top of page


Come As You Are for tenor saxophone and piano

November 20, 2022: Steven Banks, Saxophonist-Composer Xak Bjerken, Piano, Principal Strings of The Met Orchestra

For several years, I have wanted to write a piece that was dedicated to my immediate family (my mother and three sisters) and the influence of my upbringing on my understanding of music and life in general. When preparing the program for my Young Concert Artists debut recital, it dawned on me that there would be no better time than this to share a work that bears such personal significance.

When I think back to my childhood, and especially the beginnings of my journey in music, the church is at the center of so much. We were regular church-goers, my grandfather was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church, and the church provided us with an incredible community that was very important to my family in the good times and the bad. The church taught me about the transformative and awesome power of music.

In an effort to honor both my family and the church, I decided to write a four-movement work in which each movement would be dedicated to a different family member and take inspiration from their favorite Negro spiritual or sacred song.

At its core, Come As You Are is an expanded arrangement or setting of these four songs. As a more direct reference to the music played in the church that I grew up going to, the song Total Praise, which is typically sung by a choir, serves as a sort of connective tissue throughout the entire piece. The titles of each movement come from lyrics from Total Praise. The text of each song is vital in understanding the expressive nature of each movement. However, the form and melodic content of each song have been either been expanded, rearranged, or manipulated in a way that is meant to make the message clear when played on instruments that, obviously, can not convey the actual words. Below, I’ve listed the movement titles along with the song that they draw inspiration from.

Lift My Eyes (My Lord, What A Morning)
Times of the Storm (Wade in the Water)
Strength of My Life (His Eye Is On the Sparrow)
Lift My Hands (I Still Have Joy)

When interpreted through the lens of classical music, these movements are configured in a way that is intended to align with a slightly deviant four-movement sonata form that composers like Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and many others used in several of their works. In this form, the first movement is an allegro, the second movement is a scherzo or dance, the third movement is an adagio, and the last movement is another fast one, perhaps with a dance feel or including a theme and variations. Come As You Are was conceived of with this in mind, but is not rigidly connected to it.

Through the lens of African-American sacred music, the first two movements, Lift My Eyes and Times of the Storm, are inspired by traditional Negro spirituals. It is important to note that spirituals often contained text that was Biblical on the surface, yet deeply personal or communicative in intention. My Lord, What A Morning and Wade in the Water are no exceptions to this tradition. In this spirit, I aimed to strike a balance between the surface-level meaning of these spirituals and what they might have meant for the people that sang them. There may seem to be striking dichotomies in character that are reflective of these varied meanings. The second two movements, Strength of My Life and Lift My Hands, are inspired by songs that are more common in religious practices today. In these, I have tried to make a musical depiction of the lyrics in a way that conveys the message of each song from my perspective.

As I wrote this piece, I realized that one of its purposes was to bring together different facets of my own life experience. As a classical musician, the vast majority of my colleagues have little knowledge or understanding of Black culture or how it influences my music-making. As a Black man from North Carolina, many of my family and friends don’t have a true sense of what I do and love as a classical performer and composer. I have also spent an incredible amount of time and energy on keeping these worlds separate and trying to show up in each as if the other didn’t exist. This “two-ness” is akin to a concept called double consciousness that W.E.B. Dubois introduced at the turn of the 20th century in his book The Souls of Black Folk. He outlines this concept, roughly, as having two simultaneous identities. One of these might be described as uniquely American, while the other is uniquely Black.

As a composer, I strive to let my internal musical voice be “ok” and to follow it where it wanders, trusting that this amalgamation of experiences is leading me in a direction that is uniquely mine and informed by my various interests and identities. Come As You Are is a significant landmark on this journey to musical individuation.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

bottom of page