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A composer's dream

IU music student's MLK-inspired work to be performed in Atlanta by Grammy-winner Sylvia McNair

"Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

-- Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.

How do you improve upon something that's already so perfect?

That was the challenge Arri Simon confronted when, during his freshman year at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, his music composition master class was assigned to set a segment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legendary "I Have a Dream" speech to music.

Simon, Arri
Arri Simon

Simon wasn't about to change anything about King's "immortal and beautiful" words. But after reading the text a few times, he thought they might make for an interesting musical theatre piece.

"So, I set [the composition] in a theatrical style, some popular influence, a little bit of drama, but still thinking about the words," he says. "Always the words and how they made me feel, how I heard them."

The resulting piece was "not something you go away humming" but also "comfortably singable by a variety of voice types," Simon explains. "It just sort of shimmers" in the key of A major, while featuring a repeated pattern that he describes as "somewhat ethereal and nostalgic … I believe it complements that almost magical nature of his (King's) words without detracting from their poignancy."

When he sang The American Dream for the class, several of his peers were moved to tears. While he wonders just how much his music and not King's words influenced the students' reaction, he humbly acknowledges that the piece was a meaningful success.

"There are, of course, things I don't like about it. I wrote it almost three years ago, and I have matured so much as a composer that looking back on it the piece seems almost childlike in a lot of ways," he says. "But somehow the naïveté works. The piece remains accessible, and the innocent nature of the composition just reminds me that he (King) was speaking to everyone, regardless of education, stature, race or otherwise."

Simon, now a junior Wells Scholar at IU who expects to graduate next year, is enrolled in an undergraduate opera workshop this semester at the IU Jacobs School of Music that is being taught by two-time Grammy Award-winning soprano Sylvia McNair. For the class' first assignment, McNair asked each of the students to share quotes by King, which they would then read as an audition piece (as part of an exercise on audition technique). She told them the "I Have a Dream" speech was off limits, though, because it was so popular.

But after Simon told McNair about the piece he wrote as a freshman, she asked if he would sing it at the end of the audition class. Simon "went for it," he says, and McNair loved it so much that she asked if she could sing it in an upcoming concert in Atlanta. The concert will be held on Tuesday (Feb. 20) as part of the Music at Peachtree Winter/Spring 2007 concert series at Peachtree Presbyterian Church.

Still in shock by the request, Simon remembers the exchange going something like this:

McNair: That was beautiful - I'm singing a concert in Atlanta this semester and would love to sing this piece. Would you allow me to do that?

Simon: (with a huge grin on his face and hardly able to stand) Um … I mean you can't really sing and nobody knows who you are. But, I guess so.

After graduation, Simon plans to attend graduate school for a master's degree in musical theatre writing or film scoring, or pursue a career in performance. He says he'd love to lengthen The American Dream and compose a full orchestration of the accompaniment for larger scale performances. He's even considered writing a musical about King someday.

At the moment, though, he's just living a dream. Asked whether he plans to attend the concert in Atlanta, he says, "It's an honor greater than many of my colleagues, including faculty, have or may ever experience. I'm 20 years old, and a two-time Grammy Award winner and internationally acclaimed classical superstar has asked permission to perform my work. I couldn't possibly miss it."