Liner Notes: Pulses by Elsa Nilsson

Foreword by Lynne Procope, Liner Notes by Karas Lamb

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

This week, we are thrilled to present an extraordinary opportunity to delve into the captivating world of flutist and composer Elsa Nilsson. On October 6, Nilsson will premiere her remarkable musical interpretation of Maya Angelou's iconic inaugural poem, "On The Pulse of Morning," at National Sawdust.

To commemorate the occasion we offer Karas Lamb's phenomenal liner notes to provide invaluable insight on Nilsson’s eloquent musicianship and the deep connections between Angelou's intuitive musicianship as a vocal performer and her formidable skill as a writer and poet. These notes illuminate a breathtaking composition that braids the beauty and brutality of the world into a powerful reminder of the enduring power of hope, courage, and unity.

Whether you are preparing to join us on October 6 or are a devoted fan from afar, we encourage you to immerse yourself in the richness of Dr. Angelou's poem and to savor the liner notes provided by Karas Lamb and take a moment to delve into Nilsson's awe-inspiring Band of Pulses. The music envelops you, guides you deeper into a profound connection with the vital messages Angelou and Nilsson convey in this extraordinary collaboration. Through their artistry, they remind us of the transformative power of art—a force that bridges gaps, sparks conversations, and ignites change.

Dr. Maya Angelou stood on the national mall on January 20th, 1993 to mark the presidential inauguration celebrating the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as the 40th President of The United States of America. Looking out onto the crowd gathered for the occasion, she scanned the sea of bodies before looking toward the horizon, where she envisioned the collecitve pain of the country’s fraught past as a more just, equitable future.

Angelou’s poem On The Pulse of Morning found her calling out to an America that enacts the concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity as lived ideals instead of lofty ornamentation just close enough to the eye to induce wonder but hovering above us, perpetually out of reach. An America honest enough about a legacy of settler colonialism and separatism to finally be unbound by it. An America first founded, in earnest, with little more than the elements that populate the opening words of her speech: “A rock, a river, a tree…”

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages

As if panning for gold in the silt from which mankind first sprang, Angelou pores over the particulate matter of antiquated policy and petrified beasts to bear witness to both the demise and promise of a species. Where fallow land threatens to prevail she imagines a verdant earth that can nourish generations to come or be nourished, if we are not careful, by our bodies.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

Speaking in a manner that endows the pregannt pause with the same power as the high pitch, Angelou builds intensity through the use of dominant sounds and minor blues that call forth the joyful effervescence of the major scales as the tension in her voice is released. Her diction is characteristically precise as she speaks in the glissando that migrates effortlessly from the guttural moans of backwater blues to the clarion call of a bugler rousing the heavens with “Taps.” Angelou’s phrasing and performance are a living record of the breadth of Black American Music and its ability to encapsulate the history of a people whose origins and experiences have been systematically erased from the official record over centuries to protect the legacies of their captors.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

As vinegar cuts through the fact obscuring the contents of a simmering pot, Angelou’s On The Pulse of Morning lays bare the truth of a nation with a melange of words levied in glad intonations and satisfied grins that soften the sharpness of words spoken expressly to undress it’s bones—to challenge the status quo that would have a republic boast of freedoms it has never instituted to completion.

Thirty years after Dr. Angelou’s delivery of the poem on the national mall, flutist Elsa Nilsson offers a careful excavation of the artifact that attempts to execute the author’s directive to continue the work. Enter Pulses—a suite of tone poems inspired by the coded languages of gospel, blues and jive as spoken in diftongs and refrains by one of America’s foremost bards.

Imbued with the tender invocation of a preacher’s altar call to wayward souls and the brash fury of Coltrane’s tenor in flight, Angelou’s delivery captures the musicality of Black speech; the melodic traits of the culture are evident in Maya Angelou’s habit of circling notes for emphasis, which is a core element of bebop phrasing. Nilsson distills this delivery into movements through careful notation to demonstrate the communicative power of jazz; the music in this case is a tool for the interrogation of difficult subject matter that is not muddied but instead inspired by the words of the inaugural poem.

Joined by pianist Santiago Leibson, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Rodrigo Recabarren, Nilsson analyzes and transmutes On The Pulse of Morning into a melodic interplay of measure and verse the find the ensemble and Angelou herself—the chief soloist in each arrangement—mulling revolution across the time space continuum through the time-honored divining tools of diminished chords and rhythm. The entire affairs begins, according to Nilsson, on an E natural and ends with Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”— a statement of hope that acknowledges what is possible when people work together (in unison) to manifest the ideal world they envision:

“She hits a high note on E, an octave above from where she started, one time only. She takes almost hte whole poem to build up to this peak. When she hits the word “pulse” I start playing “what a wonderful world” at a tempo dictated by her voice. The first time I used this phrase it was done to highlight cynicism in part 2, now it is used to highlight hope. Since Dr Angelou is using everything she has done so far to tie it all together her voice is very dense in this section. I wanted the clarity of this melody to frame the concept of hope that she arrives at, so that when she says that word and we end on the “P” sound of it, it is clear that this is the feeling we are to take with us as we walk away. I believe hope is the best thing we do as a species. It takes such courage and intent, and it is a process. Something we continue to engage in. The power of music to cultivate hope is something I think about a lot. I love the idea that in acknowledging humanity through the work we do as artists we are planting seeds for this instinct to bloom in the heart of our species. Every time I listen to or read Dr Angelou I walk away with a spark of hope in my heart, even when she is addressing the darkest things within our capacity. This has led me to want to acknowledge both the beauty and brutality of the world we live in, as we can’t affect any form of change (motion) without looking at the whole picture.” E. Nilsson

In many cultures it is the job of the women to bear witness. What Angelou began in a moment of recitation is extended by Nilsson’s interpolation of the work. This conversation, brought to life as Pulses, is a spiritual pact between two artists connected by a painstakingly crafted web of musical statements and a mutual desire for the progress of mankind. Both committed to observing the same history through complimentary mediums at two different points in time.

Instead of dismissing the wounds of a nation, Angelou and Nilsson treat them with serene melody and sincere compassion. Each of them deeply committed to using their respective instruments to foster change. Together, they deliver the poultice of healing sound at a new but eerily familiar tipping point in the nation’s history; still reeling form the effects of a global pandemic the America body politic vacilates between fascism and freedom. And so it is that we find ourselves here, yet again, at the intersection of our past and our potential. On the pulse of morning.

The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.