Carlos Simon is a young composer on the rise, with an ear for social justice. His best known work so far, Elegy, is a string quartet in honor of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Next year, a large-scale tribute to George Floyd will premiere with the Minnesota Orchestra, and Simon's new album, Requiem for the Enslaved has just been released. The piece confronts Georgetown University's troubled past and its ownership of enslaved individuals. It follows in the wake of other high profile institutions – including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Virginia – admitting their own past history with slavery.
The story behind Simon's Requiem begins in 1838, in Washington, D.C., where Jesuit leaders of Georgetown College sold 272 enslaved people in order to rescue the financially strapped institution, later renamed Georgetown University. Children, including 2-month-old babies, were sold by Georgetown and loaded on ships to New Orleans where they were dispatched to plantations near Baton Rouge.
Fast-forward to 2019: Georgetown students voted to set up a University reparations fund for the descendants of the enslaved individuals and began to protest the school's troubled history. Another result was the commission for Simon, an assistant professor at Georgetown, to compose a requiem.
He asked the Memphis-based rapper and activist Marco Pavé to write and deliver the texts, which can sound inflammatory, consoling or prayerful, like a church service.
Let us go
Set us free
Lord have mercy on my soul, set us free, make us whole
Lord have mercy on my soul, set us free!
This is not a world created by God, this is a country created by mobs
We were stolen, no time to sob
Simon begins his Requiem with a practice we've heard too often in our own time — saying the names out loud. Over pensive winds, strings and a mournful solo trumpet, the names of the family of a man called Isaac are intoned within a thicket of interlocking voices.
Given Georgetown's Catholic roots, Simon structures his piece after the traditional requiem mass for the dead, but fills it with Black music – hip-hop, jazz and spirituals. In "Light Everlasting (interlude)" Pavé recites a prayer to grant eternal rest and perpetual light while, underneath, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" whispers delicately in the piano.
Many of the major American orchestras have commissioned works from Simon, but for the Requiem he sits at the piano with a small chamber ensemble. A nimble quartet of winds and strings from Boston, called Hub New Music, shifts with the moods of Simon's music. Another key presence is trumpeter MK Zulu, who can summon sorrow or swing in equal measure. In "Shine upon them," he and Simon put a funky spin on "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Requiem for the Enslaved unfolds leisurely. Over a 45-minute span, Simon builds spaces for anger, for calm reflection, and passages of pure joy, like the "Gloria," bustling with hope for a brighter tomorrow — with help from an acrobatic bass clarinet.
Simon's Requiem begins with chains, but ends in freedom – the freedom of heaven. For Pavé, it's a place to look down from and call it like it is, when he says: "Now when you read the word slave in your false history books, you will know the truth. The so-called masters unknowingly elevated the souls of their property while simultaneously building a tomb in hell for themselves."
Last December, Georgetown students accused the university of stalling on its reparations promise. And today, if you go to Georgetown's website, it's not easy to find the history that Carlos Simon has set to music. Music that, in all its beauty and struggle, is a warning against history repeating itself.