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Lara Downes - Sounds Of America interview with Gramophone

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Pianist Lara Downes released her solo album, America Again, on Sono Luminus on October 28, 2016. The album's title is taken from Langston Hughes' poem, Let America Be America Again, written in 1938. America Again features twenty pieces selected by Downes that explore the elusive but essential American dream, written by composers including Duke Ellington, Lou Harrison, Morton Gould, Amy Beach, George Gershwin, Angélica Negrón, Dan Visconti, Leonard Bernstein, Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, Florence Price, Aaron Copland, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and more. Downes was interviewed by Gramophone magazine about the new album. Read the Q&A below

In what ways have recent events in America inspired and shaped your latest project, "America Again"?

This album came to life during a devastating time in America: racial tension and violence, a culture shift towards anger, division, and worst of all, this regression towards the darkest chapters in our history. In response to that, I've been clinging to American music as a light that shines forward, and that illuminates what is best and brightest, and the most essential, about American culture. The power of the Dream…

Are there other personal reasons for undertaking this project?

I'm living proof of American diversity and progress, right? My mom is white and my father was black, and they met because of the Civil Rights movement, which is the only reason I'm here at all. I think this music tells the story of forward movement and change in America - progress, persistence, and the diversity that's at the heart of our culture. I've said many times that American music only sounds the way it does because of all the different things we are.

It's an eclectic programme. How did you choose the pieces, and was it difficult to narrow down your selection?

It's an insanely ambitious undertaking to reflect the scope of American diversity! I know I've only gotten as far as 60 minutes of music will allow, and I hope that future projects will take the effort further and wider. But I wanted to include some favorite composers, especially some whose music isn't as well known as it should be (Florence Price, Morton Gould…), and then I also wanted to find music that connects pretty deeply to this theme of the American Dream. Each of these pieces really does have a story to tell of journey, struggle, or triumph, all in the pursuit of the American Dream.

Was it in any way daunting playing arrangements by such stellar predecessors (Art Tatum and Nina Simone, for example)?

Absolutely, in fact I struggled at first with the Tatum piece, because I found myself obsessively listening to his recording, and trying to copy it – which is a problem because A) no one can play like Tatum, and B) copying someone else is boring! I had to step back from my hero-worship, and approach the piece the same way I would any great music by a great composer – absorb the notes, digest them, make them my own. The end result is that my Blue Skies sounds very little like Tatum's recording, but it's inspired by his take on the piece, and it becomes a tribute, in my own voice, to his genius and his influence.