“Creating An American Citizen”: An Interview with Pianist Bruce Levingston

On Wednesday, April 6, 2016, Georgetown University will welcome acclaimed pianist Bruce Levingston, one of the country’s leading figures in contemporary classical music, for the Washington, D.C. premiere of An American Citizen which he will perform at Carnegie Hall this month. An American Citizen is based on the famous 1936 painting of the same name by Marie Hull, which depicts Mississippian John Wesley Washington, a man born into slavery.

Marie Hull, An American Citizen, 1936. Oil on Linen. 30 x 25.5 in. Collection of Mississippi Museum of Art.

Marie Hull, An American Citizen, 1936. Oil on Linen. 30 x 25.5 in. Collection of Mississippi Museum of Art.

Founder and Artistic Director of the music foundation Premiere Commission, Inc., Levingston commissioned the piece by Composer Nolan Gasser, inventor of the Musical Genome Project. An American Citizen pairs the musical composition with a film directed by Jarred Alterman, who used works from Marie Hull to tell a series of stories and explore issues the politics of race.

In 2015, Levingston published his biography about the artist – Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie HullIn conjunction with the release of the book, he curated two major exhibitions of Hull’s work at the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.

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Georgetown University President John J. DeGioiawill join Levingston for a discussion about the painting, as well as art, race, politics, and the artist Marie Hull.  The discussion is poignant to the university community because of Georgetown University’s recent decision to rename two of its buildings due to their namesakes’ ties to slavery. Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall will be called Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, until permanent names are selected.

I had an opportunity to speak with Bruce Levingston, a wonderfully eloquent person whose sincerity and commitment to using his gifts as an artist to make a positive impact on the world – especially in the areas of human rights and education – moved me deeply.

Katie: When were you first exposed to Marie Hull’s work, and how did it impact you? 

Bruce Levingston. Photo by Antonio Notarberardino.

Bruce Levingston. Photo by Antonio Notarberardino.

Bruce: As a little boy. When my Grandmother and I passed a painting of hers, she leaned over and said with a great reverential tone “That is a Marie Hull.” I could tell how much respect she had for the painter. I was immediately taken with the artist’s exquisite use of color and texture. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated with (Marie Hull’s) work. Later, when I had seen much more art around the world, I realized she was a very formidable painter. I did quite a bit of research about her life and paintings, and finally decided that a deeper biography should be written about her, and a survey of her work should be published. I kept encouraging other people to do it, and no one took the bait – so finally I just wrote it myself. 

You are a very gifted writer, having recently published Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie Hull. When did you start writing?

I’ve written for music magazines and playbills and prepare all of my own program notes and CD liner notes. For me, writing is like music; it should unfold as a narrative and have some lyricism and carry the reader along on a journey. I feel it has a rhythm, just like a painting or a beautiful composition.

I think there is something special about the collaboration between musicians and artists. What are your thoughts?

Chopin and Delacroix were great friends, as were Satie and Picasso, and Stravinsky and Matisse. All of these artists knew one another and in an organic way, created things together. (At Georgetown on April 6th), I will perform a piece I commissioned from Philip Glass, called A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close. I’m doing that to show some of the history of creating musical works that depicts an image or spirit of someone, and Philip Glass is a composer I admire so much. I thought this would be a beautiful work to lead into “An American Citizen.” 

I asked filmmaker Jarred Alterman to come and film many of the paintings that were in the exhibition I recently curated (Bright Fields) in conjunction with the publication of my book, and show that these paintings have a dialogue with one another, and show the world of John Wesley Washington, as well as the spirit of Marie Hull. I feel they this will take viewer and the listener on a voyage into this world of common humanity that we all share. 

How does it feel performing live with the film, where the music has to be timed very precisely?

The music came first; Jarred Alterman, the director, choreographed An American Citizen to the music. I’ve done this kind of performance before with a beautiful piece of Erik Satie; René Clair made a wonderful silent film called Entr’acte. It was the first film with a score created frame by frame. When I prepared that, I really learned how to play with film. You really learn the film and have a sense of the tempo, and you internalize it. I almost don’t have to look to know what’s coming. I worked a bit with Alterman on the film and discussed how long I thought certain cuts should be, because I had a sense of what the music was doing. It was a wonderful collaboration throughout the filmmaking process. 

How did the collaboration with director Jarred Alterman come about for An American Citizen?

Alterman also did the film for Windows (another) work I commissioned by Nolan Gasser, about the Chagall Windows at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. When I commissioned An American Citizen a year ago, I had no sense of the resonance it would have today; it is more relevant than ever given the political discussions going on, but also at Georgetown when they openly and directly confronted the history of the names given to two of their buildings. This is important as we grow and move forward in society. The President of Georgetown, Jack DeGioia, a good friend, realized that what I am doing has some relevance to these issues. The presentation (at Georgetown) is an opportunity to have a discussion and focus on what has happened in our society, especially since Georgetown, my home-state of Mississippi, the University of Mississippi, and other places are confronting the (question) of what and who really helped build our world. Who were the citizens in our country? And who are the citizens today?

How important is it for viewers to know the backstory of Hull’s subjects before seeing the piece An American Citizen? 

I think with great music and great art, one doesn’t have to know everything in the (backstory), you don’t need to be a composer to appreciate a great piece of music, or an architect to enjoy beautiful buildings; but I think the more you know, the more you can appreciate a creative work and the process in building it, what really makes it have relevance. Having some sense of the background will help people engage on a different and deeper level.

Do you feel a connection to John Wesley Washington or Marie Hull? 

Yes, well, first of all, both were also Mississippians. John Wesley Washington’s story was extraordinary. He was born in 1847 and (society) had not recognized his full citizenship. In 1936, (Marie Hull) painted this beautiful portrait, not just in any way, but in a way that was unusual at time – John Wesley Washington was looking directly at the viewer, directly in the eye, and Hull used his full name when many African Americans were not referred to by their own name, plus she titled the piece An American Citizen. You can’t look at the portrait and not think of what an extraordinary life he led, and yet the sweet resignation in his face, and knowing look in his eye, almost bemused as he sat there, is extraordinary. This was a man who had great dignity, who was part of our society all along. Marie Hull was a lady born in an era where she could not vote, yet she had empathy, and recognized this in a quiet but powerful way; she was making a statement and restored to him the respect and position he should have always rightly had. I relate to them both.

That gave me chills. It sounds like you really respect John Wesley Washington. In your book Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie Hull, you really capture his character as well as the character of her other subjects.

Would you consider yourself to be a social activist?  

I’m an artist, and I think being an artist in society, one reflects on what is in your community and society. I try to have open eyes, open ears, and an open mind. That is a big part of the duty of being a creative person. I love this great country and feel so fortunate to be here. I have traveled a lot in the world and we have in our country many amazing freedoms, and being able to discuss openly all issues is one of our greatest freedoms. I feel that is one of the immense privileges of living here, and that is what we’re doing today.

In a 2004 interview with Mick Meenan, you said, “I play people I believe in – you have to play talented people when you find them and play them next to Bach and Mozart. Today, we have musicians as talented as Mozart or Beethoven. It is simply a matter of identifying them.” Can you elaborate?

That’s what I’m doing in these programs. These are living composers. Nolan Glass and James Mattheson are both incredibly gifted, powerful creators that I feel have special voices and I hear their music just as I hear Mozart or Bach, and I want to share what I’m hearing. Also Mozart and Bach were contemporary composers at one time! They were living, working musicians, so I don’t think of them as antiquated figures that are gathering dust in museums. For me, they are all alive. When I play Chopin, I feel like he’s sitting there with me.

Your programming, and the pairing of classical and contemporary composers together, has been called “adventurous” – would you say that is accurate?

I don’t think of my programming as adventurous, I think of it as completely natural. When I was growing up, it was considered maybe “a little out there” to play more contemporary music, because “contemporary” was always set in quotes and meant to most people that it was hard to understand easily. But listeners today, in the age of YouTube and social media, share so much more music, and so genres are less delineated. We’re all influencing one another. In the (Gasser) pieces Repast as well as An American Citizen you’ll hear blues, jazz, Copland, and Bach. To me, that’s what it’s all about. We’re listening to one another, and we’re listening across the centuries.

What has been the highlight of your musical career? 

Highlights plural – I’ve been blessed with many special moments. I feel that my upcoming performances will be very special moments. I live very much in the moment.

What do you like to do for fun?

 I have so much fun playing and listening to music. I like to read, watch new and old films, and take wonderful walks with my dog, Harper Lee. I share good meals with friends. For me, relationships with people are so important, and relationships with nature and animals are also very important to me. That brings a lot of life to my spirit and I absorb that. I feel that being aware of the living things around us is the most important thing. 

Pianist and author Bruce Levingston in front of Marie Hull's Pink Lady. Photo by Rick Guy.

Pianist and author Bruce Levingston in front of Marie Hull’s Pink Lady. Photo by Rick Guy.

What are the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary artistic collaboration?

I just finished a series with two of the greatest dancers in the world, Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo. We learned so much from one another. We’re in different mediums yet there are so many similarities in the way we shape a phrase; as I would watch their feet move in a certain way, I would phrase a piece of music in a certain way; they would hear something I was playing and say “let me move to that rhythm and with that inflection and the expression that Bruce is creating.” So there was mutual inspiration going on all the time. That is the great advantage of collaboration; you share ideas and also you share your spirit. Alessandra and I talked about the moment just before the curtain goes up. We’re preparing and thinking, yet looking at one another as everyone is stretching. And there is a wonderful moment before everything begins. I said “I can’t wait for this moment to happen each night.” Alessandra responded, “Oh yes, our appointment with paradise.”

That’s how I feel when I go on; I have an appointment with Paradise.

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Bruce Levingston will appear to present Creating An American Citizen and perform additional pieces for one evening only at 5 pm on April 6, 2016, at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall, 3rd Floor – 37th and O Streets, NW, in Washington, DC. More information can be found online. Please click here to register.

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One Response to “Creating An American Citizen”: An Interview with Pianist Bruce Levingston

  1. Nancy Quin April 6, 2016 at 8:34 am #

    There is no defining of the experience one feels seeing this film set to the music Bruce weaves into it. After its premier at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art for the Bright Fields Exhibition grand opening for patrons, not a soul was left untouched. There is a nuance whenever artists collaborate which engages those who witness. We should hope An American Citizen will be viewed and heard by enough Americans to effect changes of heart like no other single media has ever been able to achieve.