New Music at Carnegie Hall: Carnegie Hall Commissions
Commission at a Glance
Five Chairs and One Table
Daniel Bernard Roumain
Recorded on Mar 8, 2009
at Zankel Hall


Imani Winds

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Notes on the Work

This work was commissioned by Carnegie Hall at the suggestion of Jessye Norman for the Honor! festival. I wanted this work to be theatrical—a composer’s response to the operatic, art song, and avant-garde work Miss Norman has done throughout her career. I wanted to apply those theatrical elements to a work for five musicians with limited theatrical training. Working closely with the ever-courageous and daring Imani Winds, we were able to develop a musical language for the piece that incorporates these elements into what we hope will be a sensible and engaging manner.

In addition to Miss Norman, I wanted to create brief musical portraits of the South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba (1932–2008), folk singer Odetta (1930–2008), and the daughters of Barack and Michelle Obama, Malia and Sasha. I used the birth dates of Ms. Makeba and Odetta to help me organize the musical materials. I considered what small children often do in their classrooms; beating out rhythms on a table, especially as those rhythms overlap in their complexity, suggested the “serious play” of young children and their peers. I wanted to hear the sounds of harmonicas, as I feel the harmonica represents a truly original and American sound and voice (though its history is European), and the instrument is often associated with storytelling, African American timbres, and our collective American overtones.

In all of this, Five Chairs and One Table hopes to speak to a brief history of African—and African American—song and struggle. I wanted to nudge the boundaries of what a traditional woodwind quintet usually performs by using a combination of traditional, numerical, prose-based, and graphic notation. I wanted to suggest the varied and complex responsibilities we share as citizens of our communities, by asking the musicians to jump, speak, and literally sing— a call to arms, armed with our instruments of imagination. Finally, by asking the quintet to sit at a table and make music devoid of their instruments, I want to illuminate those obvious, yet elusive, opportunities for all of us to sit next to one another in communion—if not in conversation.

Daniel Bernard Roumain