On Saturday, the Louisville Orchestra premieres “The Greatest: Muhammad Ali,” an ambitious new creation from conductor and music director Teddy Abrams, complete with an all-star award-winning cast.
Abrams spoke with Insider about the project’s inspiration, the process of writing and researching it, and the greatness of Ali.
Insider Louisville: So what was the genesis of this project?
Teddy Abrams: It started with this idea of commissioning a piece around American heroes. That was long before we settled on a subject matter. I just had this idea to take significant people or events or something that has text associated with it and create some kind of dramatic narrative work. But they were going to be smaller in scale.
IL: How did you finally settle on Ali?
TA: I was with Mayor (Greg) Fischer talking about this concept. Mayor Fischer said: “Why don’t we start with someone from Louisville? Why don’t we start with a hometown hero?”
The encouragement from metro government is something that’s really special. There is no other mayor of a major city that would sit down with a music director of an orchestra and talk about programing. It just doesn’t happen. It’s so cool, and that kind of encouragement and involvement is something that makes Louisville really special.
IL: Once you settled on Ali, what came next?
TA: At that time, I just knew the basics about Ali, and people were saying, “Oh, that would be great because he has all this poetry,” and I wasn’t really familiar with that. I knew he was fun and kind of said a lot of witty things, but I had no idea the content or the context.
That was when I started doing the very beginning of the research, and I thought, “Oh, this is incredible.” You could create a piece that was essentially Ali’s words, set to music as a rap or at least include rap in some way, because his poetry was an early form of rap.
It wasn’t until he passed away that I started thinking about what it would really be, and I just picked up every book I could about his life.
IL: How tightly does the piece focus on Ali’s story?
TA: I realized this subject was an opening into all the bigger subjects that are playing out continuously, and that’s why the piece grew in scale, by almost 10 times.
People my age don’t really have a window into what (the world) was like during Ali’s reign. We know about it, we can see videos, but until you live it — I was basically living this time period for a long time — and I just couldn’t believe how extraordinary it was and how our lives today are connected to it as if by a pipeline. I wanted to create a piece that would put people in the context of his life, but moreover the whole world history around it.
IL: So the piece tries to tackle Ali’s life and the world he was living in?
TA: It goes in and out of three things really. There’s the Ali narrative, and that does go from the beginning of his life and the boxing history even before he starts fighting, all the way through to his death. Then there are two other streams that go through, and that’s the American history narrative, so there are political speeches that are recited, Kennedy and Johnson and Malcolm X.
And then there are various other poems and things.
IL: There are poems?
TA: The poems are not about Ali literally, but they are exactly about him metaphorically and they span over a thousand years. There are Sufi poems from the 12th century, there are American poems from the 19th century. The range is huge.
And it’s amazing how these poems convey everything I was trying to say. You take a (Walt) Whitman text, this excerpt from “Song of the Broad-Axe,” which I always loved that poem, and I was rereading it and it was amazing — the words just leapt of the page.
And he talked about how in society, every once in a while a strong being appears, someone who essentially shrugs off the care for being liked and pulls forward everybody. And everybody recognizes this person’s glow.
And I was, like, “Oh my God, he’s talking about Ali.”
IL: Do any other poems come to mind that illustrate this idea?
TA: The other one I thought was remarkable is this Attar (of Nishapur) poem, it’s this 12th century poem — a Sufi Islam poem — and Attar describes three butterflies, and each one successively tries to uncover the meaning of love, on a global sense. And it’s the perfect description.
IL: Are there parts of the show you wrote, or is it all found material?
TA: I wrote the narration, so the narrative parts are my own.
IL: Musically, how did you unite the disparate parts? Are you using motives and themes?
TA: I kept it as tight as humanly possible on the back end, just like (Richard) Wagner or John Williams. All those great operas, all those John Williams movies, those are based on motives that reference different things.
So, in “Star Wars,” you have the Darth Vader motive, you have the love motive, you have Leia’s theme. Even when you’re not aware of it, they’re tied into the score. And this is the same way. There are about five or six different themes — and some are just a rhythmic device, some are true actual themes — which run throughout the entire piece.
IL: Another big name in the show is Jecorey “1200” Arthur. What is his role?
TA: Jecorey’s role in the piece is a huge front-and-center role — he’s actually playing Ali, with Ali’s own words until the very end.
The last bit of it is Jecorey stepping forward as himself and he performs a rap as a person whose life — I think at least up to now — parallels elements of Ali’s. They’re from the same neighborhood, they found music as a way of communicating and creating incredible social impact.
IL: Can you talk a little about the other performers?
TA: Everybody was kind of hand-selected. The singers are Jubilant Sykes — he sang the Bernstein Mass with us, he’s a legend and a great singer — and then Rhiannon Giddens — she was a serious steal.
She just won the MacArthur (Fellows) grant. We lucked out that we got her before that; I think her schedule is probably full now. She’s deserves it 100 percent. She’s the real deal. No one else can do what she does. She was perfect for this.
“The Greatest: Muhammad Ali” is on stage Saturday, Nov. 4, at 8 p.m. at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall, 501 W. Main St. Tickets start at $27.