A few weeks back, we shared the first part of a conversation about “Lift Every Voice and Sing” between Dr. Chelle Stearns, violinist and Associate Professor of Theology at The Seattle School, and composer Stephen Michael Newby, Associate Professor of Music at Seattle Pacific University. Today we’re excited to share the second part of that conversation, in which Dr. Stearns asks Dr. Newby more about his approach to music, and how that might intersect with the cultural dynamics unfolding around us. This interview originally appeared on the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music’s blog.
Dr. Newby has composed two large-scale works based on the life and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King; selections from his oratorio, Montage for Martin, were performed at a candlelight service commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC earlier this year.
Chelle: Tell us about your compositional methodology. Did some of the music that you sang in the Detroit public schools influence your choice to become a musician and composer?
Stephen: I think it was not only the public-school system, but it was the church. I also came from a musical family. My mother was a singer. She was supposed to sing opera, with a four-octave range. My mother was beautiful. I remember that I loved my mother. I had a love for music from my parents. They really instilled it in me. I didn’t know I wanted to become a composer, I thought I wanted to become a lawyer. In high school, I remember telling Bill Wiggins, my band teacher, that I was going to become a lawyer, and he looked at me and he laughed, he laughed so hard. He said, “Right! You are going to be a musician. That’s what you are going to be, Newby.” I looked at him and said, “What do you mean?” But I was playing trombone, piano, I was playing in my daddy’s church, and I was picking up saxophone and flute. I was always curious. I couldn’t land on one single instrument. I was fascinated and intrigued by instruments. I was fascinated by creating and making up songs. I was a songwriter before I was a composer. They are connected, but there is a difference. So, I really started in high school, but my serious career as a composer started after I finished my undergraduate degree in music education and flute performance at Madonna University.
Chelle: When did you start to bring the elements of jazz together with your compositional style?
Stephen: It was already there—and that’s what the problem was. I was trying to find a degree program that would allow me to write and to express. The only place I could find was the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I got by master’s degree in jazz composition and arranging. I studied gospel music and gospel music history with Horace Clarence Boyer. I was able to express myself. […] Fredrick Tillis, an African American composer who is still alive today, about 83 or 84, he was a mentor of my teacher, he said “Write, write what you hear. Bring all of that in and write!” The master’s degree in jazz composition and arranging allowed me the freedom to bring my voice into the mix. Nobody slapped my hand and told me that I had to be like that person over there. My teachers allowed me to expand my musical canon by importing my sound and bringing in other influences as I heard them. I studied Western European music during my master’s degree, but that’s when my compositional style really started. Then when I went to the University of Michigan and submitted my portfolio, they wondered, “What in the world do we do with this? We don’t have a Quincy Jones on our faculty to teach guys like this. What are we going to do?” And then, the late Dr. Rae Linda Brown said, “No, you gotta bring these guys in.” It was me and William Banfield at the time, though I arrived a year earlier. They took a chance and Bill Balcombe and Bill Albright, Leslie Basset, Fred Lerdahl, George Wilson, and Michael Daugherty. They worked with us, and voila, I learned how to create this hybrid music. I consider myself an Americanist.
Chelle: What motivated you to turn to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when you were working on the music for your PhD dissertation? It is amazing that a piece that was written for a PhD has had a long life and has been performed a number of times.
Stephen: It is interesting that you ask that question, because I was thinking at the time about longevity, about what really matters. I know for a fact that my faith tied into it. At the time I was writing, words really mattered and I used Christian Scripture. It was important for me to wrestle with the words while I was being creative, so I would write a sacred music. Now, MLK […] I already knew that other African American composers had put their spin on King and reflected on his words and writings. And I made the decision to use his work because these words are important. “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.” “Every man is somebody’s somebody, because they are a child of God.” I got a compilation that Coretta Scott had created from the words of her late husband. And I thought, “If these words are important to Coretta, they’ve gotta be important, so I better pay attention to them.” I followed the woman author who compiled and gathered works from her husband, that was my instinct. The entire composition is entitled, “Let thy mercy be upon us,” which is based on Ps. 33. It was based on this hymn that I wrote. I then created this octatonic scale, a kind of 8 pitched and atonal collection, and created this symphony based on Martin Luther King. The words of King were important. When I thought about what was important and had longevity, I didn’t think about if I wanted to write something that would last. Instead I realized that King’s words were important, they had longevity, so I wanted to take a look at the writings through my compositional process. The words today still resonate. They are apropos today. I will listen to King’s sermons today and think, “How did you know what happened last week in the news?”
Chelle: We are in a moment, again, aren’t we? The questions that are being asked today address the deep places that we have ignored as a country. We think we have healed, we think that we’ve moved beyond, but the truth is that we’ve just looked away. In this moment, we are starting to ask, what else can we do?
Stephen: I think, what else can we do? We have to be together. We have to just be together, to be at the table. [Recently], I was on Orcas Island conducting a gospel workshop with people out there, and the average age of the folks I was working with had to be about 65 or 68. A woman who was from Mississippi said, “You know, Dr. Newby, I didn’t know how to deal with the Jim Crow laws at the time and I still feel guilty because I didn’t know what to do.” And I thought to myself, “Wow! Just to confess that, just to say that, to release that is healing.” It is part of the story. And I had never heard an older white woman tell me that before. I had told her that my mother was from Mississippi and she’s all, “Oh you’re from Mississippi, what part of Mississippi?” And that is how the conversation got started. There was a common place of geography. So when I’m working with this population that has this history with blacks, that is an opportunity to restore, reconcile, redeem. There are a lot of “R” words going on here. To remember, to react, to respond, and to make something positive. Our singing together helps us to remember. […] It helps us to figure out how to press forward.
Chelle: In trauma studies, both personal and cultural trauma, theorists talk about how there is explicit memory — what we think of a story — and then there is implicit memory — which is emotional and bodily memory. This is why I think we need to turn to the arts, especially music, because they can excavate and shape this emotional memory, they excavate the places that are hidden within us. The arts then have the capacity to realign us with one another, especially when we sing together.
Stephen: Yes, it does. […] I remember my mother, after they shot Martin Luther King. My mother was standing there in front of the ironing board, ironing my father’s shirts. I said, “Mama, what’s wrong, what’s wrong?” She said, “They killed him, they killed him. They killed him.” And I knew who it was, she didn’t say the name, but I knew. I remember because later I wanted to go outside and play and she said, “You can’t go outside, there are tanks on the streets. You can’t go outside, baby, I’m sorry.” I remember some things that my mother said, there is a lot from my childhood that is blocked, I can’t remember it, because I think it was just so devastating, so traumatic.
Chelle: Can you talk a little about the upcoming performances of your work?
Stephen: What’s being performed are excerpts from my Oratorio on Dr. Martin Luther King, Montage for Martin. Inspired by the late Ja Jahanness, the genius behind the concept for Montage for Martin.
Chelle: What brings you to these words, what brings you back to this inspiration?
Stephen: It’s just truth. His words need to be articulated again and again. Look, Martin was a prophet, a 20th century prophet. Billy Graham was a 20th century evangelist. The sovereign Lord drops people into humanity that do certain things for a certain time. We know that the words of King are rich, they are right. Like many prophets and prophetesses, they are God’s mouthpiece. King knew he was a vessel, he wasn’t the end of it. That’s why he said, “I’m not afraid to die. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned with that right now.” He was so in the moment. It’s that type of passion and focus that inspires all of us, to be present and know what it means to have hope and to live out justice.
Chelle: James Cone turns to the spirituals and the blues, and he also turns to the narrative of the life of King as, what I would call, theological text. By returning to King’s words over and over you are, in essence, doing the same thing through your music.
Stephen: Absolutely. There’s Christian Scripture […] there is theological text. When I look at the words of King, as a composer, thinking back at what I’ve done in the past, what you are hearing is a hermeneutical artistic task. I’m interpreting what he said. And so, to exegete the words of King, and to be enlivened with it. To try to make sense of this idea of what is at stake if we do not pay attention to these words today. I think that is why I keep returning to that text.
Chelle: Any last words?
Stephen: Let’s pay attention to what we are singing and to what happens when we don’t sing together.