As a composer, Wadada Leo Smith is impossible to classify in one word. You need a laundry list: there’s definitely jazz, and the western classical tradition, but musical styles from a variety of other cultures also appear, and whatever the influences or traditions, the music sounds new and original. It sounds like Wadada Leo Smith.

Also a trumpet player and bandleader, he can play straightahead jazz, funky, late-Miles Davis-style electric and some brilliantly challenging avant-garde styles.

His four-and-a-half hour epic Ten Freedom Summers, a musical exploration of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

Smith continues to wrestle with American history in new compositions that will be premiered at Harvard over the weekend, which includes his 17th string quartet. He spoke with GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath ahead of Saturday’s concert, which he called “a big one” for him. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: Let’s dive right in with your 17th string quartet. It’s a programmatic piece, subtitled: “The Capital, Washington D.C: An American Experiment with Democracy and Capitalism.” Tell us about the history you’re exploring here.

Wadada Leo Smith: Well, essentially, I do a lot of research on the Constitution and this is an extension, part of my “Constitution” string quartets. The first three of them were string quartets nos. 14, 15 and 16. And number 17 is just an extension of that.

I decided I would look at the Capitol grounds and some important events of spots around the grounds.

And so I start with this notion that we have a constitution that's very clear. And we constantly hear our politicians talking about, “It's an experiment.” Well, when something is actually laid out with concrete principles, you can't experiment with that. It already says what it says.

So this particular string quartet, no. 17, asks the question: “Can we find democracy anywhere on the planet?”

And it also asks this other question: “How do we look at ourselves as civil society in relationship to our institutions?” Like Congress, the executive branch — the two branches of law — and the courts. How do we look at that in terms of being citizens of this nation?

Rath: I noticed in the program that one of the moments of the Capitol you take on is January 6.

I'm wondering about what your take is on that because there's an indication from the title — “January Six: The Falcon Uplifted the Unity with Love” — that it's hopeful..

Smith: It is hopeful. I decided that, when there’s an impact of something, that’s a catastrophic event, okay? But I wanted to look at that which survived the event. I want to look at the notion of love and uplifting. And what was profound about that moment is that the Capitol was not completely overtaken. And the work of Congress — though very little — in this case became very big. They actually got something done!

And to me, that's a very positive thrust. It's one of those thrust that's kind of like a dream or expectation dream because I'm still in doubt of the fact that we have been talking about democracy ever since I've been alive — and that's 82 years — and I've yet to see it actually materialize.

So there's a bit of hope with kind of a long view that says, “come on!”

“I'm still in doubt of the fact that we have been talking about democracy ever since I've been alive — and that's 82 years — and I've yet to see it actually materialize.”
Wadada Leo Smith

Rath: Let's talk about the other premiere, because this also sounds very deep. It's called “Gardens of Peace,” it’s a sonic meditation for peaceful and nonviolence acts toward a resolution-accords — which would imply that it might be about Israel and Palestine, but it also seems like it leaves it open for a lot of things.

Smith: It's about Israel and Palestine. It's about Ethiopia, and all the problems in there and all over northern and central Africa. It's about Ukraine. But the ultimate thing that it is really about is that our history as a human species has always been one of confrontation. And we have never settled back and let negotiations and discussion resolve the issue. And these gardens of peace, there are as many gardens of peace as they are human beings on this planet. It's a transparent garden that exists inside of all of us.

And I'm asking the question: “Will we take a look at ourselves and try to find that peaceful moment inside of us? And then emulate it in our daily practice?”

And on stage, as a performed piece, we gonna condition the lights in a way that it would represent the whole auditorium. And the stage will represent a physical idea, not the physical replica of, but a physical idea of this immaterial space that's inside of us that's always been about resolution.

“The real problem with music is sometimes we work it to death before it's actually come alive. I don’t want that to happen.”
Wadada Leo Smith, on why he doesn’t like over-rehearsing before Saturday’s premiere

Rath: Tell us about the process of rehearsing this new music, fleshing it out with the musicians?

Smith: Well, nowadays I don't like to rehearse over and over and over. I like one major rehearsal. We put that together, we get it stitched together in terms of all of its parts — but we won't play the entire piece.

The entire piece is gonna be played when it's on stage, because the real problem with music is sometimes we work it to death before it's actually come alive. I don't want that to happen.

Rath: So that should make it pretty special for Saturday night.

Smith: Yes. We're hoping to discover something that's equivalent to a blue diamond.

Smith is premiering his 17th string quartet Saturday, April 20, at Harvard in a concert titled “Revolutionary Fire-Love: A Sonic Odyssey in Search of Democracy and Humanity’s Rights.”