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Lara Downes' New Series Amplifies Black Musicians

Lara Downes, Artist-Citizen, and host of Amplify With Lara Downes
Rik Keller
Lara Downes, Artist-Citizen, and host of Amplify With Lara Downes

Pianist and activist
Lara Downes
is on the move, defying the challenges of this Pandemic year of 2020. TPR's James Baker recently talked to Lara about the rollout of her new video series for NPR music, sustaining a career through a semi-lockdown, and the important role artists might play in this time of change.

Below is a transcript of a conversation with James Baker and Lara Downes, as heard on KPAC's "Classics a la Carte."

James Baker: Pianist Lara Downes is a storyteller, changemaker, thought leader and activist. Her latest project Amplify With Lara Downes (https://www.npr.org/series/922438111/amplify-with-lara-downes), a video series for NPR music engages visionary Black musicians in important and difficult topics confronting them today. As well, she speaks with them of the art and music they are creating during and in response to these days of transformation and transition. The series launched about a month ago, just as we counted down to the 2020 presidential election, against the backdrop of the ramping up of a second wave of the COVID pandemic.

In a moment, Lara will tell us about Amplify With Lara Downes, as well as a couple of her other projects. I've often described Lara as a moving target, for she is ever a flurry of activity, even in these days of hunkering down, not so easy for artists who prefer to play for a live audience.

James: Lara, before we talk about your new video series, it seems appropriate to mention your video performance of Leonard Bernstein's “Take Care of This House” (https://laradownes.com/take-care), this house being America's White House.

Lara Downes: Yeah, well, you know that when the idea came to me to take this song by Leonard Bernstein, “Take Care of This House” and develop a piece that would be dedicated to voting rights, and in partnership with the ACLU, I just, you know, we're all stuck at home, artists are stuck at home, and we're feeling so I think, the process of this, this, this election cycle has made us feel so in a way frustrated and you know, wanting to be participating and wanting to be vocal in ways that are hard to do when you're not out on the road. So, you know, I just reached out to friends and colleagues who are active as Artist Citizens, and you know, who who are always sort of involved with the issues of our time, and everyone was so happy to have the opportunity to come together, even though it was virtual, and, you know, share our music, in support of something so powerful. And I've got to tell you, you know, looking back now, from our perspective of the week after, to see this huge voter turnout, I certainly don't take credit for it. But I know, I know that you know, the energy across the board in organizing and supporting this election, it's really something staggering. And you know, being involved with the ACLU, and just watching all of that work on the ground, everything that was involved to make this happen. It's something that we should all be very proud of.

James: I think any of us who have ever been active participants in change, whether by protesting or encouraging family and friends to vote, we certainly know that it's that sidewalk or door to door level where change begins.

"It's our small actions, and it's our boring actions... making phone calls for hours, getting a few people to pick up. And all of this comes together and produces this amazing result." -- Lara Downes

Lara: Right. Yeah, no, I just I think that this awakening, this remembering of, really our civic duty, it's so important. You know, I think I may have mentioned to you, in one of our previous conversations, you know, my parents met during the Civil Rights Movement. And I always wanted to hear these great stories from my mom about all these, you know, dramatic events that happened during the movement. And she was she was very disappointing, her stories are very disappointing to me. And then at a certain point, she said, you know, most of it was boring, most of it was sitting around in meetings, you know, making flyers, having conversations. The moments of like, a real activity come as the product of so much groundwork. And that was sort of discouraging at the time. But now I see exactly what she meant, you know, that it's, it's our small actions, and it's our boring actions. And it's sitting there making phone calls for hours, and you know, getting a few people to pick up. And all of this comes together and produces this amazing result.

James: Lara, is it even possible to construct a timeline for this most peculiar of years? The last time I talked to you, I think “Some of These Days” had just released, and you were about to test the virtual concert waters with a house concert?

Lara: Yeah. And you know, when you say . . . it's funny, when you say timeline of this year. There's nothing as bizarre and surreal as time in this year, you know, and when I, these days, when I try to remember when something happened, I can't. I can never come up with a vague timeframe. And then I'll go and I'll find it on my calendar. And I can't believe that, you know, it was just in August or in September. It's just so strange. But I will say that when we talked that must have been in early April, I had just put out my album “Some of These Days,” which was an album of spirituals and freedom songs. And so you know, this music came out in the midst of chaos. You know, it was kind of hard to shepherd an album out into the world at that moment. But same time, it was such a . . . well, sadly, well timed, you know, release, that focused on this music of struggle and survival and, you know, overcoming and this whole lineage and legacy that we have of going through hard times and coming out the other side. So that, you know, was really my focus for, for a while, and it helped me, I've got to say, it really helped me to have a message that seemed meaningful and healing and helpful.

And then, as we moved through the spring, and, you know, the country just devolved into this mess of racial violence and tension and division. And the protest started, I got very energized to figure out all the ways in which my music and my message could be, could be amplifying you know, the efforts to make some change. And one of the things that happened was that I just reached out on a very basic human level to my colleagues and friends, to my fellow musicians who were also suffering so much, you know, and in the same way isolated and confined to home, and particularly to musicians of color because those events of the spring you know, the murder of George Floyd and, and Breonna Taylor and you know, all of the really heightened feeling around race in our country, it hit us so hard and in such a personal way, and combined with the loss of our normal structures, in terms of career in music, making, just it was just very transformative. So I started having these conversations. And then next thing I knew, I had reached out to NPR Music about doing a series of these conversations and that's what I'm doing now. It's a series called "Amplify With Lara Downes," and I'm talking with Black artists who, within their music and in their actions, are really making change that will, I think, define the future of the arts in this country.

James: The advance promotion for "Amplify With Lara Downes" promises conversation with Black musicians, and important and difficult topics confronting them. But it also addresses the challenges musicians are facing in these days of transformation and transition. Laura's conversation with Rhiannon Giddens in Episode One gets right to the challenge of sustaining a career in these days of partial and full lockdowns.

Lara: I feel like the work lives that we have both led in very different ways involve a lot of isolation, like sort of emotional isolation. And now here we are truly isolated. And yet, I think I feel so much more connected in so many ways, I think, you know, yes, because of the time, because of this impulse, but also because we have now a moment to reach out and reach in and I feel like a lot of things are coming together that wouldn't have come together if we were still running around like chickens with our heads cut off.

Rhiannon Giddens: Yeah, I mean, I totally agree, I think in a lot of ways, except for the whole like, not performing thing. I mean, I think that we're all having a hard time with that. But other than that, I think in a lot of ways our lifestyles have kind of perfectly situated us for this because all of us are on the road so much that we are relishing the time at home. And then it's like you said there's opportunities to work with people that usually you're both like, you know, and you're like okay, so 2024?

Lara: What are we making over this time? And what are we making in this time? I really am wondering how all of this will inform our practice when we do get back out on a stage you know, we kind of . . . there's like an intimacy and I don't know about you but I feel also willing to be completely real and you know, and have the dog walk through the video and you know, all these things that all the trappings having gone away so what does that feel like the next time that you know, there is a stage manager and they do say five minutes to curtain? You know, I think walk out and there's lights . . . it's going to be it's gonna feel different.

Rhiannon: I mean, I lost that long ago . . . Because I play the banjo. (laugh)

James: Amplify With Lara Downes affords us, the listener, to hear honest conversation between friends. It can be self effacing in a humorous way, then turn on a dime to the difficulties of being Black in a musical genre uneasy with admitting shared roots. Rhiannon Giddens and Lara talk about this in the context of Rhiannon's roots ensemble, Carolina Chocolate Drops, asserting their place in music of the Piedmont tradition.

Lara: I remember really well up in Boston. And when we were in Boston last year, and we were all in the lobby of the hotel after the concert, big concert at Symphony Hall, where we had done all music by Black composers like writ large, right, all over the spectrum. And we were all giddy and tired and happy. And we were talking about how presenting the music in that traditional, historically very, very white space in a spirit of generosity, and a spirit of saying: these are the stories that you missed, these are the stories that you didn't get to know, these are the stories that fill in the blanks that connect us, that connect you, that will always stay with me, because I think that, you know, there's so much fear right now, there's so much feeling of like guilt and a shame. And instead for us to offer these stories as a connecting healing.

Rhiannon: Yeah, I mean, I think that's the only way to do it. It's like, when I started with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, you know, we were very different. You know, the atmosphere was very different. And we were coming into a, you know, it's slowly changed a bit by bits, you know, over the last like, few 30-40 years, but we were kind of came in at a moment, we're still pretty firmly like banjos white, like, What do y'all even doing here? What's going on? And what we discovered was just presenting things in a very like, Look, we didn't know this either. Here we go. Isn't this exciting? Isn't this cool? This is not taking away from you, this is adding to you. This is adding to what you know. And that approach, I feel like has has served me well ever since and I've kind of adapted it to everything going forward. It's like it's not starting off the evening with look! You know, and people respond to that in a great positive way. You know . . .

James: Lara, on episode three of "Amplify With Lara Downes," you have as your guest, Anthony McGill, and it is written of this episode that: together they meet at the place where artistry and activism converge. I know you have so often taken the alternate paths in your career, in your choice of repertoire, and your choice towards social and political activism. Did you have to calculate that risk Laura? Or was it just where you, being Lara Downes, had to go?

Lara: I honestly I don't think of them anymore. It's two different things. I think of them as one organic whole. And it's always been important to me to be an artist of my time. You know, I don't exist in some bubble, I exist on this earth for as long as I'm here, and everything that I do resonates and it reflects the circumstances of my world. So I think that, you know, for all of us, it's kind of just accessing a different dimension of our music making. And I think that it has begun to feel completely absurd honestly and irrelevant to to separate those two things. I don't see how you do it anymore. This idea that art is some rarefied thing that just exists in its own space. It truly doesn't make any sense to me. Art is a reflection of, of humanity. That's its job.

James: The successes of Anthony McGill and his brother, too, flutist Demarre McGill, are extraordinary. Here are two Black musicians who have found their way into the rarefied space of major symphony orchestras. It's amazing that until Anthony McGill won his present job as principal clarinet in the New York Philharmonic, that the New York Phil had never had an African American musician as a principal player.

James: Lara, I enjoyed your conversation with Anthony on the third episode of Amplify, and that the conversation was true to the intent of Amplify, which is to engage visionary Black musicians in important and difficult topics confronting them today.

Lara: I think Anthony had always really made an effort just to be what I call a musician's musician, you know, that was where his, that was just the center of his being, the music making, and he's such an exquisite musician. And, of course, it's hard to navigate the realities of being a Black American and a classical musician, and you know, all of the things that he is, but I think this was the first time that he just felt an inner push to really bring those two things together, and I don't want to kind of give away you know, what the, what the action was that he took because it was just so beautiful and directly coming out of a place of music making but it kind of put him into a different space in terms of leadership and activism. And I think for him to see the immediate reverberations in the music world, and so many other musicians coming to, you know, to answer this call that he put out to speak up in our own way, again, in our own way, it's not a question of, you know, reciting someone else's slogan, it's finding your own place in your own message. And I think that is a very healing thing. And I think that we are all walking through this world right now feeling so overwhelmed by the wrongs of, of our of our world, you know that the wrongs of society, these massive problems that we feel so unequipped to address. And I think if we just find our own little ways, you know, the voice that feels natural and personal to us, and that takes some of that burden off of us and we can feel more connected to our time and our place.

James: Lara Downes and a conversation I had with her about a week ago in which she spoke about a number of different projects, including the recent rollout of "Amplify With Lara Downes." You can find Amplify here: https://www.npr.org/series/922438111/amplify-with-lara-downes. New interviews are rolling out every two weeks, so now might be a great time to jump in and get caught up with the two interviews referenced here with Rhiannon Giddens and Anthony McGill. You may also find Laura's video conversation with vocalist Helga Davis. And if you prefer beautifully crafted words, you can find those too if you choose to read Lara's introductions to each of her Amplify Episodes.

James: As I have said before, Lara Downes is a moving target; it is amazing to me how energetic she has been throughout what will surely be referred to as the lost year of 2020. For instance, Lara recently took on a new role as Artist Citizen in Residence at Manhattan School of Music. Lara, what in the world is an artist citizen residency.

Lara: Oh! That means I get to have a hand in shaping the future of you know, bright, young, talented musicians who are coming up in a world that offers I think, tremendous opportunities, and also tremendous challenges. And I'm just beyond thrilled to be able to share with them whatever knowledge I have of, you know, creating your own path, finding your own voice, giving what you have to give, being a good artist citizen in this world. I'm so grateful for that appointment. And for all of the initiative that MSM is showing, and really examining, you know, what, what the curriculum is, and what the approach is to training the young artists of the future. This is so important. And it's funny, I think that, you know, I have this small community around me of fellow mavericks and outliers who have you know, yes, we've we've created our own paths. And it's been, it's not been easy. It's been exciting and adventurous, and you know, hard going. And so I think for us to be able to turn around now and share that experience with the next generation and just be there to support them and amplify them. It's, it's, it's a really gratifying moment.

James: I would be remiss if not to mention one other project, which was announced the morning of this interview. Lara, give us the breaking news, I saw a figure of 200, which I think you can probably best explain.

Lara: Yes, and that is breaking news. As of this morning, I have been awarded a very generous grant from the Sphinx organization to support a project that I'm calling Rising Sun Recordings. And this is a series of recordings of music by Black composers, about 200 years worth of music. That's where the number 200 comes in. Music that's never been recorded before, music that you do not have in your library, that your listeners have never heard, that none of us have had access to. And, you know, for me, this is about redefining the canon. This is about redefining what we call classical music, who it belongs to, who made it in the first place. You know, why it's here. And I think that in this country, it's really important for us to do that to pull away from this old notion that what we call classical music was created in Europe, you know, within the span of a certain short period of time by a small group of composers. I think this you know, this again, this changes the future and it changes it pretty quickly because I think by the next generation, to have access to composers that I've had to hunt for, you know, I've had to hunt for them, fight for. But if you turn on your radio and you hear music by Florence Price, and Margaret bonds, and Samuel Coleridge Taylor and you understand the stories and the origins of this music, it just gives you a different landscape to move in.

James: You make my head spin, Lara, and I hope we can meet another day soon for more great conversation. I wish you continued success in all you do as an artist activist, in the most honest sense. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Lara: Thank you so much. It's always so great to talk with you.

James first introduced himself to KPAC listeners at midnight on April 8, 1993, presenting Dvorak's 7th Symphony played by the Cleveland Orchestra. Soon after, he became the regular overnight announcer on KPAC.