Pianist Lara Downes on ‘Holes in the Sky’

Downes performs with Rhiannon Giddens February 23 at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

With a singular mission to expand the music universe for diverse audiences, ground-breaking pianist Lara Downes will be gracing DC’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue stage in a live event co-commissioned by Washington Performing Arts. It will be an intimate evening of solo and ensemble work like no other. The live event, entitled “Holes in the Sky,” will also benefit the continuing “Because I Am a Girl” campaign in the United States and a number of other countries.

Pianist Lara Downes. Photo by Rik Keller.
Pianist Lara Downes. Photo by Rik Keller.

In her live “Holes in the Sky” performance, Downes will pay tribute to women composers and poets past and present. Her special guest will be multi-instrumentalist/composer/singer and MacArthur “Genius Award” winner Rhiannon Giddens, a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Inspiration for “Holes in the Sky” came from Georgia O’Keefe’s words; “I want real things— live people to take hold of—to see—and talk to—music that makes holes in the sky—I want to love as hard as I can.” Downes added her own reflections to O’Keefe’s words; “The world is a strange place, full of beauty and also so many troubles. As I grow as an artist, I’m just more and more determined to combat the sorrows with the beauty I’m able to make in the world.”

Wanting to know more about “Holes in the Sky,” I had the opportunity to interview Downes recently.

David Siegel: What was your impetus to develop your “Holes in the Sky” album?

Lara Downes: I’ve always been excited and inspired by the music of courageous, game-changing women like Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and before them, the women who broke through centuries of barriers and conventions to write and perform music in a man’s world. I was raised by an unconventional woman to be an unconventional woman myself, so when I look back at these women who were so ahead of their time, whose music has literally changed the world, I feel a powerful kinship. I know that without them behind me, I wouldn’t be here at all, making my music the way I do. So, I felt it was time for me to acknowledge that legacy, by collaborating with women who are carrying on the torch of unconventionality and courage, breaking the mold and the rules, changing the world and making holes in the sky.

Why do you think it important to reduce barriers between music genres for audiences?  

I call my music genre-fluid because I think that today everything is fluid. Our world moves so fast, and change is the only constant. We live our lives with so much freedom and flexibility and choice! If there are any barriers between musical genres, they really only exist in the hands of gatekeepers. Any individual listener has all the music in the world literally at their fingertips, accessible by swiping the screen of their phone. Anyone can follow their curiosities and their desires into an infinity of choices. So it seems to me that classifying and segregating music is nothing but a limitation. I love what the openness of the streaming world has done for my music. I love it that a track of mine can end up on multiple playlists that tap into totally different aspects of the music, co-existing with music of many origins because of some commonality of sound and mood, to find its way to thousands of different listeners. I want the same freedom to exist within my recordings and live performances. I love building sound-worlds out of unexpected elements.

Please tell us about your artistic partnership with Rhiannon Giddens.

Rhiannon and I recognize in each other a profound alliance of musical vision and mission. We’ve both been dedicated to retelling the story of American music by uncovering essential voices whose music illustrates the complexities and connections of American life – the unexpected music that comes from the places where traditions and migration streams and human journeys converge. We’re both obsessed and relentless in our pursuit of these discoveries, and we’re both willing to experiment and extend ourselves in that pursuit. What I love is that our work starts in different parts of the musical landscape, but we keep running into each other’s ideas and curiosities! The songs we’re performing this month in DC are by Margaret Bonds, with texts by Langston Hughes, and we interpret this music from a place of shared heritage, devotion, and I think real vulnerability.

Lara Downes. Photo by Shervin Lainez.
Lara Downes. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Why did you become involved with the “Because I Am a Girl” campaign?

This is the first time that I’ve taken the humanitarian aspect of my work and connected in direct partnership with allies who are working in the sectors of social justice, human rights, education, and health. I believe that music and the arts are essential for the well-being of all people, as a means of human expression and connection. But human beings also need food and water, healthcare, education, civil rights, justice, economic and social equality – so many issues I’m in no way qualified to address or solve! So I’m trying to contribute what I can through my own medium, while partnering with non-profit organizations who are working on the rest of the puzzle. PLAN International’s “Because I Am A Girl” campaign, and their programs, work around the globe to ensure education and access for young girls, so that they can fulfill their potential and make holes in the sky. I’m using this music to raise funds and awareness to support that work.

Please tell me a bit about your educational work in the DC area.

I’m having an amazing time working in the DC KIPP system as an Artist-in-Residence for Washington Performing Arts, with an incredible group of young people who are so ready and excited to respond to ideas about music and the power of self-expression. Kids come to their experience of music with open ears and minds, as long as no one gets in their way with preconceptions and prejudices! It’s always a thrill to witness the authenticity and vibrancy of their responses when we open up to the core of the music, its basic humanity, when we explore the human emotions and struggles that the music is expressing. I always tell young people that great art isn’t a product of some elusive, rarified genius. It’s a product of our need to express ourselves and connect with other humans. It’s a powerful thing for young people to feel how their own power of self-expression can support their navigation of this complicated world.

Holes in the Sky, featuring Lara Downes on piano with special guest singer and instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, will be performed on Feb 23, 2019, at the historic 6th and I Synagogue – 600 I Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 408-3100 or go online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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