Today is Langston Hughes’ 113th birthday.
Read his work, and listen to the beautiful settings of his powerful poetry by my friend, teacher and mentor, William Averitt.
I was a college senior, and remember well Will playing excerpts of Afro-American Fragments as he was composing the piece. Some friends and I attended the premiere performed by Winchester Musica Viva and were so floored by the energy of the music (which began with Hughes’ poetry), that we forgot it was composed by someone we know. The importance of the first of Will’s three Hughes cycles, Afro American Fragments, in my life is that it tacitly gave me permission to incorporate the more jazz- and rock- influenced writing I had done when I was younger into the more classically organized writing Will encouraged me to pursue. (I should add that Will never denied me my jazz and rock roots as they play into what I was writing; I just thought that I should follow a more classical path for a while…)
Almost a year ago, Will and Frances Averitt came to visit Potsdam for a short residency and to hear a performance of the third cycle (The Dream Keeper) performed by the Hosmer Choir, conducted by Jeff Francom at The Crane School of Music. I listened to my teacher – roughly 24 years after the premiere of Afro-American Fragments discuss the piece with the choir, coach the pianists, and answer questions about the piece. I recalled the joy of my own experience hearing Will’s choral music for the first time as I watched the students – some of them mine – in the choir rehearse, perform, and talk to Will about his influences and compositional process.
But aside from my personal and sentimental feelings toward this work: William Averitt’s three choral cycles on Langston Hughes’ poetry are an amazing body of music: as profound as accessible, and a beautiful tribute to one of America’s greatest poets.
(Click the photo above to preview Will’s work.)