Composer, flutist and conductor James Newton is a verifiable legend in the avant-garde music world. Amongst his contemporaries, his name is synonymous with dedicated and adventurous exploration of the deepest expressions through both composition and improvisation. His latest album The Manual of Light is a gorgeous collection of chamber music and solo pieces written over the last decade, book-ended by two stunning renditions of “Amazing Grace” for string orchestra. Enlisting some of Los Angeles’s best instrumentalists to deliver masterful performances of his spiritually rich compositions, Newton’s new opus is a journey into the divine.
In Newton’s words:
My fully notated arrangement of “Amazing Grace”(Version 1) was motivated by and dedicated to President Barack Obama, and the nine precious lives taken in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. The names of those nine are Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sen. Clementa Pinckney, Twanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.
President Obama profoundly understood the historical and spiritual weight of the moment and during the funeral of State Senator Clementa Pinckney, being led by God, sang the perfect piece for that moment in time, “Amazing Grace.” My arrangement of “Amazing Grace” was initially written and premiered at the 2016 Spoleto Festival as part of a work by the brilliant Carrie Mae Weems, Grace Notes. Since the premiere, I have revised this work, including a second version of the arrangement with instructed improvisation. Many of the notated ornaments are derived from my many years performing a solo flute arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” My longtime collaborator and friend Grant Gershon beautifully conducted these arrangements. The string orchestra on the recording is made up of a powerful group of musicians who are as diverse as the Los Angeles basin.
The other soloists and ensemble on the recording are Allison Bjorkedal harp, The Lyris Quartet with bassist Eric Shetzen, Yegor Shevtsov piano, and Daniel Rosenboom trumpet. The CD surveys compositions that I have written during the last decade while I was also composing a massive trio of sacred works: my Mass, Saint Matthew Passion, and part three of the trilogy, Psalm 119.”
James Newton’s compositional voice is particularly unique in that his personal devotion drives a language informed by a specific lineage of classical and jazz composers who have influenced each other - Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, and György Ligeti. The Manual of Light presents a very personal collection of chamber and solo compositions that masterfully reflects a new integration of diverse musical languages in a modern setting. The two very different arrangements of Amazing Grace for string orchestra dedicated to President Barack Obama and the Emmanuel AME nine who lost their lives in Charleston, SC, breathtakingly capture the moment of our times while presenting a traditional sacred song that quintessentially reflects an American reality in a contemporary context.
We at Orenda Records are incredibly proud to present this profound statement by this living master composer. James Newton’s The Manual of Light is now available.
Below are James Newton’s program notes for the compositions on The Manual of Light (with the exception of “Amazing Grace” which is included above):
LOOKING ABOVE, THE FAITH OF JOSEPH
FOR SOLO PIANO (2008)
One of my greatest inspirations in the Bible has come from Joseph, the son of Jacob, who kept a steady gaze on the Word of God. Despite his enslavement and imprisonment, Joseph’s faith remained steadfast in the knowledge that, as the Bible states, “The Lord was with Joseph.”
The music for “Looking Above, The Faith of Joseph” is partially programmatic, and refects upon certain aspects of Joseph’s life in a non-chronological manner. In writing this work, I thought about four great pianists: Yvonne Loriod; Thelonious Monk; Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor. At particular junctures within the structure of the composition, each of these pianists is a source of inspiration. I have attempted to refect my profound admiration for these great artists by infusing the music with their impact on my compositional language. At times an imagined interaction occurred among these pianists that compelled me to approach composition in new ways. In playing this composition, pianists should not attempt to play precisely like these great artists but instead, should use their approaches as a point of reference.
“Looking Above, The Faith of Joseph” refects a sound world that I have been developing for many years. This sound world refects my experiences in the jazz, classical and world music genres and my improvisational language that mixes all three.
Joseph is the conduit for God’s revelation to Jacob, “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for a great nation I will make you there.” One can get lost in the profound numerological structures within Joseph’s journey within the book of Genesis. For many years I have incorporated biblical numerology in compositional structures. In this composition, as in others, I have tried to achieve a balance between these numerological structures and divine inspiration.
In its way, this humble ofering reveals my love for Joseph’s crucial role in inspiring many others to follow his faith by his moving through life steadily gazing at God’s luminescent radiance.
FOR STRING QUINTET (2014)
After completing a four-year journey of composing my Saint Matthew Passion for vocal soloists, chorus, orchestra and rhythm section, I found it impossible to bring the compositional flow of ideas to an end, and I did not resist. “Elisha’s Gift” is the first of a group of short works that followed the Passion. The language of the Passion is firmly rooted in the history of the African American church, which is a crucial part of my life. I have often pondered Elisha’s gift, his state of being with God, and how he produced so many mysterious and profound miracles. I reflected intently on the scriptural account of Prophet Elisha’s gift of being able to be in direct, unencumbered communication with God. I sought an appropriate metaphor in nature. This search brought into clarity awe-inspired memories of observing the Northern Lights during various musical tours. For me, the miraculous movement of the lights invokes a sense of wonderment and connection with God’s creation. Thus, viewing the Northern Lights is metaphorically a conversation with God. These thoughts inspired new approaches to inform my musical language. In “Elisha’s Gift,” these new forms embrace programmatic, but not always chronological, elements in sections of the composition.
Many of the musical figures within “Elisha’s Gift” are full of gesticulation and, at times, echo the hyper-precision of musical phrases performed simultaneously, with immense life force, by Charles Christopher Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie (variations of material inspired by Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle-Tinkle” can also be heard in the opening section of the composition). These gesticulations also manifest themselves as compositionally within a contrapuntal network of ideas that expound upon the musical material within the rhythmic unisons. This approach leads to a language that implies as much as it states.
In composing “Elisha’s Gift,” I remembered the first time I heard, at the age of nineteen, Toru Takemitsu’s stunning composition for symphony orchestra, “Green.” This masterpiece made me feel as though I had heard music in a new way and I marveled at the universe that Takemitsu created within less than six minutes. It is a lesson and inspiration that I continuously relive.
THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS
FOR SOLO TRUMPET IN C (2014; REVISED 2016)
This composition was inspired by scripture from Isaiah 40:3 and Matthew 3:3. In musical environments that combine the written and the improvised, the trumpet is often chosen as the voice to make some of the most personal statements. It was my goal for the listener to hear both the “cry” and the “wilderness” in the music. Although there are numerous organizational elements in the work, I aimed for a contemporary improvisation feeling even though the score is entirely through-composed. I found myself reflecting on Maurice Ravel’s solo piano masterwork, Miroirs, which stated the composer’s goal of having the music sound and feel like improvisation.
FOR SOLO PIANO (2009)
“Gethsemane” is a refection on Christ and the disciples’ upward ascent to the garden, and his journey of preparation leading to His prayers before the abduction. Many dance references ranging from Joplin’s Treemonisha, Bach’s English Suites, Harlem Stride, and contemporary rhythms inspired the first section. The approaching fullness of time, moving Christ and his disciples up the hill with increasing intensity, was like the pull of a giant magnet. Rhythmic displacement and occasionally jagged rhythms infer the immense gravitas of the moment. For the next section, I had to expand my contrapuntal language to do my best to humanly depict a gentle love-filled dialogue between the Father and the Son. The following sections develop these first two in a non-linear fashion which ends with a prayer, and the final tolling of the bell three times (representing each element of the Trinity) followed by a three-note chord to finish the work, again reflecting the complete unity of the Trinity.
DOS DANZAS PARA ARPA, MVTS 1 & 2
FOR SOLO HARP (1998; REVISED 2016)
“Dos Danzas Para Arpa” is the earliest of all the compositions, reflecting the few precious years that I had playing as a flutist in the studio of harpist Susan McDonald, working on Debussy’s Trio Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, and many other works that combine harp and flute. Equally inspiring were the few precious concerts that I played with the great American jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby. “Dos Danzas Para Arpa” combines the theoretical approaches of Yusef Lateef (particularly his seminal Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns) with the compositional language that echoes the French Harp Tradition.
MULTICOLORED REFLECTIONS WITHIN THE ORION NEBULA
FOR SOLO PIANO (2009)
The Hubble Telescope’s images of deep space have been an essential catalyst for seeking new thought and further understanding of the Heavenly bodies in the universe. I feel liberated when I ponder these fantastic images as starting points of compositional structuring and developing a sense of fantasy because these images are so far beyond our comprehension. The photos have also moved me to create new formal structures, as well as to find new modes of beauty. Contrasts also abound, when one tries to capture gaseous plumes gesticulating to create visual dances within the nebula. I must also state that I see references to Thelonious Monk, Olivier Messiaen, Sam Gilliam, Duke Ellington, Alma Thomas, Toru Takemitsu, Geri Allen, György Ligeti, Henri Dutilleux, Gerhard Richter, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Julie Mehretu, and Billy Strayhorn in the divine creation. I hope to write soon a series of multi-movement works for piano based on more Hubble Telescope images.