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The paradigm of the forced Black American diaspora as told by 2024 DSO Classical Roots honoree Billy Childs

Legacy is the story of humanity. It’s the history. It's what people have done before, what you are doing now, and what will be done after you. We are all part of a long continuum that is humanity. Whether it's art, politics, or science—the legacy of humanity is enormous. We must do our best to contribute to it positively; to perpetuate humanity in a way that ensures our survival, that ensures our harmony with the planet, and ensures our harmony with other people. That's what legacy means to me. ”

Billy Childs

Billy Childs aims to create music that is healing to the world.

Having grown up with synesthesia—where he sees music as shapes when he is listening  and composing—Childs primarily learned how to play the piano through listening to music on the radio, looking at the shapes in his mind of how the music sounded, and translating that to the shapes or the patterns of the keys on the piano. After being sent to a boarding school in 1971 where he was the only Black person in the county, the piano in the school became his outlet—a lifeline. Every spare minute he had while away at school and when he was back home was spent at the piano. Childs knew that music was a life calling when he heard Keith Emerson’s “Talks” for the first time and tried to play it on the piano. He made it a reality through determination and drive—and a realization that he wanted to do this for the rest of his life. 

Honored this March at our annual Arthur L. Johnson – Honorable Damon Jerome Keith Classical Roots Celebration for his lifetime achievement and contributions to classical music, Childs was approached by saxophonist Steven Banks to write a concerto for saxophone and orchestra. From their initial discussion about the piece, it became clear that the narrative was central to the work’s development. What particular story would the piece tell? How would it unfold? 

On this collaboration between Banks and Childs to produce Diaspora, Banks reminisced “the piece really takes us on a journey, and working with Billy on it was eye opening because I was able to voice some of the things that I wanted to make sure were in the piece. He was able to take those suggestions and organically create the work that he did with them, while still fulfilling his own vision.” 

B2S Season 5 | 2024 Classical Roots Special with Saxophonist Steven Banks

The two decided that they wanted to chronicle the paradigm of the forced Black American diaspora, as sifted through the prism of Childs’s own experience as a Black man in America. In the same way that Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit illustrates three poems by Aloysius Bertrand in three separate movements, this concerto does the same with poems by Black poets. 

As the piece evolved, Childs began thinking of the elegantly succinct and fluent structure of Barber’s Symphony No. 1, where in one multi-sectioned suite, the composer brilliantly ties together a handful of thematic materials into a seamless and organic whole. He started to compose from the vantage point that the poems that he and Steven settled on (Africa’s Lament by Nayyirah Waheed, If We Must Die by Claude McCay, and And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou) would be guideposts which inspired the direction of a three-part storyline: Motherland, If We Must Die, and And Still I Rise 

Childs wanted to tie the piece together thematically with various melodies and motifs treated in different ways (inverted, augmented, contrapuntally treated, reharmonized, etc.), like a loosely structured theme and variations—except there are several themes used.  

On Diaspora, Childs described the following movements through a three-part story: 

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“The program of the composition starts out on a positive note; the first theme played solo by the soprano saxophone, and later joined by an uplifting scherzo accompaniment from the orchestra, is meant to evoke a sense of well-being and security as Africansare living in the motherland (Motherland being the name of the first section). Of course, it is understood that within the confines of Africa itself, there were tribal wars, treachery, and misery—even slavery; it’s not a utopia I’m trying to illustrate here. Rather, I want to depict a sense of purity—a purity arising from having been thus far unobstructed by the destructive outside forces that would later determine our fate. The movement starts with a soprano sax melody that begins as a diatonic motif (accompanied by marimba and pizzicato cello), but then quickly becomes chromatic, modulating to several remote tonalities. After this, a 16th note pattern in the strings transitions the listener into a sense of foreboding, signaling trouble on the horizon. As the harmonies of the string patterns continue to shift toward a more ominous shade, the soprano saxophone takes on a more urgent tone, playing short bursts of melodic fragments. Then a battle ensues, a battle between the slave traders and the future slaves, as signaled by the triplet figures in the soprano sax accompanied by triplet patterns in the orchestra and climaxing in an orchestral tutti section bolstered by a brass fanfare. After a dissonant orchestral hit, the soprano sax utters a melancholy theme as the slaves are being led to the slave ship. This takes us to the first saxophone cadenza, which to my mind, represents a moment of painful reflection about being captured like a wild animal and led to a ship, the destination of which is to a future hell.”  

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If We Must Die 

“Part two of the journey (inspired by the powerful Claude McKay poem of the same name) begins with the first vision of the slave ship. This is illustrated by a loud tutti blast in the orchestra, following a slow 6 measure buildup. The alto saxophone is now the voice of the piece, introducing a rapid 12-tone theme, which turns out to be a constant phrase weaving in and out of the entire piece at various moments (it actually made its first appearance back in the first part, during the battle between the African natives and the slave traders). The slaves are boarded onto the ships and the middle passage journey to America begins; sweeping rapid scales in the lower strings, woodwinds, and harp describe the back-and-forth movement of the waves. This section develops and reaches a high point with a jarring saxophone multiphonic pair of notes followed by a forearm piano cluster; we now see America for the first time, from the point of view of the slaves. A percussion section and saxophone exchange—followed by an antiphonal, almost pointillistic push and pull between the alto saxophone and the orchestra—aims to represent the confusion, rage, and terror of the slave trade, where families are ripped apart as humans are bought and sold like cattle. The subsequent section is a mournful lament of despair, meant to outline the psychological depression caused by the sheer brutality of this new slavery paradigm. The melodic theme here, played by the alto sax, is in its original version, whereas the melancholy soprano sax theme near the end of the first movement is the inversion of this melody. While this is happening, there is a background pattern played by vibraphone and celesta which depicts a slow and steady growing anger; this figure gets faster and faster until it overtakes the foreground and brings us into the next scherzo like section. This section is marked by an interplay between the alto sax and the orchestra and is describing a resistance, anger, and rebellion against being subjected to subhuman treatment over the course of centuries. After the apex of this segment occurs—characterized by five orchestral stabs—the alto saxophone plays a short and tender cadenza which signifies the resilience of Black Americans and the introduction of the idea of self-love, self-worth, and self-determination.”  

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And Still I Rise 

“This final section of the concerto/tone poem is about Black empowerment. The church has always been a cultural focal point in the black community—a sanctuary providing psychological and emotional relief from the hardships of Black life in America. It is also a place to worship, pray, and wrestle with the larger spiritual and existential questions which concern all of humankind. And beyond that (or perhaps because of that), the church is historically the central hub of Black political and cultural activism in America. This is the ethos that the last section of the concerto reflects. This final chapter of the piece starts out with a hymn-like passage, which is a variation of the opening folk-like melody at the very beginning of the concerto. It is a plaintive reading orchestrated for just alto saxophone and piano, as though the solo saxophonist were a singer accompanied by a piano during a Sunday church service. Soon the melodic theme in the alto sax is treated with a lush accompaniment reminiscent of the Romantic era, as a healing self-awareness and love becomes more palpable. This is followed by march-like ostinato which symbolizes steely determination amid great and formidable obstacles as the alto sax plays rapidly above the orchestral momentum, until we finally reach the victorious fanfare at the conclusion of the piece. Maya Angelou’s shining poem reminds us (and America) that Black people cannot and will not be held to a position of second-class citizenship—we will still rise.” 

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Steven Banks speaks highly of Childs’s legacy and impact in the world of classical music. “Billy has been a shining light in the music industry in that he is willing to just believe in what he believes, and he's not someone that is going with all of the trends in this direction, in that direction. He has a very strong vision and he sticks to it, which is not common in the music world. He has been a part of the unification of various genres of music in ways that are organic, but also exciting and beautiful. I hope that continues to be a trend, and I hope his music lives on.” 

Billy Childs has emerged as one of the foremost American composers of his era, perhaps the most distinctly American composer since Aaron Copland—like Copland, he has successfully married the musical products of his heritage with the Western neoclassical traditions of the 20th century in a powerful symbiosis of style, range, and dynamism. 

Thus far in his career, Childs has garnered 13 Grammy nominations and five Grammy Awards: two for Best Instrumental Composition (Into the Light from Lyric and The Path Among The Trees from Autumn: In Moving Pictures) and two for Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist (New York Tendaberry from Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro and What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? from To Love Again). In 2006, Childs was awarded a Chamber Music America Composer’s Grant, and in 2009 received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He received the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award in 2013 and the Music Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2015. In 2024, Childs’s Rebirth earned the composer his fifth Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. 

When asked about the legacy he hopes to leave behind, Childs responded: “The way I see it, legacy is the story of humanity. It’s the history. It's what people have done before, what you are doing now, and what will be done after you. We are all part of a long continuum that is humanity. Whether it's art, politics, or science—the legacy of humanity is enormous. We must do our best to contribute to it positively; to perpetuate humanity in a way that ensures our survival, that ensures our harmony with the planet, and ensures our harmony with other people. That's what legacy means to me.” 

Join us for the 2024 Classical Roots concerts on March 1 and 2 to see the DSO premiere of Diaspora performed by Steven Banks live. To learn more and buy tickets, click here 

Classical Roots, March 1-2

Featuring Steven Banks, saxophone