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Composer Roland Carter Wants You to “Make Some Noise, Get in Trouble!”

Composer Roland Carter Premieres Spiritual Piece Honoring the Late Rep. John Lewis at Black History Month Concert

February 18, 2022 was the night composer Roland Carter, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga music professor with a 23-year tenure, debuted the spiritual that he had been working on for over a year.

That same night, UTC’s music department hosted a Black History Month concert featuring four university-affiliated choral groups at downtown Chattanooga’s Second Presbyterian Church. Among them were the all-black Littleton Mason Singers, UTC Singing Mocs, UTC Chamber Singers and UTC Chattanooga Singers. Carter’s piece, performed by the UTC Chamber Singers, was the show’s headliner.

In early 2021, the organization Chorus America reached out to Carter for a commission. Carter described Chorus America, whose board he served on for six years, as a resource center and hub for the management of choirs in the United States. He happily accepted the challenge but also wanted whatever he produced to be meaningful. He needed to take a while to consider who or what he would write about.

Each of the guests that shuffled in through the ornate main doors of Second Presbyterian Church was handed a program in the narthex. A few lines from Carter’s piece were printed prominently on the front page, and above those, the title, “Make Some Noise, Get in Trouble!”

The idea was for the audience to rap along with the choir at certain key points during the performance. Having the audience speak up, Carter explained, would mirror the courageous instances of open, vocal activism that he observed firsthand in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The voice of the late John Lewis, who passed away in 2020 after serving 34 years in U.S. House of Representatives, was one of the loudest he crossed paths with during that period. Despite the forces trying to silence him, Lewis never quieted in the face of injustice, and regularly encouraged others to make noise with him.

“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis tweeted in 2018.

That was the line that kicked Carter’s creative engines into gear. He had found the central figure he could build his piece around, and some catchy lyrics on top of that.

But Carter didn’t want to exclusively focus on history or Civil Rights, either. The hope was that his music would speak to the here and now just as much as the past. He wanted Lewis’s message to reverberate outward and inspire current and future generations under completely different circumstances.

“[The piece] was designed to address two world concerns: the pandemic and injustice,” Carter said. “A hope for a new day, a new morning, a new chance to get it right next time — that was the idea.

“If you are sensitive to injustices at all, then it will carry on,” he added.

He had the meaning, but what would it sound like?

Pulling a note from his blaser to get the precise wording, Carter recounted, “I said ‘I am going to write a composition for the SATB (Soprano Alto Tenor Bass) with music in the idiomatic, melodic and rhythmic strands of traditional spirituals.’”

Carter took the musicality of every lyric into consideration in the writing process. The word “trou·ble,” for example, has an accented first syllable, which means it should start on a downbeat whenever it shows up.

“The accented and unaccented parts of words are crucial in writing,” he said.

Spirituals weren't Carter's only musical inspiration.

“I decided I wanted to do something in the rap or hip-hop vein,” he said.

The only problem was that he had very limited experience writing in such genres. Luckily, Carter could call on his son, a practicing DJ who sat in the rear of the sanctuary for the performance, to help him realize those elements.

Carter received a standing ovation when he took to the stage to give opening remarks, and then received another after his piece concluded. While, for most, it would feel surreal to see their work performed in front of an audience for the first time, for Carter, who has over half a century’s experience composing under his belt, it’s just another day on the job. Carter turns 80 this year, and doesn’t plan to quiet down any time soon.

To learn more about Roland Carter’s lengthy career as a composer, educator and philanthropist, click here.

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