Laura Karpman’s “Ask Your Mama” : a grand multitude of American voices


Laura Anne Karpman (born March 1, 1959, in Los Angeles) is an American composer, whose work has included scoring for film, television, video games, theater, and concert.  She has won four Emmy Awards for her work.  Karpman was trained at The Juilliard School, where she played jazz, and honed her skills scatting in bars.

Karpman worked with John Harbison at the Tanglewood Music Center, and attended Aspen Music School and the Ecole des Arts Americaines, where she worked with Nadia Boulanger.  She received her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Michigan, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude, studying with William Bolcom and Leslie Bassett.  She received both her Doctorate and Master’s degree in Music Composition at The Juilliard School, where her principal teacher was Milton Babbitt.

karpman5Karpman was going through a bookstore when she stumbled onto a little-known epic poem by Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.

“What attracted me to the piece was not only that it was written by Langston Hughes, who I think is one of the most brilliant poets who ever lived,” Karpman says, “but in the right-hand margins of the poem, Langston says exactly how the music should sound.”

From the outset, Hughes conceived Ask Your Mama as an interdisciplinary creation, actually noting an imaginary soundtrack in the margin of each page as an accompaniment to his words.  As his subtitle “Twelve Moods for Jazz” suggests, Hughes imagined a kaleidoscope of styles — hot jazz, German lieder, cha-cha, patriotic songs, post-bop, Middle Eastern music, Afro-Caribbean drumming– to which Karpman composed to evoke the turbulent flux and flow of American cultural life.

karpman2Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Karpman collaborated with soprano Jessye Norman and The Roots on Ask Your Mama.  It received a sold out premiere at Carnegie Hall in March 2009 and its West Coast premiere at The Hollywood Bowl, and was revived at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.  This past July a recording was released of the complete work by Avie Records.  The album features opera singer Janai Brugger, jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, and from The Roots, hip hop’s legendary Questlove and Black Thought.  The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under George Manahan, gives a polished and idiomatic performance.

karpman1Ms.  Karpman’s music, melding Ivesian collage with club-culture remixing, morphed from one vivid section to the next in a dreamlike flow, with repeated phrases and motifs lending a strand of continuity.

Hughes’s Ask Your Mama first appeared in 1961, yet its jump-cut mixture of high culture and street talk is startlingly current.  Technology has evolved as well: the boundary-crossing score that Hughes imagined to accompany his text has finally been brought to life, moving from Harlem to Rio, from hot jazz to Hip-hop, with the click of a mouse or the beat of a baton.  The result sounds uncannily like what Hughes must have imagined, to the extent that Karpman manages to make herself, at times, almost completely transparent, and allows the artistry of her “librettist,” and of her living collaborators, to shine through.

At its best, she achieves a deft collage of the poet’s own recorded recitation, the soloists’ luminous talents, and the commentary of the orchestral score, into a grand multitude of American voices.

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