Laura Karpman: Catch the Fire of Storytelling in Stereo
Words by Joshua Thompson
The second episode of Melanated Moments in Classical Music highlights the expansive career of one of the most prolific and impactful musical storytellers of her time, Laura Karpman. Karpman is a multi Emmy and Grammy award winning composer who is celebrated the world over and I highly encourage readers and listeners to familiarize themselves with Laura’s impressive list of projects, collaborations and acts of artistic advocacy because therein lies the ‘secret’ to her success. In an age when equity statements and superficially crafted word salad used to address critical issues facing communities within and outside of the arts is all too commonplace; Karpman’s broad catalogue illustrates how one can simultaneously be of their time yet one step ahead of it. From tv to film, to theater to gaming, Laura Karpman’s consistency in inclusive composition beat equity statements every time. More concerned with creating accurate and authentic touchpoints rather than throwing ticker tape parades of ‘diversity’, there is no overthinking in her methodology. Instead, simply listening, transcribing, and reflecting the musical essence of her subjects as told by cultural contributors is all that is needed to effectively hit her mark. In this regard, Karpman is very much a musical anthropologist and ethnographer in the purest and most objective of sense. It is this approach that prevents Karpman from falling prey to the pitfalls of cultural appropriation and places her squarely in the realm of cultural appreciation.
While she constructs the musical blueprint, it’s never separate from the masterplan laid out in word, music, or anecdote from those who lived and scripted the original narrative and Karpman never fails to point this out. This episode offers two exceptional pieces that effortlessly reveal the richness and depth of her storytelling prowess. Blues in Stereo is a vibrant, high energy, brassy, and raucous tune that conveys the nature of a culture as described by Langston Hughes. The inspiration for this piece is rooted in a genre that was fighting to establish itself as a permanent fixture in American and global culture, jazz. Nearly a century later, creators of Black music culture in Funk, Hip-Hop, Rap, and New Music find themselves in a similar position to Hughes as they transcribe and annotate the reflective nature of reality and rebellion in their own time. Karpman takes the notes and musings from Hughes and sets them to a soundtrack that brilliantly expresses the creation of culture. Juxtaposed against the upbeat energy Karpman provides in Blues in Stereo, the eerily haunting echoes of the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre of 1921 provides another poignant and painful example of Karpman’s acumen in using music to resurrect history that this country desperately tries to neglect and ignore. Tulsa 1921: Catch the Fire, from the hit series Lovecraft Country, is simultaneously full of beauty and agonizing pain that assaults the listener. These seemingly contrary aesthetics are critical to overwhelming the audience in the true horror of our country’s historic behavior towards Black communities. It is the music that transports everyone to the moment of violent fire, fear, and force of Tulsa 1921. Janai Brugger’s voice completes the equation with a haunting and emotional interpretation of historic and current Black experiences in America–true horror remains more terrifying than any supernatural fiction created and crafted from it. It is gripping, tear jerking and one of her most powerful works to date. In all her compositions and recordings, Laura Karpman displays the full gamut of textures, moods and evocations at her disposal for the most accurate of storytelling. Karpman’s body of work is her equity statement. As artists, arts institutions and their administrators continue to better define allyship, inclusion, and the most equitable way to center each, Karpman has given us more than enough passion projects that compel us all to “find the fire and pass it on.”
Links and Resources:
Composer, Vocalist and Music Educator, Rollo Dilworth’s article on Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation: Cultural Appropriation: From Culture Stealing to Culture Sharing | Chorus America