Mark Lomax composed the music for “Freedom’s Train” toward the tail end of 2023, at a point in time when he was navigating a deep depression brought about by a series of personal tragedies, having attended seven funerals, four of which took place in September alone. “Every other week we heard about somebody dying,” Lomax said in late January. “It was close family members, and then one of our friend’s kids. … I wasn’t in a good headspace.”
And yet, owing to the relentless nature required of creative work, Lomax forged ahead through his grief, crafting “Freedom’s Train,” composing a second work for a string quartet and then staging a concert in Antioch, all while navigating family responsibilities and the regular load of his 9-to-5 career. Adding to the complexity, “Freedom’s Train” is being performed as part of a Worthington Chamber Orchestra series dubbed “American Stories of Hope,” which is designed to highlight “themes in the African American experience and the power of hope in overcoming challenges and oppression,” according to the website.
But Lomax wasn’t feeling much in the way of hope as he worked on the composition. In fact, he said he hasn’t felt much hope since the onset of COVID, which obliterated the live music scene to such an extent that it still hasn’t recovered, with Lomax sharing that he booked fewer performances in 2023 at age 45 than he did at age 12. “So, yeah, I can’t say that I’ve been in a hopeful place,” said the musician, whose composition will be brought to life with the assistance of conductor Antoine Clark and the cello quartet Ucelli at the Worthington United Methodist Church on Sunday, Feb. 4.
Absent this sense of hope, as he worked Lomax centered his thoughts on two ideas. The first was a concept he termed “400 forward,” rooted in his 12-album magnum opus “400: An Afrikan Epic” and focused on how we as a society can heal and grow in the wake of the traumas brought on by enslavement. And second was the notion that Worthington, at one point, was a welcoming community with multiple stops on the Underground Railroad, which led him to consider the freedom trail as a metaphor for becoming.
“The Underground Railroad is that path and that process by which you can change that narrative and become something new and more,” he said. “Every so often, someone comes along and drops a book on you, or a kind word, or they teach you something new that brings you closer and closer to that idea of becoming and living in your most authentic expression of humanity. … And that, I think, is where freedom comes.”
After he lands on a concept for a composition, Lomax said, the sounds generally follow, often taking on a more literal expression. “Freedom’s Train,” for one, started with a work song, the percussive boom, boom matching the propulsive rhythm of a chain gang, or somebody working in a field. “And then I kind of imagine other sections of the orchestra as different characters,” he continued. “So, the woodwinds would be the enslaved Africans, and the brass would be the overseers, the ‘crackers’ who literally cracked the whip and stood between the enslaved and the landed, ownership class.”
Lomax attributed his visual approach to composition, in part, to a long-held desire to compose music for film, in addition to the importance of having a way to talk about the work that is less rooted in academia. “Nobody wants to hear me talk about [the music] theoretically, like, ‘In measures 68 to 71, I modulate from this key to that key,’” he said, and laughed. “Nobody wants to hear that shit. But they do want to hear the story, and that’s what makes the music relevant.”
The most pivotal role in the composition, however, is held by the strings and the members of Ucelli, who Lomax described as the drivers or the engineers on the Underground Railroad. “They represent the gurus, or the griots even, who would come and whisper a word of encouragement, or some knowledge that helps you on that journey to becoming,” he said.
These words, Lomax said, can serve as a means of obliterating the Matrix, opening a person up to possibilities that might not have been present to them before. “Harriet Tubman said she saved hundreds of slaves, and that she would have saved hundreds more if only they had known they were enslaved,” he said. “So many of us are socialized in this environment, and it’s like water, it’s normal. Until you see something, and you can’t unsee it. And then you start questioning things. You start picking at it.”
Lomax has experienced these moments repeatedly throughout his life, recalling a time in grade school when he challenged a teacher by asking them questions about material that existed outside of the textbook, revealing an ignorance that shattered the veneer that adults, and specifically instructors, were somehow equipped with all of the answers.
Another moment arrived as he immersed himself more heavily in mastering the drums – an instrument he started playing at age 2 – pressing beyond sacred music and into jazz as he discovered the likes of Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Max Roach.
“And I got in trouble for that, and I was like, ‘You told me this was a gift from God. … And you mean to tell me I have this gift, but I can’t grow?’” Lomax said. “And I challenged that, and in challenging that I got kicked out of five churches. But, yes, I’ve had these moments of awakening or seeing. And they weren’t always big or dramatic.”
Many, however, reinforced the idea that there was something more that existed beyond the page we’re presented – an idea in which Lomax has rooted his approach to the drums, pushing himself to find new ways to speak with and through the instrument.
Along those lines, Lomax recalled once getting in an argument with the trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who to Lomax’s chagrin described the drums as “the engine of the band.”
“And I’m like, ‘That’s bullshit. The drums, in terms of their role in society, are way more important than a band,’” said Lomax, who embodies a concept embedded in him by African drum masters that the instrument is foremost the primary means of communication between the people and God. “I have this idea in the back of my mind of playing beyond your chops, which is in that same [vein] of thinking beyond the page, because when you’ve reached the peak of your virtuosity, there’s got to be something else, right? I know so many musicians who are brilliant musicians, but their music is not exciting because they’re relying on the technical aspect and not tapping into the deeper, more profound spiritual and human aspects. … And that’s something I got from African music, and in particular the drumming. In America, we often get fed the superficial, spectacle narrative, where it’s about what people see. And what’s actually important is all the things you don’t.”