Lara Downes was accustomed to living out of her suitcase. As a musician, there was always somewhere to go, a place to be seen and music to be played. Her inspiration came to her in brief moments of pause, like while exercising or showering, but that’s all these moments were: brief. But with Covid-19 came a dramatic change in lifestyle for Downes — her suitcase was unpacked, and she was stagnant for the first time in years.
It was in this stillness that Downes, who is the host of NPR’s “Amplify with Lara Downes,” created her most recent program, “Tomorrow I May Be Far Away,” which is being presented by Washington Performing Arts on Nov. 3 at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
Downes, alongside Rita Dove, the renowned poet and essayist, produced a matrimony of music and poetry. “Tomorrow I May Be Far Away” is about migration, begging questions of movement, family, loss and collective memory. In her exploration into stillness, Downes found these themes all follow the same way forward: through hope.
“[In] America everyone is from somewhere else,” Downes says. “There are multiple journeys, but each one of us is only where we are because someone else made a journey.”
Told through the lens of immigrant and Black migrations in the U.S., the event is personal, yet utterly relatable. The story of migration is an individual and collective narrative, and through poetry and music Downes and Dove plan to reflect on their personal and shared histories, while keeping in mind those who came before them such as Henry T. Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, Florence Price, William Grant Still and Duke Ellington. She also makes the point of ensuring there’s a gaze toward the future, while naming emerging musicians.
“What do you do when you arrive in a new place, and you make something new and yet you’ve left so much behind?” Downes asks. “And I feel that so much [is] driven by chance, and by outside forces, and then by inner choice and courage. I think that’s the thing that I keep coming back to.”
I spoke with Downes on Zoom. She sat in a bright room with window shade lines cast across her face. I asked her about her upcoming show, the pieces and the pandemic. I wanted to know her artistic process, all the things that make her who she is.
Something happens when you hear someone passionately speak of their art. You forget the long hours and self doubt, you forget the tedious moments when a half-baked piece sits idle for a few days, when you beg the universe for that needed clarity that makes you feel your art again.
And for Downes, the stillness of the pandemic was her push into that clarity. So she created. And when Downes speaks of her creation, it’s filled with pride, excitement and gratitude toward those who she worked with.
“I always wondered, if I didn’t have stuff to do, who am I as an artist without outside forces?” Downes asks. “I think all artists wonder [about] that, because we’re always running around and you have deadlines and you have obligations. And it turned out that this time of being kind of freed from that … it really clarified things for all of us.”
Downes has been hailed as a leading pianist of her generation. A description that earned her a stamp of approval from the Washington Performing Arts, who called her a “musical innovator and cultural investigator.”
“I mean, I’m a pianist. That’s what I do and have been doing since I was four,” Downes says. “But I think I’m a storyteller through music — and particularly in terms of American music and revisiting all the crossroads where American music comes together.”
As the performing arts reemerge from a pandemic that took so much, in so many ways, there is the return of live audiences. For Downes, that also means a return to intimacy with her listeners.
“I think the magical thing that we’ve been missing so much and the thing that we can do really beautifully in this project, is to create that intimacy where what is being done on the stage requires you to lean [into] it,” Downes says.
Being back with people in person rather than performing into a camera or lone microphone means for Downes the expansion of that mutual relationship — a beautiful relationship of mutual learning and give and take.
Downes attributes much of that beauty to Dove, who she applauds as a magical performer. In their friendship, the pair created a project with deep roots, and on Nov. 3 these roots will extend to their audience in-person to pull everyone closer, leaning into the intimacy.