Tone Poem Tuesday

Composer Omar Thomas was born in Brooklyn in 1984 to Guyanese parents. He eventually studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and has moved on to a highly praised career as a composer. While he is mainly known as a jazz musician, he has not allowed genre to bind him, as we here in this work, which blends the classical and jazz idioms in a work that sounds at times like a primal scream against a world filled with racist violence and at others like an affirmation of a world that many are trying to fill with grace and forgiveness.

The impetus for Of Our New Day Begun was the attack by a white supremacist on Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, in which nine people were shot dead.

In Thomas’s own words:

“Of Our New Day Begun” was written to honor nine beautiful souls who lost their lives to a callous act of hatred and domestic terrorism on the evening of June 17, 2015 while worshipping in their beloved sanctuary, the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (affectionately referred to as “Mother Emanuel”) in Charleston, South Carolina. My greatest challenge in creating this work was walking the line between reverence for the victims and their families, and honoring my strong, bitter feelings towards both the perpetrator and the segments of our society that continue to create people like him. I realized that the most powerful musical expression I could offer incorporated elements from both sides of that line – embracing my pain and anger while being moved by the displays of grace and forgiveness demonstrated by the victims’ families.

Historically, black Americans have, in great number, turned to the church to find refuge and grounding in the most trying of times. Thus, the musical themes and ideas for “Of Our New Day Begun” are rooted in the Black American church tradition. The piece is anchored by James and John Johnson’s time-honored song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (known endearingly as the “Negro National Anthem”), and peppered with blues harmonies and melodies. Singing, stomping, and clapping are also prominent features of this work, as they have always been a mainstay of black music traditions, and the inclusion of the tambourine in these sections is a direct nod to black worship services.

The work’s ending is particularly fascinating to me. The piece feels like it is coming to a slow, meditative, and even peaceful conclusion…but then something new stirs in the band, starting with a rhythm emerging softly from the percussion, a rhythm that is a blend of march and waltz, and the entire band fills the hall with sound again. It feels like a rejection of the expected peaceful acceptance of the world in favor of a defiant facing of that world head-on.

Here is Of Our New Day Begun, performed by the James Madison University Wind Symphony.

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1 Response to Tone Poem Tuesday

  1. Roger says:

    Sort of related:
    My mom died on Feb 2, 2011. By the time I returned to church in ALB, it was the last Sunday in February, when we always sing Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing.
    We get to the end of verse 2:
    “Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
    Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”
    And I start weeping, which was only the second time I cried after she died.

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