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Briefly Noted: Carlos Simon Requiem

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Carlos Simon, Requiem for the Enslaved, Marco Pavé, MK Zulu, Hub New Music, Carlos Simon

(released on June 17, 2022)
Decca 00028948529421 | 44'53"
In 1838, the Jesuit priests in charge of what was then Georgetown College paid off that institution's debts. The money came from the sale of 272 enslaved persons, including children as young as two months old, who were sent on ships to plantations in Louisiana. In 2016, Georgetown University undertook a reckoning with this terrible event in its past. In an attempt to right a historical wrong, the university offered a free college education to all verified descendants of these enslaved people. Georgetown University was not the only Jesuit or Catholic institution in the area, founded before slavery was made illegal, to revisit this sordid part of their past, including Gonzaga College High School and Georgetown Visitation Convent.

As part of its plans aiming at restitution, Georgetown University commissioned this Requiem for the Enslaved from rising American composer Carlos Simon. It is one of many such new works being commissioned and premiered in the last few years, in the wake of widespread anti-racism protests across the country, including Damien Geter's An African American Requiem and Simon's own An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave. In this work, alternately reflective and militantly angry, Simon interweaves the structure and texts of the Catholic Requiem Mass with new texts by Memphis-based rapper Marco Pavé.

From the first movement, Simon and Pavé focus on the enslaved people sold "down the river" (that familiar saying has chilling origins), as their names are intoned over and over. Also at the beginning, a soft flute introduces the tune of "In paradisum," the Gregorian chant traditionally sung at the end of the Requiem Mass, to accompany the body of the deceased to the place of burial. MK Zulu's trumpet riffs on this ancient tune with bends and blue-note inflections, and through other movements the chant becomes a sort of motto for the whole piece. Later other melodies are introduced, including the hymn "Oh when the saints go marching in," which shares the same opening motif as the chant (do-mi-fa-sol), something that had never occurred to me before.

Simon mans the piano himself, with Hub New Music, a flute-clarinet-violin-cello quartet from Boston. Yet more tunes are woven into the tapestry, including the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in the movement "Light everlasting interlude." Pop riffs pierce the aura of solemnity at times, including the pulsing piano chords in "Interlude (Isaac ran away)," reminiscent of the Foreigner song "Cold as Ice," at least to my ears. The disc, on the short side in terms of timing, is rounded out with alternate versions of three movements, for piano and for chamber ensemble alone.

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