Ever Since That Day (1989)
for TWO PIANOS - 12 minutes
Frank Stemper - notes
Although there were individual composers, Negro Spirituals were collectively “composed” by an entire nation of lives that were interrupted, orphaned, and then unbearably tortured by early American entrepreneurs: These former European whippersnapper opportunists, that took over North America, even preyed upon their unsuspecting fellow Europeans, duping them to uproot themselves for the New World in the name of religious and political freedom, only to become the thrifty working class of the elite that still exists today. Creating a new society that utilized slavery while promising freedom for its people (not to mention stealing the entire North American continent from it’s original native inhabitants) was quite a feat of statesmanship. It showcased the remarkable business acumen, political genius, and very astute public relations of the so-called “Founding Fathers.” Surely, the greatest of their talents was amoral perfection.
As I understand it, the African slaves, although treated worse than their masters’ pets, were somehow considered in need of god’s glory. So they were introduced to the Protestant way by means of the forced learning of European religious hymns. (I’ve also wondered if bored plantation wives needing something to occupy their time while their husbands were wielding the whip, had something to do with this important missionary work.) Although combining music with religion and community was nothing new to the Africans, the new songs they were forced to learn seemed quite discordant to their own pentatonic, naturally tempered harmonic tradition. Their attempts to sing these out of tune melodies created what we now know as “blue” notes and the pentatonic Negro Spirituals, which became the United States’ FIRST musical tradition – Go figure.
In 1989, when the African American two-piano team of (Wilfred) Delphin and (Edwin) Romain commissioned me to write a piece, which “related somehow to the Negro Spiritual” for their annual cross-country tour, I decided not to arrange a single song, but to elude to all of the songs by means of their common harmony: All of the Spirituals contain only five notes, i.e. a pentatonic modality direct from Africa, and, thus, composing anything that overtly displays such a harmonic personality could also imply the requested traditional music. My thematic interest was in expressing any slave’s thoughts that connected Africa, his heritage, and North America, his prison. In one of the Spirituals I studied, there was a verse that spoke of a slave trying to remember the instant when he was abruptly and brutally kidnapped. It seemed nightmarish that a single moment would create such a horrifying difference in a life. I had my musical plan: With chains binding him, a slave recalls his life that had been forever altered – Ever Since That Day.