Do you want to watch, listen to, and learn about, the great musical achievements of the African diaspora?
Then do yourself the favor of livestreaming classical pianist and music sociologist Joshua A. Thompson’s debut Palladium performance, “Black Keys: The Evolution of the Black Classical Arts,” presented by the Center for Performing Arts series, “Live at the Center,” and free to register.
The performance was on Wednesday, June 2.
You will join Thompson, vocalist AshLee “PsyWrn Simone” Baskin and dancer Vae Savage, for a performance of “musical storytelling,” that explores an evolution from, in his words “cosmic nothingness before the stardust,” to the creation of, “prose, poetry, and the unique cultural aesthetic of a people.” While the scope of his vision is expansive, the show is rooted in a desire to share, inform, and delight.
Thompson, born and raised in Indianapolis, extends the same passion and ambition in his music to his roles in the community. He has acted as the program director for the Damien Center, worked with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, and served as the Eskenazi Health Performer in Residence in 2019. His first artistic production, “Village Voices: Notes from the Griot,” debuted at Newfields in 2018. All that time, whether in a high school classroom, university lecture, or on the TedxIndianapolis stage, Thompson engages the community as an advocate for accessible educational resources and promotes the gift and history of classical music.
Suffice to say, you are in good hands as you follow Thompson navigating classical Black composers spanning the 17th century to the 1960s. You will learn from a man who believes he has a responsibility to the Indianapolis community to foster an appreciation for classical music and the arts and executes this service with passion, enthusiasm, and humility. You will find your own thrill in music that is likely new to you, and you will share in the excitement of discovery.
Anticipating the event, Thompson says there are just a few things left to do. “Show up, show out, and have fun,” he says. You’d be wise to do the same.
In response to NUVO’s request for a deeper insight into the program, Thompson was more than generous.
To register, visit thecenterpresents.org
NICHOLAS READING: What was the genesis of the program, “Black Keys?” Where were you when the notion for the performance first struck you?
JOSHUA A. THOMPSON: To answer that question most accurately, you really have to go back to 2017 when I was putting together my first artistic production, “Village Voices: Notes from the Griot.” The year prior, I spent a lot of my free time researching and obtaining biographies and music scores from composers of African descent. I had all this information and music but was really racking my brain with how to present it in a manner that would be more substantial and impactful than a ‘stock-standard’ recital. The premier of “Villages Voices” in 2018 allowed me and several other prominent Black artists in our community to present beautiful stories and tableaus about our ancestral roots in music, dance, visual art, poetry and spoken word. I’ve never really deviated from that approach as I add to my repertoire from a vast catalogue of exceptional composers from the African diaspora and all of my subsequent work is just a reflection of the expanding stories I can tell as my repertoire and ability to play them increases.
In 2019 I was named the Eskenazi Health Performer in Residence and for the entire year, I would amass local artists to help me amplify my mission in programing masterworks by composers of African descent and had multiple opportunities to come up with catchy/witty titles, programs, and themes to spark that spirit of inquiry with audiences. “Black Keys” is no exception. I performed this set at the 2020 Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Ind. and felt that the music and the narrative would be aptly suited for the Palladium stage.
READING: You’ve said that the performance will be like musical storytelling. What is the nature of the story? Besides the passage through time with compositions from Chevalier de St. Georges to Duke Ellington, what themes do you see dominant in the narrative?
THOMPSON: Black Keys is an origin story. While it is very much my interpretation of the origin and evolution of the Black aesthetic, it’s also, at its core, the origin story of life and humanity as we know it on Earth. The origins of us all starts with cosmic nothingness before the stardust that makes the building blocks of life conspire together over eons to spawn creation, single celled organisms, people, prose, poetry, and the unique cultural aesthetic of a people. I rely very heavily on William Grant Still’s Seven Traceries Piano Suite to help convey that cosmic message. As the program develops, the music is a wonderful aide in tracing the trajectory of life on earth, the social systems we’ve constructed because of it, and perhaps, hopeful and salient messages we may be more apt to adopt and ascribe to as our collective journey literally plays out on eighty-eight keys.
READING: The pieces you are presenting span 17th century to contemporary composers. What changes can you trace in music and what elements remain constant?
THOMPSON: The conventional definition of classical music asserts that it is a uniquely Western, if not European, art form and set of criteria. While the influence and impact of European and Western societies is undeniable in classical music, they are not the summation or authority on it by any means. There are cultures and societies that predate the Western tradition in general, and in classical music specifically. To that end, yes, you will hear the classical traditions of complex harmonies, counterpoint, structure, and form but the composers highlighted on this program display their evolutionary prowess in compositional mastery by taking distinctive art forms outside of classical music and incorporating them into an already well established (and far too often, exclusionary) art form. Specific to the African/African-American diaspora, you’ll hear folk tunes, spirituals, field songs, echoes of ragtime and jazz, and messages from ‘The Last Poets’ of the 1960s and 70s. All of this is mashed up expertly with the classical, romantic, and contemporary periods of this diverse and expansive genre.
READING: What is unique about the compositions and composers that you present, both from a musical perspective and a sociological and cultural perspective?
THOMPSON: In my opinion, any individual who composes and creates music for the listening or playing pleasure of others is valid, justified, and unique in their own right. That is the point of composition. People with this skill want and need to be heard, understood, and valued. This concept truly transcends and equalizes all of us. Sounds a bit idealistic but artists often have one foot in reality and another in the clouds somewhere. Generally speaking, there is nothing unique here. Sociologically, these composers are doing the same in spite of cruel social systems that at one point in time, made it illegal and punishable by death to read, write, and compose, let alone make a living from it. For me, it’s the personal stories of these composers that is most fascinating to me. Some are writing to be a reflection of the times in which they live while others are writing to escape the social conditions they found themselves in. This is why I have so much fun creating short programs because the stories, themes, and methods of conveying thought and aspiration(s) are quite literally, infinite.
READING: What piece from the performance is closest to you? What are you most excited for the audience to hear and experience?
THOMPSON: I identify most with the very first piece of the program, “Out of the Silence” by William Grant Still. Conceptionally, it starts off the program perfectly but personally, it truly describes and explains my own life and journey as a performing artist, scholar, and regular person. I have always loved classical music and performing but, like many other people, I refrained from ‘putting myself out there’ (especially in this genre) because I was so afraid of not being good enough or received with understanding. As a young pianist and trumpet player, I muted myself for decades out of that fear. What I discovered many years ago was that stifled potential becomes poison if you don’t do something with it. The reality is very simple: people will either love, hate, or feel indifferent to whatever it is I do. Those three reactions I can handle. Knowing that, there’s nothing left to be afraid of so, much like the piece that starts from nothing, all it takes is a moment and a spark in that moment to serve as a catalyst for my personal universe of performing and learning opportunities.
That’s pretty much my life experience in a nutshell. What excites me most for the audience to hear is all of it. It’s highly likely that the majority of the audience will have never heard these pieces before. Experiencing anything for the first time is almost always a thrill. I hope people are eager to actively listen and experience classical music either for the first time or differently this time.
READING: You are obviously a performer, but you are also active in the community as an agent of service and education. How does your musical life and service life run parallel to each other? How and when do they intersect? Which passion feeds the other?
THOMPSON: Well, I firmly believe that when teaching or performing, myself and others who do the same, are very much providing a unit of service. The Indianapolis community has played and continues to play the biggest role in the trajectory of my career. They put me on the map. So far, they’ve kept me there, so I feel a strong duty and charge to represent and advocate for them every chance I get. For better or for worse, there isn’t much separation between my personal life and my life’s work that is so deeply rooted in my community. I was born and raised here and whether I’m teaching, performing, or simply existing, I am always a member of a broader community and in that role, I refuse to be center stage. There is not a single piece of music I can play, high school class I can teach, or university lecture I can give that will serve as a silver bullet for all of society’s past and present problems. I don’t think that’s the purpose of what I’m doing. However, I am and can be one of many community representatives who uses the skills and passions I have towards that purpose. Music—classical music, just happens to be the tool, language, and vehicle I’ve found that helps me do that most effectively.
READING: What is Joshua Thompson’s story? What do your best days look like? What will be running through your head before the show on Wednesday?
THOMPSON: You know, I am asking myself that question a lot lately. Like many others locally, nationally, and globally, 2020 laid at my doorstep several personal and professional challenges and disruptions to be met head-on and I am working through those issues the best I can. I am at a place in my life where I find myself looking two decades back (to identify and learn from the lessons of my past) while looking about two decades ahead to figure out how best to traverse whatever the future holds. I know just enough about what I’m doing to be inspiring and maybe a little dangerous. Every day is chock full of research, practice, listening tours, strategizing, conceptualizing, and sometimes it’s difficult to find ‘Joshua’ in all of it but I’m in there somewhere so I’m grateful I haven’t lost my personal/private self completely.
I live my "best day" everyday even when it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve always wanted to be a full-time musician who works on his own schedule and by his own terms. I’m doing that and enjoying it. It’s hard work, I’m a tough boss and as trite as it may sound, I am sincerely living the life I feel I was placed on this earth to live. As for what will be running through my head before and during my show on Wednesday: Show up, show out, and have fun. What will be will be.