A tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday, I spend some time with his speeches. Dr. King's birthday is a few days before mine, and this year I turned 39 - the same age that Dr. King was when he was assassinated. It made me wonder what further words of conscience he might have offered had he lived longer - and what I would leave for the world if I were to die so young.
I've never felt more fear or uncertainty about the way we communicate with each other and what that means for our future than I have these past few months, and I find myself increasingly drawn to Dr. King's message of compassion, and inclusiveness, and social and economic equality for everyone. His words have been a great comfort to me during this unsettling period, and my new composition for piano and string quartet is inspired by Dr. King's singular faith in our capacity to love, and to do better.
The title of the suite, Some Not Too Distant Tomorrow, comes from a passage in Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, which he wrote during a period of solitary confinement in the Alabama prison. The letter is an exquisite statement about the dire urgency of achieving social and economic justice, and about the moral and practical implications of nonviolence as the means of getting there. It's also a searing indictment of those who advocated for the status quo in the face of horrible injustice. And it's a moving plea for understanding, and mutual respect.
I hope the music conveys the profound impact his words have had on me.
1. The Fierce Urgency of Now
"We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."
-from MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech
delivered August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
2. The Road Ahead
"And I must confess, my friends, that the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future."
-from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
published in 1967
3. Into the Hearts of Humanity
"And here was a man of nonviolence [Gandhi], falling at the hand of a man of violence. Here was a man of love falling at the hands of a man of hate. This seems the way of history... And the man who shot Gandhi only shot him into the hearts of humanity. And just as when Abraham Lincoln was shot - mark you, for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot, that is, the attempt to heal the wounds of a divided nation - when the great leader Abraham Lincoln was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the body of this leader and said, "Now he belongs to the ages." And that same thing can be said about Mahatma Gandhi now. He belongs to the ages, and he belongs especially to this age, an age drifting once more to its doom. And he has revealed to us that we must learn to go another way."
-from MLK's Palm Sunday sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi
delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on March 22, 1959
4. Only When It Is Dark Enough, Can You See the Stars
"The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around... But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars."
-from MLK's "I've Been To The Mountaintop" speech
delivered April 3, 1968 at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church in Memphis, TN
5. Some Not Too Distant Tomorrow
"Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty."
-from Letter From Birmingham Jail
published in Why We Can't Wait in 1963
"I Have A Dream"
delivered August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
"I've Been To The Mountaintop"
delivered April 3, 1968 in Memphis, TN
Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech
delivered December 10, 1964 in Oslo, Norway
"Amid Kallor's jazz-inflected sound world, a lyrical grace threaded through the five cohesive movements. The music seemed to distill complex ruminations into a clear vision...
Floating, sunkissed passages swam with underlying tension...
The final movement left the audience with a peaceful atmosphere, weaving an elegant veil of serene tones - a satisfying nexus between social conflict and art."
"The main event was the world premiere of Some Not Too Distant Tomorrow, a piano quintet conceived as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. With the composer at the piano, the [Attacca] quartet dug into the first movement, 'The Fierce Urgency of Now', its angularity and syncopations reflecting the strength in King's 'I Have a Dream' speech. Later came blues-infused melodies floating over alluring pizzicato ostinatos alternating with bristling, rapid energy. The fifth movement, which gives the work its title, comes from King's 1963 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail', and in its granitic, complex chords, left a mood of optimism in its wake."
"Some Not Too Distant Tomorrow... incorporates modern melodic and jazz ideas in a flawless fusion of sounds, reflecting the tension, unease and tragedy of Dr. King's too-brief life.
The work uses piano and string quartet in effective tandem, generating fresh voicings as the instruments are sounded, combined and recombined. The five movements are pure music, with some room for Mr. Kallor's piano to improvise against the ensemble. There is a stunning fast movement where fast pizzicato work dives and leaps over a keening violin and Mr. Kallor's steady pianism.
The slow final movement was the best of all. Here, slow, hypnotic chords and gentle string melodies forged a gentle, hopeful cloak of sound, a light and transparent comfort in these dark times."
-Paul J. Pelkonen
"[Kallor] is preternaturally comfortable in both the jazz and classical idioms. This gives his music a wonderful, off-kilter beat and also provides the satisfaction of the demands of classical rigor. That this convergence works is a tribute to this highly gifted contemporary composer...
We heard Kallor's Halloween classic, The Tell-Tale Heart, at a Crypt event around All Hollow's Eve as it unfolded into an instant classic. It is easy to see a piece like Some Not Too Distant Tomorrow being performed in the Oprah Winfrey Theatre at the Museum of African American History on the Washington Mall. It is both an unusual and a monumental tribute to a leader who died as he was beginning to push for economic justice in America.
Cutting edge music is carving out all kinds of new edges with composers like Gregg Kallor. Despite dire predictions about the death of classical, its liveliness is erupting all around us."