Williams — who’s in his late 40s, though he identifies as “forever 29” — doesn’t have children. Yet that quasi-parental observation is at the heart of his new work “Stirring the Waters Across America,” a theatrical concert production that examines the key moments of the civil rights era from 1954 to 1968. Williams, one of six recipients of the Kennedy Center’s inaugural Social Practice Residencies, will premiere the work on Sunday at the Reach.
“It’s a good time to remind people of these moments and the lessons we should learn from them,” he says.
Though he wrote the lyrics, Williams is no polemicist. Many “statement”-oriented composers and songwriters, especially in folk and pop, keep the music simple for fear of obscuring the point. Not so “Stirring the Waters.” It combines elements of classical polyphony and technique, jazz harmonies, pop song structures, theatrical flourishes and gospel flavor (including its title tune, an adaptation of the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water”).
Its premiere will feature 14 singers (seven male and seven female), piano, bass and drums. This is not the stuff of amateur musicians.
“I operate on the principle that what comes from the heart, reaches the heart,” Williams says. “My experience bears witness to that: When you write from a place of earnestness and authenticity, people discern that, and the message comes through.”
He does, however, agree with the soapbox troubadours that music, lyrical or no, is often more useful than rhetoric for that kind of communication. “In many ways conversation can be very threatening, in how we approach our tone and what we have to say,” he says. “But music has a way of provoking thought, provoking reflection and challenging social norms in ways that aren’t immediately threatening.”
Williams, who was born in Los Angeles but has lived in the District since his early childhood, has some experience in messaging. His father was a minister (as is Williams) who traveled around the country to preach. His mother, meanwhile, is an inveterate storyteller: “To this day, my mom will start a story and I will finish it.”
She also played piano, and along with his great aunt, the inspirational pianist Daisy Marie Young, began teaching him when he was 4. His parents also were determined to give him wide cultural exposure, taking him to dance recitals, plays and concerts of all stripes. He became an actor and boy soprano with George Washington University opera program.
As a direction for his life, music won out. Williams had formative experiences in the music department at St. John’s College High School, then at Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied classical piano. “I studied everything I could get my hands on,” he says. “Piano studies. Organ studies. Music history. Classical conducting. Composition. Jazz. Theater.”
It was a solid foundation for a career in the music industry, and Williams spent some time as musical director for some R&B artists. However, he needed to pacify the strong social conscience that his parents had instilled in him. “I wanted to be very particular about what I did with my gifting,” he says, “and I wanted it to mean something.”
Thus began an eclectic career of scoring and producing music for television, editing hymnals, programming for diplomatic and cultural institutions, conducting orchestras and choruses (including his self-assembled 60-piece NEWorks Philharmonic Orchestra), teaching in music schools and composing and arranging. Among others, Georgetown University and Kennedy Center have, since 2004, co-commissioned new music from Williams each year for the annual “Let Freedom Ring!” concert for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
“Stirring the Waters” also began as a tribute to King: It premiered last year at the French Embassy, in shorter form, to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.
“Originally I thought it was a one-off, and then the response from the audience was tremendous,” Williams says. “People were asking, ‘Where are you doing this?” When can we see this again?’ And I realized, ‘Wow, we really do need to do something special here.’ ”
In its extended form, the work includes pieces that touch on the murder of Emmett Till; the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March; the struggle for voting rights; and events in King’s life, such as his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his final speech delivered the night before his assassination.
“We also make connections between then and now,” Williams says. “When you look at our times and compare it with 50 years ago, there are too many eerie parallels.”
The full-length performance on Sunday isn’t a one-off, either. In 2020, Williams will take “Stirring the Waters Across America” on a nationwide tour (plans for which are still in progress). He is also talking to prospective educational partners, in the hopes of using some of the music in academic curriculums.
“If the lessons are being forgotten, some of that is attributable to the educational setting,” he says. “If we’re not teaching those lessons, there’s no way that generations coming up can understand and appreciate them. And that becomes the responsibility of all of us.”
"Stirring the Waters Across America"