Derek Douglas Carter got an intriguing email, out of the blue, in 2020.
“I thought it was fake when I first got it, I’m not gonna lie,” he said.
It wasn’t fake.
The effort is a collaboration spearheaded by the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera. Organizers commissioned eight new works, including Carter’s, in this first installment. They asked artists to respond to police violence against Black communities in their city, and compose music that could be healing. The project is also intended to elevate Black dignity through music. Other composers and librettists participating in the project are based in cities like Aurora, Colo., Atlanta and Minneapolis.
Carter created “Breonna’s Lullaby,” which will have its live world premiere Tuesday at the Kennedy Center.
She ‘deserved a lullaby’
Carter’s work for piano, viola, double bass and clarinet honors 26-year-old aspiring nurse Breonna Taylor. Louisville Metro Police officers shot and killed her in her apartment in 2020.
Carter said he didn’t want to write a political piece.
“It was really hard at first trying to come up with something that wasn’t overly political so that I could celebrate who she was without having to dedicate myself to a passion of pain,” he said.
Carter’s two compositions directly before “Breonna’s Lullaby” were both political. While writing, he found himself “listening to these like lullabies to help soothe my soul, when I just got too angry or too upset,” he said.
Carter thought about the middle-of-the-night raid at Taylor’s home, and what it would be like to wake up to someone pounding on your door.
“I thought that, you know, she of all people deserved a lullaby,” he said.
The work isn’t a straightforward lullaby, though. Carter said it’s more complicated than that because what happened to Taylor is traumatizing. He wanted that to be present in elements of the music somehow, especially at the end.
“I didn’t want some sort of uplifting, feel good. And I didn’t want a down in the dumps sadness,” he said. “And instead of trying to find some point in between those emotions. I started looking to the left and right of them.”
For Carter, that felt “resolute without feeling like simple [satisfactory] endings.”
Trying to disrupt classical music norms and perceptions
“With the death of George Floyd [in Minneapolis in May 2020], it really gave us a particular focus and call to action to highlight Black voices and Black subject matter and Black sort of dignity,” National Symphony Orchestra artistic administrator Justin Ellis said of the initial push for The Cartography Project.
They were also intentional in finding artists who might typically fly under the orchestra and Washington National Opera’s radar, “which is a fundamental shift,” he added.
Ellis hopes that aspect of the project can inspire a shift in the classical music industry of how orchestras commission work, urging them to seek out composers and librettists who have traditionally been underrepresented.
“It starts conversations with administrators of how do we find these composers? What are the mechanisms that are out there within the field that exists… and what are the things that are missing within the field,” he said.
In terms of commissioning Derek Douglas Carter, Ellis said he came across Carter’s work doing research on artists in the Louisville area, and listened to several of his compositions online.
“In looking at him as an artist, I just thought he had a very interesting approach to composition,” Ellis said. “It’s hard to put into words, but there’s sort of a sonic, tonal bed to his music that I found really intriguing. It was nonlinear. It was not as thematic as you would assume.”
Carter said showcasing the music of living, contemporary composers from across the country is essential to making classical music as inclusive as possible.
“The orchestra should be a representation of a society now, not necessarily just a museum,” Carter said. “And I think that aspect is being really celebrated in this project.”