WFMT’s long-time resident “free spirit” Studs Terkel died near a decade ago, on Halloween in 2008. He continued to exert an influence from the afterlife earlier this month when, thanks to a convergence of impassioned artistic choices and happy accidents, he made his Carnegie Hall debut. What brought about this feat of artistic time travel?
It began with a spark of inspiration by the acclaimed Kronos Quartet and their long-time first violinist, David Harrington, during an appearance on WFMT’s Impromptu five years ago. As part of an in-studio performance with WFMT host Kerry Frumkin, Louise Frank, who also produces The Best of Studs Terkel, pulled a classic Terkelian trick. Knowing that the now-legendary Kronos were guests on Studs’ show more than 30 years earlier, Frank plucked some choice audio from the Studs’ archive and let Kronos revisit their much-younger selves live on the air. Harrington and his fellow musicians were captivated and the seed was planted.
Harrington recollected, “I became aware of Studs Terkel sometime in the ‘80s and then at a certain point, somehow, we ended up on his show. And we just had the best time. This man was a sparkplug of culture and ideas and optimism and thoughtfulness and caring. He cared about life, he cared about people. It was a real defining moment for us. I mean he's a guy that got Bob Dylan to play live on the air!”
Harrington continued to ruminate on Terkel’s work and the possibility of someday, somehow using it for a commission for Kronos. The ensemble has an almost unparalleled history of presenting new chamber works, having performed more than 900 world premieres, many of which were commissioned by or written for them.
Then, in 2015 Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director Clive Gillinson hatched an idea for a new festival about the 1960s and the artistic and social movements that changed America. He and his staff reached out to Kronos about performing the festival’s inaugural concert. Harrington and the rest of the ensemble saw that this was the moment to bring Studs into their wild world of contemporary chamber music. Terkel himself came to national prominence in the 1960s: his radio show on WFMT was an epicenter of topical social and cultural ideas chronicling the decades’ tumult and he began working on the first of what would be a dozen celebrated oral history books, so showcasing Studs’s work in a festival about the 1960s seemed fitting.
In the intervening years, Studs’s massive radio archive, which is now the owned by the Chicago History Museum, developed a plan to make Studs’s 5,600+ program tape archive available to the world through a digital platform. Several National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a Kickstarter campaign, and support from donors propelled the creation of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which launches on May 16, 2018 – the anniversary of Stud’s birth.
So when Kronos came calling with the idea of a new piece of music based on materials from the archive, the infrastructure was in place and the timing was fortuitous.
And then Stacy Garrop, an award-winning Chicago-based composer, was tapped to write the work:
“When I’d sat down with David Harrington,” Garrop recalled while at Carnegie Hall on the morning of the work’s world-premiere – January 19 2018, “this particular Mahalia Jackson interview kept coming up... It was a discussion from 1963 where she sits down with Studs and talks about what it was like living in the South and the types of jobs that she could have, the fact that she didn't have an education, and then when she got to Chicago how she was a laundress and taking care of kids and because she didn't have a college education and she didn't have many opportunities, and even as she got to be known as a gospel singer, the difference between how people respected her when she was onstage and how they treated her when she was on the street was very apparent.”
Garrop and Harrington worked with Studs Terkel Radio Archive archivist Allison Schein to explore. Garrop explained, “It turns out there was a concert that Mahalia gave at a hotel in 1957… broadcast live on Studs's show and on the show she sings ‘Sometime I Feel Like A Motherless Child.’ So by the time we got all those things coordinated I was able to take the 1963 interview and the 1957 performance of ‘Motherless Child’ and put together Glorious Mahalia.” (Listen to the full recording of Mahalia's original concert here.)
The resulting five-movement work blends the vibrant voices of Mahalia and Studs with Kronos’s playing. New York Classical Review wrote that the Garrop “matched the singer’s words with music that was by turns mournful, tender, jaunty, and anxious, climaxing… with Jackson singing ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ on a long crescendo while the quartet supplied an impassioned, call-and-response accompaniment... [and] said something of lasting value about not just a social movement of a particular era, but about human dignity and the nation’s moral aspirations.”
The notion of the voices of the no-longer-living filling one of the world’s great concert halls, speaking to present-day audiences and social conundrums accompanied by new music opens up a world of possibilities for a collection like the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and for musicians such as Garrop and Kronos.
Harrington reflected before the premiere, “One of the things that has made me the happiest is that tonight we actually get to perform with Mahalia! And you know for a musician like me that's that's as good as it gets! That’s all there is to it!! And she's singing – the performance is absolutely unbelievable. It's as though she's singing not only to the audience but for Studs… And she tells what it's like to be an African-American… And there's no possibility of disputing what she says. As a musician you know when you're hearing the truth.”