Composition and premiere: Carlos Simon wrote Motherboxx Connection originally as the first part of his four-movement Tales: A Folklore Symphony, a work commissioned by the Sphinx Organization for its 25th anniversary and by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, which gave the premiere January 26, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Kenneth Kiesler conducting. The present version of Motherboxx was revised as a standalone work; tonight’s is the first performance of this version of the piece.
For all the eclectic variety of Carlos Simon’s musical career, each one of his musical activities—teaching, arranging, performing as a keyboardist—is centered on composing: “The way I think about things, I’m a composer first,” he says. Currently composer in residence of the Kennedy Center in Washington, he was music director and keyboardist for Broadway star Jennifer Holliday (including performances with the Boston Pops and Keith Lockhart) and has toured with the singer and hip-hop pioneer Angela Stone. Simon was a Fellow of Sundance Institute in 2018. In 2020 he became an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where his courses include music theory and the study of sound and music for film.
Simon was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a pastor. He learned to play piano by ear at his parents’ urging to provide music for services. Black Gospel music was the core of his musical experience. Simon’s introduction to classical music came through movies and through his grandmother’s enthusiasm; when he was about 10, she bought him a “masterpieces of classical music” CD that included the famous second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. By high school Simon took for granted he would be a classical pianist and composer. He studied piano and composition at Georgia State University and Morehouse College before earning his doctorate in composition from the University of Michigan, where his teachers included Michael Daugherty and Evan Chambers.
Simon’s willingness to explore all the tools at his disposal also began in high school with making electronic music and sounds via computer. It was only later that he realized how useful such “commercial” tools and sounds could be in his own music, especially in such genre-stacking projects as his 2018 concept album My Ancestor’s Gift, which blends his pop, gospel, classical, and experimental experiences into a rich musical narrative. He has written for Washington National Opera, the Reno Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, the University of Michigan Symphony Band, and many others. He received the Sphinx Medal of Excellence from the Sphinx Organization, which nurtures and develops the careers of Black and Latino classical musicians. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons performed his Fate Now Conquers in the 2020-21 season and at Tanglewood last year and commissioned a new orchestral work, scheduled for premiere under Nelsons’ direction in February 2023 at Symphony Hall, Boston.
The title of Simon’s Tales: A Folklore Symphony, of which Motherboxx Connection is the opening movement, suggests ties to such earlier African American composers as William Dawson (e.g., his Negro Folk Symphony) and William Grant Still. Simon’s sense of folklore is more far-reaching, incorporating contemporary popular culture as well as traditional folk references (“Go Down Moses,” “John Henry,” and a legend of Flying Africans). The composer writes of Motherboxx Connection:
“Where are all the black people in comics?” This is a question posed by the creative duo Black Kirby (John Jennings and Stacey Robinson). Based heavily in Afrofuturism, Black Kirby’s characters show black people as heroes using ancient customs and futurist motifs from the African and African American diaspora. This piece is inspired by the many heroic characters found in the work of Black Kirby, but mainly Motherboxx Connection (Black Kirby: In Search of the Motherboxx Connection).
According to scholar Regina N. Bradley, Motherboxx Connection is “a pun on Jack Kirby’s motherbox, a living computer connected to the world, the Motherboxx too is a living computer with a heightened awareness of racial and sexual discourses surrounding the black body. The motherboxx is the technological equivalent of the “mother land” in the black diaspora imagination. She is where black identities merge and depart.”
To represent the power and intelligence of the motherboxx, I have composed a short fast moving musical idea that constantly weaves in and throughout the orchestra. A majestic, fanfare-like figure also provides the overall mood of strength and heroism. I imagine the motherboxx as an all-knowing entity that is aware of the multi-faceted aspects of blackness.
Black Kirby references the work of the comic book creator Jack Kirby, credited with developing the hero the Black Panther. Motherboxx Connection, then, joins a vital (post)modernist “folk” or popular aesthetic tradition: the vibrant cultural movement of Afrofuturism visual art, literature, film, music, fashion, dance—anywhere Black artists and thinkers are making their mark. Simon joins the ranks of such creators as novelists Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delaney, visual artists Nick Cave and Cauleen Smith, funk maven George Clinton and jazz pioneer Sun Ra….