Douglas J. Cuomo’s Black Diamond Express Train to Hell Premieres with Maya Beiser and the American Composers Orchestra
The American Composers Orchestra continues the innovative Orchestra Underground series on Friday, December 3 in a program that features the world premiere of Douglas J. Cuomo’s Black Diamond Express Train to Hell. Commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Swan, UK, the work is a double concerto for cello and a keyboardist who controls an electronically manipulated recording of a 1927 sermon by the African-American Reverend A.W. Nix of Chicago. Edited and reordered by the composer, the recording of Nix’s sermon forms a new vocal part, with each key on the keyboard triggering a different phrase of the sermon. For the debut performance with the American Composers Orchestra led by George Manahan, Cuomo performs the keyboard part and renowned cellist Maya Beiser rounds out the featured soloists. The composer elaborates on the work’s conception:
Black Diamond Express Train to Hell is based on folk sources, à la Bartók or Kodály, but from an American perspective. In this case the source material is a fiery sermon by the Reverend A. W. Nix that was released as a 78 rpm record in 1927. Rev. Nix, a Chicago-based African American preacher with a large following, released over fifty sermons on the Vocalion label. Recorded sermons such as these, marketed to African American clientele as “race records” in the 20’s and 30’s, sold tens of thousands of copies and provided African Americans one of the few available outlets of expression in the popular culture of the time.
Exhorting with an unrelenting intensity, Nix’s performance calls to mind both spirituals and rural blues shouting. Its save-yourself-from-damnation message (“You got to get off that train!”) is delivered in a heightened style of speech that threatens to explode into singing at any moment from the pressure of its own building momentum. The sound and content of the recording vividly evoke American life during prohibition and the depression, the history of commercial recordings, and the place of music and religion in the African American experience.
Black Diamond Express Train To Hell represents a continuation of one of my main preoccupations as a composer: exploring the ecstatic in music. Here the ecstatic element is present in both Rev. Nix’s sermon and the cello’s response.
Spearheaded by ACO Artistic Director Robert Beaser and Music Director George Manahan, Orchestra Underground represents ACO’s unique exploration of the orchestra as an elastic, experimental ensemble that has premiered over 50 new works. Housed in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall and known for programming a wide variety of disparate contemporary music, the ensemble embraces new technology, eclectic instruments and influences, spatial orientation, new experiments in concert format, and multimedia and multi-disciplinary collaborations.
For more details on the ACO concert, please visit www.americancomposers.org.
Douglas J. Cuomo-Composer Profile
Douglas J. Cuomo
Black Diamond Express Train to Hell (2010)
for solo cello, keyboard and orchestra