The composer Carlos Simon is busy. Six premieres in four months busy.
In February, Simon was at the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first appearances of his “Four Black American Dances,” a romp through a ring shout, a waltz, a tap dance and a praise break. At the Kennedy Center in Washington, where Simon has been a composer in residence since 2021, he oversaw two debuts in April: “Songs of Separation,” a sun-still-shines setting of Rumi poetry, and “Don’t Let the Pigeon Sing Up Late!,” an irreverent operatic collaboration with the picture book author Mo Willems.
This month, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra gave the first performances of “Troubled Water,” a concerto for trombone that movingly invokes the fears and the faiths of freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. Then Imani Winds inaugurated “Giants,” five sketches of pioneers of color.
All that before Thursday, when the Minnesota Orchestra will premiere arguably the most important commission of Simon’s career so far: “brea(d)th,” commemorating the murder of George Floyd.
“If this music is done in the right way, if it’s being honest,” Simon said in a recent interview, “it doesn’t matter whatever your language, whatever your background, whether you’re white, Black, whoever — it goes straight to you. And that’s what I always strive for, honesty, in my music.”
Simon, 37, was already on the rise before the pandemic. But he has shot to far greater prominence in the past three years as classical music has come, embarrassingly late, to see that Black lives, Black artists and Black music matter.
“I don’t feel like I’m overworking, or being pushed to the limit,” Simon said. “It feels good to me, but I am grateful at the same time that I get to do what I do, and love what I do.”
It is easy enough to understand why Simon’s name has become such a common sight on concert listings: The thrumming, to-the-point “Fate Now Conquers,” a response to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, has been heard at most major orchestras and many others besides. He writes quickly, affectingly and invitingly, somewhat in the vein of William Grant Still and Florence Price. His scores often sound as if they believe, sincerely yet humbly, in their own power to make a difference.
“What I like in Carlos’s music is the fact that he wants really to communicate,” said Gianandrea Noseda, the music director of the National Symphony, which has commissioned and performed several Simon works, including “Songs of Separation.” “There is nothing purely intellectual. There is always an emotional element behind it.”
Jessie Montgomery, a friend of Simon’s and with him a member of a group-chatting set of composers that calls itself the Blacknificent Seven, hears in Simon’s scores a distinctive musical voice.
“I feel like the way that he connects to his own personal history, his identity, through his music is very direct and poignant,” she said. “He’s very committed to carrying a story through his music, carrying narrative and carrying meaning.”
Simon sees himself as a griot, “a keeper of stories through music,” and many of his tales offer “a positive message, the positive response to the struggle,” he said. “Portrait of a Queen,” for instance, celebrates Black womanhood; “Motherboxx Connection” draws on the Afrofuturist comics of Black Kirby; “Be Still and Know,” a piano trio, peacefully professes God’s presence and grace; “Breathe” is a calming meditation for chamber orchestra inspired by the theology of Howard Thurman.
But for Simon, carrying meaning as a Black American man amid enduring racism also means taking on a heavy weight at times. It’s a responsibility to which he brings the fervor and clarity of the preachers from whom he is descended.
Nowhere is that more evident than in his “Requiem for the Enslaved.” Blending the Latin Mass with spirituals, gospel and jazz to a text written, spoken and rapped by Marco Pavé, it honors the 272 people who were sold in 1838 to pay off the debts of Georgetown University, where Simon now teaches. At its live premiere at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston last October, it had stunning moral force, at once demanding justice and paying respect to those whose names and ages are incanted at its opening.
It is a work that Simon finds difficult to perform; for a recording and the Boston concert, he was at the piano alongside Pavé, the trumpeter MK Zulu and Hub New Music. After next year, he said, he will not play it again, though others may.
“They would have never imagined me being a professor there, or even imagined me performing, and honoring them,” he said of the people he is memorializing. “And that takes a lot.”
SIMON WAS BORN in Washington in 1986. Ten years later, his family moved to Atlanta, where his father is a minister at Galilee Way of the Cross Church. Simon didn’t read music until he enrolled at Morehouse College; he had learned by ear, improvising to accompany the Pentecostal congregation on Sundays and catching the right key as worshipers spontaneously sang in praise. It was, he said, a weekly lesson in how music can help people.
That left a lasting imprint on Simon’s music, said the poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Simon’s librettist for “brea(d)th” and other works.
“Church as an antecedent means that there’s a conjuring that’s a part of the output,” Joseph said. There were moments in their one-act opera “it all falls down,” he added, “where spirits swelled. And in my experience you don’t find that a lot in the opera. You might be moved by melody and tone, but the instinct to spark a fire — that’s a distinguishing characteristic, I think.”
Simon played with, sang in and wrote music for the Glee Club at Morehouse; he performed in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and learned that Still, Margaret Bonds and many other Black musicians had composed in similar traditions.
“It was an encouragement,” Simon said. “I could see myself in them, in their music, and it gave me an impetus to go forward.”
He settled on becoming a composer, rather than a pianist or an arranger, doing graduate work at Georgia State University, which he followed with a doctorate at the University of Michigan. It was only around then, he said, that he felt confident enough to fuse his inheritance in spirituals and gospel with classical forms and idioms.
“I guess I was afraid to be kitschy, and to make a caricature of the music,” Simon said. He gave himself more permission to try after seeing how visual artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden depicted Black life with a certain abstraction, and learning how Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok were, in their own way, “using the music of the people.”
His process often involves significant amounts of research intended to ensure that he is telling a story right. For “brea(d)th,” written for choir, orchestra and spoken word, Simon and Joseph visited Minneapolis last April to meet Angela Harrelson, Floyd’s aunt, and Jeanelle Austin of the George Floyd Global Memorial. They made several return trips to engage with community members, some of whom will hear echoes of their conversations in the piece, said Beth Kellar-Long, the Minnesota Orchestra’s vice president of orchestra administration.
At first, Simon was unsure about the commission, not wanting to compose another requiem, or a lament like “An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave” (2015), which he dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and those “who have been murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power.” But Joseph convinced him, he said, that the piece could be “a point of action, not just a moment of reflection.”
And that is the hope that Simon vests in much of his music.
“I don’t think of myself as a politician,” Simon said. “I can’t create laws. But I do think I can help influence thought and discussion, which then can cause someone to create a law. So it’s indirect in that way. But it’s still — it’s better than nothing.”