudite "director," Langston Hughes, with the most specific directions. What a perfect project. Now, how to get it done.

"Ask Your Mama" sat on my desk while I waited for the right opportunity.

Enter legendary soprano Jessye Norman. I got a most unlikely phone call from the late great Edgar Baitzel, the former COO of the L.A. Opera. He wanted me to collaborate with her on a different project. What a chance for me to work with one of the great artists of all time! But I kept thinking about "Ask Your Mama," not the project Edgar was proposing. Jessye Norman simply embodies the poem. This would not only be setting a text for a great artist, but a real collaboration. I rolled the dice and sent her a first edition copy of the poem and hoped she would respond. Five days later, I was sitting next to her, on her couch, listening to her sing gospel in my ear. By the end of our first meeting, we agreed to embark on this journey together to use this opportunity, through music, to have an honest and impassioned conversation between black and white America.

"Ask Your Mama" is Hughes's longest poem, epic in scope, and in some ways, his least known. On the surface, it seems unlike his earlier poetry. The text is in all capital letters, the typographical signature of a scream, and there are those musical annotations in the margins. The text is thick, modernist and doesn't have the surface ease of some of his earlier poems. Each mood is full of lists, jokes, and metaphors: they are layered and dense. The more time I spent with the poem, oddly, the simpler it became, the purer the message.

At times I felt like Langston was speaking to me -- and he was. I managed to locate an out-of-print recording of Hughes reading "Ask Your Mama," in that wonderful voice of his -- warm, wry, poignant. He had to be a part of the piece somehow.

I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to set Hughes's words to music and what kinds of voices would be singing and speaking them. But who could hold the stage with Jessye Norman?

In what had become typical for this project, an unexpected angel appeared. A friend of a friend, a paralegal who was studying in her free time for the bar, had worked with a lot of artists and suggested the Roots. I said, sure, but how would I get to them?

Black Thought, an icon. ?uestlove, one of the most profoundly gifted musicians I have ever encountered. I went to City Bakery in L.A. to meet with Rich Nichols, the manager of The Roots. After about five minutes of me pitching, he said softly, "We're in." Elation. Soon after, Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon joined us, and said to me, even though her part was super challenging, "Well, we've swung long enough! Let's try something new."

I think, for me, the true joy, was that I was able to realize the vision of a great poet and thinker. Langston Hughes had a multimedia vision that was 50 years ahead of its time. "Ask Your Mama" broke a mold for him, which is why I think it was not performed in his lifetime. People just didn't get it. I think too, for Jessye Norman, the Roots, Nnenna Freelon, Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and now the Apollo Theater, and certainly for me, we have all broken out of our comfort zones. But meaningful art seldom emerges from the zone of comfort.