On this third Sunday of May, I can imagine Americans in 1893 as they ate their breakfast, picked up the now defunct New York Herald, and perhaps unbeknownst to them, read accurately about an America at least a hundred years into the future. Earlier that week, the lauded Czech music composer Antonin Dvořák had finished mining the sounds of the New World and fashioned them into four symphonic movements that would become some of the most prized in the history of music, but that wasn't the future I’m referring to. It was this:
"I am now satisfied," Dvořák announced, "that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose. There is nothing in the whole age of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him."
Truth be told, Dvořák’s provocative prediction has been widely published and well traveled for the past 119 years, but only recently did I come across it myself for the first time. It was a comment on a Youtube video. And while I’m no musician either, my gut reaction to Dvořák’s prediction was something of a mild epiphany because quite simply, I felt that he was right. Earlier that night, I had felt “sentiment” from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album and so then I wondered -- was that, or even the whole of hip-hop music, for example, rooted in the very same “negro melodies” Dvořák had described?
Dvořák then added: “Among my pupils in the National Conservatory of Music I have discovered strong talents. There is one young man upon whom I am building strong expectations. His compositions are based upon negro melodies, and I have encouraged him in this direction."
When I first met conductor Maurice Peress in his New York City apartment, I asked him about the origin of his last name. He was the American-born product of Polish and Iraqi parents, a very curious mix in itself, I thought (and it wouldn’t be the last time in his life either). The first musical sound he heard was the plucking of an oud which I saw hanging upon one of his walls, co-existing next to a set of African drums, a picture of himself in younger days with his mentor Leonard Bernstein, and many, many books. He wrote at least one of them. It was called Dvořák to Duke Ellington, and so I had to know, what was the connection?
“Most Dvořák scholars didn’t study the list of his students here in America. ‘Oh, Dvořák taught at the school, he wrote some pieces, he lived on 17th street, he traveled to the World’s Fair, basta’, but when you start digging in to the school where he was teaching, the students that he had, I discover the name Will Marion Cook. I had read about him in Duke Ellington’s book Music Is My Mistress as ‘my private, personal conservatory’, so I said, ‘Holy shit. Ellington studied with a guy who studied with Dvořák.’ I love the connection. It makes sense.”
Duke Ellington and Maurice Peress met for the first time in 1965 at the White House. Maurice told me about how Duke eventually entrusted him as his “symphony man”, and in their five years together, “drank up every word.” I was pleased then that I was able to offer Maurice something new from Duke that he had never heard. It came from a 1963 Swedish television interview and when asked by journalist Sven Lindahl about the future of American music, Duke told him all about it:
“I think the future is going to be all of this wonderful music inspired by the distant rumors out of Africa transmattered to America and the Caribbean where they've taken several routes around America -- some South America, some across to the Mississippi River and up there. Others have come right up the East Coast. Sophisticated music, but not as sophisticated as the rhythm of Africa".
(And was this the same rhythm I hear in the beats of hip-hop music today?)
Ellington elaborated: “We have musicians who coming out with their degrees today, for instance, I would say one-fourth go into the symphony. One-fourth go into teaching. One-fourth go into television and radio stations. And the other fourth go into what is called jazz. And in spite of the fact they all come out of the same conservatories, I cannot see how they can be separated. So I consider what all these four categories put together can be called the music of the future, when it will be boiled down and left without a category, even the category of jazz because I think it's going to be accepted generally and soon that music is music and there is not going to be any symphonic music, no jazz music, it's just going to be music. And if it sounds good, it's going to be good music. If it doesn't, it won't be music.”
“God bless him,” Maurice said.
In 2009, I worked in the same Soho office as music producer and composer Ryan Lott, but I didn’t know he had a musical alter ego. When NPR declared Son Lux the Best New Artist that year, I became fully aware.
Just recently, by phone, I told Ryan that Duke Ellington said some things in 1963 about the then future of American music that reminded me of his background: classical training, hip-hop influences, sophisticated rhythms, and cinematic scores. And just the other day, Maurice Peress told me that he believes “the mixing will come” in our digitally connected future where creative people hear everything and have a much larger palette to work with. Again, I was reminded of Ryan’s arguably unrivaled reputation as a remixer and all-around collaborator across musical genres. So I asked, what would a Son Lux remix of Dvořák’s New World Symphony sound like?
It would sound like these four things:
First: "The piano represents the Old World and is also my primary instrument, by which I feel most connected to the classical European tradition.
Second: "Highly manipulated recordings of Maasai drummers comprise most of the rhythmic aspects. The Maasai are a culturally isolated ancient African culture, and yet, even their influence is felt in our New World and of course in Dvořák's vision of America.
Third: "A meticulously recorded 'virtual' version of an instrument called a Novachord, which debuted at the 1939 New York World's Fair. It was the first commercially available polyphonic synthesizer and represents one of the first uneasy steps by electronic music into the public eye.
Fourth: "Audio from a recording of the work itself. Early hip hop producers, through a process known as 'sampling,' harnessed recorded performances within recorded performances and really opened a new world of possibility."
But then we wondered, what could it look like? It came as a collaboration with visual artist Joshue Ott and of all things, his iPad. When he showed me his 'Thicket' app that allows anyone with an iPad to explore music visually and remix it by touchscreen, I immediately remembered something Maurice Peress had said to me: “People have to make music with what they have.”
Whether it’s an oud, African drum or an iPad, I wholeheartedly agree with Maurice and imagine that both Antonin Dvořák and Duke Ellington would too.