Composer Carlos Simon savors a season of firsts, including a Grammy nod

"Gospel and jazz remain central influences in my style,” says composer Carlos Simon. “I love telling stories through my music, and often that involves using musical genres that will help best tell that story."

Terrance Ragland

For composer Carlos Simon, 2022 has been a banner year. March saw the premiere of his first full-scale opera, it all falls down, as part of Washington National Opera’s “Written in Stone” project. In June, Decca released Requiem for the Enslaved, Simon’s first album on that storied label; the multi-genre work commemorates the 272 men, women and children sold in 1838 by Georgetown University. And in November, Simon received a Grammy nomination in the best contemporary classical composition category for Requiem for the Enslaved.

In January, Simon’s Tales: A Folklore Symphony received its world premiere by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned the work, along with the Sphinx Organization for that group’s 25th anniversary. (Currently composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Simon is an alumnus of Sphinx and the University of Michigan.) As part of a program titled Spiritual Awakenings, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago under Rossen Milanov will perform Simon’s Tales: A Folklore Symphony on Dec. 19. The 25-minute, four-movement work is rooted in American musical idioms, including spirituals.

Simon will participate in a pre-concert discussion, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in Grainger Ballroom. He will be joined by Stacey Robinson, co-creator of Black Kirby: In Search of the Motherboxx Connection; Terrence Gant, owner of Third Coast Comics, and moderator Kate McDuffie, CSO community marketing coordinator.

“Gospel and jazz remain central influences in my style,” Simon said in a recent interview published by the Jacksonville Symphony. “I love telling stories through my music and often times that involves using musical genres that will help best tell that story. Gospel music, like jazz, is an improvisatory genre. You learn to feel the music, hear what others are doing and respond to that musically. Improvisation has allowed me to think freely and confidently about my musical ideas. It is very easy to criticize one’s ideas and become paralyzed creatively by filtering too much. The idea of accepting whatever ideas come has really helped me to develop as an artist.”

Simon’s program note for Tales: A Folklore Symphony follows:


“Where are all the Black people in comics?” This is a question posed by the creative duo Black Kirby (John Jennings and Stacey Robinson). Based heavily in Afrofuturism, Black Kirby’s characters show Black people as heroes using ancient customs and futurist motifs from the African and African American diaspora. This piece is inspired by the many heroic characters found in the work of Black Kirby, but mainly Motherboxx Connection.

According to scholar Regina N. Bradley, the Motherboxx Connection is “a pun on Jack Kirby’s motherbox, a living computer connected to the world, the Motherboxx, too, is a living computer with a heightened awareness of racial and sexual discourses surrounding the Black body. The motherboxx is the technological equivalent of the “mother land” in the Black Diaspora imagination. She is where Black identities merge and depart.” 

To represent the power and intelligence of the motherboxx, I have composed a short, fast-moving musical idea that constantly weaves in and throughout the orchestra. A majestic, fanfare-like motif also provides the overall mood of strength and heroism. I imagine the motherboxx as an all-knowing entity that is aware of the multi-faceted aspects of blackness.


Once all Africans could fly, but lost their ability once they crossed the Atlantic Ocean as enslaved humans. This story tells how one African maintained the ability and secretly passed the gift to others. The Negro spiritual “Steal Away” is referenced in the woodwinds, as well as the cello section, while the upper strings hover effortlessly in the higher register. 

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home 
I ain't got long to stay here 

III. GO DOWN MOSES (Let My People Go) 

The Jewish biblical story of the Plagues of Egypt resonated with the enslaved, and they created songs that related to this story of bondage. While the horrific plagues that swept across Egypt are compelling in and of itself, the focus of this piece is recounted from the perspective of the stubborn Pharaoh who unwillingly loosens his grip on the enslaved people. Pharaoh’s hardened heart is conveyed through two sharp, accented chords.

The spirit of God, represented by light, heavenly, metallic sounds from the percussion, signal the beginning of each new plague. Frogs, pestilence and sickness are not enough to break the Pharaoh’s will. It is only with the “Angel of Death,” which takes the life of the Pharaoh’s first-born child, represented by dark, brooding harmonies, that he relents in despair. The orchestral texture grows thinner and thinner as Pharaoh loathes in emotional anguish. The once-prideful Pharaoh is now broken down to a powerless whimper. I use the Negro spiritual “Let My People Go (Go Down Moses)” as a musical framework throughout this movement. 

Go down Moses 
Way down in Egypt land 
Tell ol’ Pharaoh to 
Let my people go! 
When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go!

Oppressed so hard
They could not stand
Let my people go!


The story of John Henry is traditionally told through the work song, each with wide-ranging and varying lyrics. The well-known narrative ballad of “John Henry” is essentially the battle between man vs. machine. Enslaved/prisoners would usually sing the story more slowly and deliberately, often with a pulsating beat suggestive of swinging the hammer. These songs usually contain the lines “This old hammer killed John Henry/But it won't kill me.” 

Writer Scott Nelson explains that:Workers managed their labor by setting a stint, or pace, for it. Men who violated the stint were shunned. Here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast. They died ugly deaths; their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly, you guarded your life or you died.”