Ask Your Mama!: Five Questions for Laura Karpman

Ask Your Mama!: Five Questions for Laura Karpman

Ask Your Mama! will premiere at Carnegie Hall on March 16 as part of the Honor! Festival, a celebration of the African American cultural legacy curated by Jessye Norman. We saw the trailer and heard some rumors about a tone row, and just had to ask the work’s composer, Laura Karpman, a few questions.

Written By

Molly Sheridan

Ask Your Mama! will premiere at Carnegie Hall on March 16 as part of the Honor! Festival, a celebration of the African American cultural legacy curated by Jessye Norman. We saw the trailer (at right) and heard some rumors about a tone row, and just had to ask the work’s composer, Laura Karpman, a few questions.


Ask Your Mama takes as its starting place the 12-part poem of the same name by Langston Hughes. The original text is actually “scored” in a fashion: Hughes made notes about cues throughout that reference music drawn from all sorts of genres–everything from gospel to progressive jazz. How did you approach the task at hand with this information already on the table? How were you best able to move inside what had already been laid out?

Before I started writing the music for Ask Your Mama, I put together what I called Hughes’ playlist—two CD’s full of his musical references which encompassed a huge stylistic range. This playlist is comprised of both the relatively specific musical references within the text and personal selections, many of which Jessye Norman and I made together, that fit Hughes’ more general suggestions. I also managed to locate an out-of-print recording of Hughes reading Ask Your Mama in that wonderful voice of his—warm, wry, poignant. These were my essential tools. This playlist became the basis of the archival sounds, triggered as samples, which come from two onstage laptops.

Hughes, as you mentioned, was very specific as to how he wanted the music to sound, often quite specifically “orchestrating” the poem and asking for very specific musical references. I followed his instructions quite directly, using a guira when he asked for it, and finding ways to make rapid stylistic changes happen. Here, being a film composer really helped, and I always found, even as a concert composer, that working within strict parameters was liberating.

For example, the first “tune” from Hughes’s playlist is the German lieder he requests along the text “YET LEONTYNE’S UNPACKING.” He later instructs, “Delicate lieder on piano continues.” When we were deciding which lieder to use, Miss Norman suggested that we find the places where her repertoire and Leontyne Price’s repertoire intersected. Out of this research, I chose Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” perfect because its pianistic opening is indeed so delicate and yet can quite easily be manipulated to sound like cool-bop. I asked Miss Norman to “scat” this piano part. I recorded her, and this sample infiltrates the work. This way of working illustrates the way that I often approached executing Hughes’s often seemingly impossible requests, while maintaining his subversive dialogue about art, race, culture, and music.

One of the great challenges of setting the text was how often Hughes calls for a TACIT. Note, “tacit” is a different spelling from the “tacet” we use in music, meaning, “do not play.” “Tacit,” according to Webster’s, means “implied or indicated (as by an act or by silence) but not actually expressed.” Very early on I developed what I affectionately call “monster rules” for the instruction of tacit. The first treatment is the obvious one. The music simply stops. This happens several times in the first movement/mood, “Cultural Exchange,” and gives a sense of a winding up, a beginning, perhaps not a smooth one. The text itself sputters out:


It’s like a train leaving the station, or the wheel of time beginning to turn. Here, though, it is often rudely interrupted. As soon as something gets going, it must stop. It must hesitate, as does the lyric of “The Hesitation Blues”: “Can I get it now, or must I wait?”

My second tacit rule is to speak or sing text against un-pitched rhythm. The third is to speak or sing text without musical accompaniment.

A composer of diverse work for concert halls, theater, film, and television, you came to this project with experience working in all types of styles and situations. In what ways have you drawn on that experience as you created and produced this work?

I grew up listening to jazz and classical music, as well as a host of other sounds. My mother would alternate well-worn LP’s of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Miles Davis, and Wes Montgomery, with occasional flamenco and Hebrew folk songs. When I studied at Juilliard with Milton Babbitt by day, I would moonlight as a scat singer and pianist in jazz clubs by night. As a film composer, I am often asked to be versatile—sometimes even gymnastic—in musical thought. In Ask Your Mama, I saw the possibility of working with the most brilliant, erudite “director,” Langston Hughes.

In 2003, I wanted to make use of some Neo-noir music that I had composed for CBS, which had been deemed “too out there” for that particular project. I had been experimenting with a fusion of hip-hop, jazz, and chamber music. I now wanted to recontextualize this music and set a text for two friends of mine, a spoken word artist and a baritone. These pieces turned out to be studies for Ask Your Mama.

I heard that you did use a tone row in this piece. A nod to your one-time teacher, Milton Babbitt?

As a lifetime student of Milton Babbitt, his influence is a profound part of my musical life. Any good student of Milton Babbitt could not set a poem called 12 Moods for Jazz and not embrace his 12-tone techniques! In designing Ask Your Mama, I studied the music of Langston’s playlist, the music the poet referenced throughout the poem, and derived core motivic cells from these primary sources. I then created an all-combinatorial tone row and a vertical array, as Babbitt describes in his iconic article, “Since Schoenberg.” When I was a student studying with Babbitt, he said something which has stuck with me all of these years—he said that the music he writes is exactly as he wants his music to sound. He went on to say that if he wanted his music to sound like Renaissance counterpoint, it could within this system of composition. My “style” of composition is now, and has always been, very different from Milton’s. But his techniques have always pushed me to make more interesting choices within my own stylistic parameters.

Specifically for Ask Your Mama, I highlighted one of the references for each movement/mood, and ordered pitches within the array that I designated for each mood, based on this reference. For example, if the “mood” calls for the “Hesitation Blues”, I order the pitches within the array to reflect the order of the pitches within the tune. Using this system gives me both the freedom I need to bring Langston’s musical influences to the foreground, while adhering to a basic underlying compositional structure that holds true throughout the work.

Soprano Jessye Norman, composer Laura Karpman and conductor George Manahan.

There’s also quite a bit of new technology integrated into this work. How will this aspect play out? What does it add?

Actually, we are using a very simple and existing program—Ableton Live, originally designed for DJ’s spinning and sampling from pre-existing music. In 2005 I was commissioned by actor/singer Tonya Pinkins to create arrangements of Harold Arlen songs for a tribute to his music at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Earlier, I referred to a set of pieces I composed called The Melting Pot, works that all fused different kinds of jazz with sampling of archival musical and political samples. I wanted to be able to integrate this same approach with a live band at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

As a result of my film career, I have long enjoyed the freedom to create and manipulate recorded sounds within ProTools and Digital Performer. I wanted to bring the control of the recording studio into the vulnerability of the live performance. So I called on composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, whom I knew had worked extensively in multimedia. She immediately suggested that I try Ableton Live, an instrument that I could program to control through any midi or USB-based interface. Nora had both the skills to program Ableton and the musicality to make decisions about musical ways to trigger these samples. Notating them also became an interesting process, which we both tackled head on.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center concert was a success. I was able to groove on samples of “That Old Black Magic” and “Push de Button” live with the band, and it was a real moment of coming together of my background as a jazz musician, a concert composer, and a film composer with recording chops.

I wrote a number of pieces after 2005 that incorporated this technology, including The Transitive Property of Equality that Marin Alsop conducted at The Cabrillo Music Festival. All of this work culminated in Ask Your Mama, which undoubtedly integrates sampling in the most profound way. I think in many ways, the technology we live with today allowed me to musically interpret the poem as Hughes saw it—a multiplicity and simultaneity of American voices from many different eras.

Sampling and re-contextualizing snippets of the work of others is something often attributed to hip-hop, but I believe Hughes heard sound this way, as did Charles Ives before him, and these kinds of musical simultaneities are so much a part of an American way of hearing. As I have mentioned, there are two laptops loaded with Abelton in Ask Your Mama. I have devoted one laptop to Hughes’ voice—speaking, singing, raw and processed. The other laptop triggers other sampled sounds, most of them from the playlist—from Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson, to Bo Diddley and Cab Calloway. I have also prerecorded Miss Norman at her home, singing, scatting, forming her own chorus at times.

The Honor! Festival at Carnegie Hall is a celebration of the African American cultural legacy, but this production integrates the talents and perspectives of artists of many backgrounds. What sorts of behind-the-scenes dialogue took place surrounding issues of race and identity as you crafted the piece?

Really, there were so many discussions. Early on, Miss Norman and I said we wanted this piece to be a conversation about race through music. I believe that this text, and the conversations it provokes, are so essential to being an American. And this kind of honest discussion is the height of patriotism. Before I began composing I also met with Arnold Rampersad, Langston Hughes’s biographer, and we discussed the many complex meanings of the poem, and he shared with me that Langston collaborated with many composers of all backgrounds. I also had a wonderful and enlightening e-mail correspondence with Derrick Bell, and we discussed many of the issues in the poem.

There have been dozens of people involved in Ask Your Mama, and one of the most important parts of this project for me has been the complex and impassioned conversations that have been triggered by the poem, in creating art out of words like, “THEY ASKED ME IF MY BLACKNESS/WOULD IT RUB OFF?/I SAID. ASK YOUR MAMA.” Derrick wrote me an important email that has held true throughout the process of developing Mama: “Giving new life to Hughes Ask Your Mama is an endeavor of loving challenge. Whatever the result, I suspect that the greatest satisfaction will come from the endeavor itself.”