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A Tender Bridge

October 22, 2018

Composer Aaron Robinson

In August I was excited to read in the Maine Sunday Telegram about the work Maine composer Aaron Robinson was doing with artist Ashley Bryan. Aaron happens to be a former student of mine so I reached out to Aaron to learn more.

Ashley Bryan

Aaron Robinson collaborated with Ashley on an African-American requiem for chamber orchestra, choir and spoken voice.

He’s calling it “A Tender Bridge: An African American Requiem,” based on a Bryan quote: “I always confuse the past and the future, the way I mix up death and life – they are connected only by a tender bridge. This is why stories are at the heart of civilization.”

Thank you to Aaron for taking on this amazing work and for sharing the story. Truly a gift to the Maine Arts Education blog readers!
AARON’S OWN WORDS
Back to 1993 – starting out

Aaron Robinson

In 1993, when I was 22 years old, I began composing what most composers write in later life: a Requiem. My initial want was to incorporate the styles and idioms of the music I had become synonymous with: gospel, early jazz, spirituals, etc. I even took serious thought in writing the very first “Ragtime Requiem”. It seems foolish to say those two words together today because I was far too inexperienced to take on such an endeavor. So I opted to focus on incorporating the music of America; and by 1997 I had completed what is known today as “An American Requiem”. However, as my career in African-American music grew over the decades, the thought never left me to create a musical work that utilized these elements.

Sara Bloom’s vision
In February 2017, I was approached by Sara Bloom, with an idea she had been culminating for many years to “create a musical work for the great poet-painter-reteller of African tales, Ashley Bryan.” In early stages of discussion, the idea was first presented as a large work that involved Ashley Bryan with orchestra, adult and children choruses and soloists. What would evolve over the next few months from that initial seed of invitation was a monumental 90-minute work for full symphony orchestra, chorus, soloists, jazz ensemble (drum set, upright bass, B3-Hammond organ and jazz piano), children’s choir and narrators based on the Requiem mass in the African-American tradition drawing upon the writings of Ashley Bryan with biblical scriptures chosen by the author himself; along with specially selected poetry by African-American poets such as Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes.

Aaron, Ashley, Sara

Sara Bloom has served as consortium builder and coordinator; tirelessly assembling orchestras across the country to join the Bryan/Robinson Consortium. This allows special musical organizations that have joined the consortium the exclusive right to perform A TENDER BRIDGE between now and 2021 and call it a “premiere” within their cities. All praise and credit goes to Sara for her inspired idea for this incredible work featuring Ashley Bryan. Without her, none of this would have happened. Furthermore, she has given me the opportunity to fulfill a dream that has stayed with me for nearly 25 years.

Creative Portland is serving as fiscal sponsor for the consortium. They are absolutely fantastic and a tremendous asset to the state of Maine, sponsoring unique and specialized projects through the Arts.
Aaron in the world of Ashley Bryan
For months on end I did nothing but emerge myself into the world of Ashley Bryan while writing the Requiem: his writings, his art, his image (video and audio), and of course – in person. I had collected several passages from his poetry and prose that would serve as either narration or spoken accompaniment; but I still needed that unique Ashley Bryan touch.
The work is entitled A TENDER BRIDGE, taken from one of Ashley Bryan’s favorite quotes by Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor: “Je confonds présent et passé Comme je mêle la Mort et la Vie – un pont de douceurs les relie.” (I always confuse the present and the past. I mix Life and Death. A tender bridge relinks them.) But Ashley puts a special touch all his own in re-quoting: “I always confuse the past and the future, the way I mix up death and life – they are connected only by a tender bridge. This is why stories are at the heart of civilization.”
This is how Ashley and I worked together on this piece: I had gathered the 13 movements of the Requiem mass text, translated the Latin into English, and brought them to Ashley at his home on Little Cranberry Island. Although, I had already chosen text from his writing through the numerous books he has published, including his autobiography, “Words to My Life Song,” I wanted to have his personal touch within the work.
When I first sat down with Ashley at his table to review the movements of the mass with him, surrounded by endless toys from around the world hanging overhead, on the walls, shelves … everything, I explained the latin text and its translation and then asked what piece of writing might be appropriate to accompany each section. To watch him think, remember, create, formulate and muse into being a particular poem, scripture or piece of prose was absolutely astounding. At times he would silently get up from his chair and go to one of the many bookcases in his home and search for a book in a seas of books, bring it back to the table, thumb through its pages, and find just the right poem by an African-American poet that perfectly encompassed the message of the mass text. He is as fluent in French as he is English and at times would recite Rilke, and then in the next breath recall lengthy passages of biblical verse. Childhood recitations from 85 years ago were recalled as easily as that morning’s breakfast items. It was incredible.
Two components in the music
The music itself has two key components that are crucial to its composition. The first being that it draws heavily upon the African-American heritage. The idioms and genres found within A TENDER BRIDGE incorporate the entire musical history of the African-American: African chant, Negro and Gospel spirituals, southern church hymns, ragtime and early jazz, contemporary jazz and Gospel, interpolated with classical symphonic and choral music.
In the movement “Sanctus,” which is usually a joyful movement celebrating the text: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and Earth are full of thy Glory! Hosanna in the highest!”, I set the text as a spirited ragtime Two-Step. Also, most Requiems end with an angelic “In Paradisum” (May the angels lead you into paradise, may you have eternal rest), symbolizing a peaceful, quiet transition from life to death into Paradise. However, what many people do not realize is that: “In Paradisum” served as the inspiration for “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which share the same first four notes, is similar in textual meaning, and is used during the funeral procession from the church to the cemetery.
In the African-American culture, death is not an ending but a bridge to the afterlife; which should be celebrated here on earth for the departed: not mourned. So I used James Quinn, S.J.’s translation: “May Flights of Angels Lead You On Your Way” and wrote a foot-stomping, hand-clapping Gospel Spiritual that will have everyone who is singing, performing and listening on their feet in celebration.
The second key component is that it mirrors the life and works of Ashley Bryan through music. For instance, the musical interlude that precedes the “Kyrie” depicts Ashley combing the beach on Little Cranberry Island for shells, glass and various objects for his puppets and stain glass windows. The “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) draws upon Ashley’s days as a stevedore in the battle of Normandy; while the “Libera Me” (Deliver Me) evokes the jazz sounds and rhythms of his birth place: Harlem.
Storyteller
But I did not want this requiem to simply be a musical composition. I also wanted to integrate the storytelling aspect into the work since Ashley Bryan is a storyteller; and what is life – but a story?
One of the first lines we hear Ashley say in A TENDER BRIDGE is his own: “BEAT THE STORY DRUM! PUM! PUM! TELL US A BIG STORY!” – that is how the narrative element of the work begins.
What first appealed to me with Ashley Bryan’s writing was the same message that I kept finding throughout my journey in music over the past 3 decades: universality – bridging the gap; celebrating one’s culture by inviting all to partake equally.
Growing up in the backwoods of Maine, ignorant to the vast diversities of race, creed and color, the only education I experienced came from the music I listened to as a self-taught musician. When I grew older, I realized the barriers that were placed around most of this music were man-made; yet the message behind the music was universal – it had no barriers.
There is nothing more universal than life, death and love: which is what A TENDER BRIDGE is all about. The story tells the journey of a single man – the narrator / caller – who, when we first meet him, represents humankind: each of us. As the story unfolds, we realize the narrator is actually Christ, as we are all Children of God. There is a moment following the celebratory movement “Sanctus” when life is joyful and jubilant, the “valley” occurs, and the narrator feels he is abandoned by God. He says, “And so it begins … Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” We all have these “cups” in life; and ask God to take it from us.
The work then continues with a famous Langston Hughes poem: “At the Feet o’ Jesus” that the narrator sings A Cappella, before breaking off with emotion and saying: “Lord? … Lord?” but does not receive an answer. The choir then sings “Communion” while the voice of Ashley Bryan reads the familiar scripture, “The Lord took bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it …”
Another character in A TENDER BRIDGE is a single child. The child is first seen as being frightened by a storm. She portrays innocence – what we are born with, what we lose, and what is found again – and in the end: takes us to paradise. It is the child that calms and leads the narrator into Paradise, with the words spoken by Ashley: “And a child shall lead them.”
The work itself is similar to the format of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS – in that there are characters that take the form and role of storytellers, participants and soloists. They are representational of us all as we travel through life to the other side via the movements found within the liturgical mass. Ashley’s voice – which we hear but we never see him – represents the answers to our questions, gives us comfort, shows us guidance, and unconditional love – but more importantly, he is the voice of God.
Ashley’s voice
I went to Ashley’s home and recorded him speaking the lines for A TENDER BRIDGE. These audio recordings will be used in each premiere and performance of the work. There are several familiar Ashley Bryan lines that are incorporated into the work: “Let us walk together, Children!” and the final line of the Requiem: “There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land!”
I visited Ashley in July 2018 to play the finished work for him on his piano at his home. While I played, he read his own words. It was incredibly moving for me; and one of the most rewarding performances in music that I have ever taken part in. After performing the movement “What then shall I say? Poor child that I am?,” Ashley said, “That’s so beautiful, I could cry.” There were many tears, I can tell you.
Interesting Story: I wrote the music for the section “Communion” as an A Cappella choral setting; but wasn’t entirely happy with it. I thought it “lacked something”. Later I chose to place the well known African American spiritual “Let Us Break Bread Together” as a soprano descant above the choir. Several months later, long after A Tender Bridge was complete, while watching the film “I Know A Man … Ashley Bryan” by Richard Kane at Mayo Street Arts Center – there was a scene where Ashley Bryan was playing the piano in his home several years prior … and what hymn was he playing? “Let Us Break Bread Together”. That is the magic of Ashley Bryan.
History
There has never been an African-American Requiem. Duke Ellington wrote 3 sacred concerts for The Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (but he specifically made sure not to write a liturgical mass) and Quincy Jones wrote a Black Requiem but it was actually an oratorio written for Ray Charles depicting the life and the African American from the slave ships to the Watts Riots. Jazz has been incorporated into the requiem mass: Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral was the first, Karl Jenkins, Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc.
A moment in time made clear
In working with Ashley and having the privilege of collaborating with him on a creative level, I have come to realize that I have been witness to someone who has come close to what is called: “Nirvana.” Perfect peace and happiness here on earth, like Heaven. There is an endless flow of people, an exodus of admirers, followers, who travel to Little Cranberry just to have a moment with Ashley, to see his artwork, to hear his voice, to take something away with them – a small piece of Ashley – that they will cherish and never forget.
He is one of the few people that I have met in this lifetime that when you are with him, you feel as though you are the only one who exists. Nothing is fake, nothing is forced; everything is genuine, real and unconditional. The outside world ends at the dock by the water and you are transported for a brief moment into a realm of absolute purity, understanding, honesty, generosity, caring, acceptance and love. He is still very much a child at heart; and has remained child-like with the purest of qualities. You feel as though he believes in you without ever having said a word to that effect. Like the birds in his stories, you feel as though you could fly home across the water … who needs a boat?
There is a musical called “Once On This Island” based on the story “The Peasant Girl” by Rosa Guy. It is one of my favorite musicals of all time. The last lines sung within the play are: “Life is why: We tell the story. Pain is why: We tell the story. Love is why: We tell the story. Grief is why: We tell the story. Hope is why: We tell the story. Faith is why: We tell the story. YOU are why …”
Life, pain, love, grief, hope and faith can all be found within A TENDER BRIDGE; and Ashley Bryan is why I tell the story.
The future for A TENDER BRIDGE
From the beginning, Sara Bloom has envisioned a premiere in Maine – with Maine soloists and performers. Since Ashley Bryan has called Maine his home since retiring to Islesford in the 1980s, and Sara has been friends with Ashley for as many years, she thought it only appropriate that a premiere should take place here.
As someone who can trace his lineage back 12-generations, born in Camden, and recognized as an American composer from Maine, it is my hope – and the hope of all those who are involved with this project – that this will take place here, as well.

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