Pianist Lara Downes’ recent album “New Day Begun” features music, spanning more than a century, written by Black American composers. The record features Downes’ own performances, accompanied by special guest musicians. She is also the host of NPR Music’s “Amplify with Lara Downes” and she founded the Rising Sun music label, which carries her new recording and others produced in the spirit of lifting up minority voices in music. Downes joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to talk about the new album and the goal of bringing recognition to lesser-known Black composers, for the benefit of future generations of music lovers, scholars, and students.
Downes described how her idea to bring to light certain pieces under the Rising Sun project evolved into a full album recording endeavor. “When I started the Rising Sun project, you’ll laugh, but my initial plan was to record twenty pieces of music that I had identified as needing recordings, needing world premiere recordings. I mean, I can see that spreadsheet in my mind. And of course, my idea just sort of exploded, and exponentially grew, so that spreadsheet has multiple pages now, and there’s so much music,” said Downes. “As it comes, I see patterns and narratives and stories that I want to tell, so it just felt like time to put together a full-length release that could compile a lot of the music that’s come together under this umbrella.”
“This album tells a pretty broad American story,” Downes explained. The record features works by William Grant Still and Florence Price, composers from the early 20th century, as well as contemporary musicians. “It’s such a direct lineage… It’s really important for us to look at this as a tradition, and not as only a collection of independent trailblazers.”
A major objective in bringing this particular group of compositions together, as Downes described, was to invite the listener to draw connections through history, as artists influenced one another over generations. “I guess we’re calling it the ‘concert tradition,’ or the ‘classical tradition’ – how do we define it?” Downes mused. “It’s so clear that its’ been so constrained; the definition has been so narrow…. I think we’ve just done such a disservice to keep this weird, artificial lockdown, this rooting this tradition in a specific time and place and not letting it continue and grow and change in our imagination.”
“New Day Begun” comes with a music video of Downes performing her unique interpretation of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” which can be viewed after purchase of the album from Downes’ website. The video is animated by Keith Henry Brown, and features an artistic rendering of Downes herself, as a child, “and then the background fills up with all kinds of people… just coming together.” The record also brings in Downes’ impressive roster of musician friends for contributions to the performances, including violinist Regina Carter, bass-baritone Devon Tines, and choral ensemble Tonality.
“I want young artists of color to look at a world where they see someone who’s come before, and that person who’s come before doesn’t look like they struggled,” said Downes. “I just want it to be…. not a cause for celebration that someone can have the life that they want to have, and make the music that they want to make.”