He turned 'I can't breathe' into protest music

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, April 13, 2024

He turned 'I can't breathe' into protest music
The composer Joel Thompson at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., June 28, 2020. Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” written in 2014, is finding new listeners in a summer of unrest. Douglas Segars/The New York Times.

by Giulia Heyward

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Joel Thompson composed “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” he didn’t intend for anyone to hear the piece.

It was 2014. That summer, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner died in a chokehold during a botched arrest on Staten Island. For weeks, Thompson — then 25, with a degree in choral conducting — watched footage of Garner’s death on loop.

Reeling, he tried to find a way to channel his sadness and anger. He eventually took the final words of Brown, Garner and five other unarmed Black men who had been killed during encounters with the police, and set them to music for choir. But when he was finished, he put the piece away.

“I didn’t think of myself as a composer back then,” Thompson said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t think anyone would hear it. I didn’t think anyone would listen to it, or even want to listen to it.”

The work may well have stayed on his computer’s hard drive had Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, not died of a severe spinal cord injury the following year while in police custody in Baltimore. Gray’s death inspired Thompson to post on social media, asking if there was anyone interested in helping him bring his piece to life.

A friend suggested that he reach out to Eugene Rogers. As the director of choirs at the University of Michigan, Rogers was known for leading works that involved history and activism, on subjects like Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998, and Harriet Tubman. “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” was a bit riskier: The Black Lives Matter movement was still fairly new then, and still widely perceived as extreme. But in October 2015, Rogers led the university’s Men’s Glee Club in the premiere.

Thompson’s 15-minute piece echoes the liturgical structure of Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” The first movement is a moody setting of “Why do you have your guns out?” — the final words of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., who was shot and killed by a bullet from an officer’s .40-caliber pistol in White Plains, New York, in 2011. After moving through the words of Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Brown, Oscar Grant and John Crawford, the final section is a stirring rendering of Garner’s words, now a rallying cry: “I can’t breathe.”

The audience response to early performances was mixed, at best. When Rogers and the glee club toured cities including Washington and Johannesburg, the reaction was sometimes aggressive.

“I took a lot of heat,” Rogers said in an interview. “I went against many people who asked me not to do the piece. We had people in the audience rip up their programs and throw them in the trash, right in front of the choir, and walk out. I had letters written to my dean about it.”

But now, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the protests about police violence that have engulfed the nation and the sudden, broad realignment of opinion on racial issues, the work is finding new, and newly enthusiastic, listeners. On June 4, Carnegie Hall streamed a recording on its website and social media channels.

“People wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole five years ago,” Thompson said. “I’m grateful that people are willing to engage with it now, but I’m also simultaneously frustrated. I’m hoping that the people who are sharing this piece come to realize how white supremacy itself has been embedded into this genre. We need to make substantive structural change to how things are run in classical music.”

Had the coronavirus pandemic not hit, Thompson said, he would currently be lost in the archives of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra; the ensemble received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to commission a piece from him about the 1956 Tallahassee bus boycott. Instead, he spoke from his apartment in New Haven, Connecticut, occasionally setting the phone down to play riffs from his keyboard as he explained his work. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: You’re a Black Jamaican American in a predominantly white space. How did you get involved in classical composition?

A: I started playing piano in church services. I was pretty much self-taught up until that point, so I had horrible technique. Classical music moved to the foreground when I was an undergraduate at Emory.

I didn’t think it was really possible for me to do classical music. But I remember, I went to my first Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. They played Alvin Singleton’s “PraiseMaker,” and it was the first time I heard classical music from a Black composer. That’s when I sort of figured it was possible.

Q: Do you think it was easier to trust another Black man to be the conductor of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” because of your shared experience?

A: When Dr. Rogers told me he was interested in the piece, he came down to Atlanta and met with me over tea. We went through the score together. He shared how moved he was, as a Black male, studying the score, and seeing what I was saying, and what I was feeling. I saw the emotional effect that the piece had on him. We had frank conversations about our experiences as Black people in classical music.

Q: While you’re both Black, the Men’s Glee Club, which originally performed the piece, is largely not. Was this something you all talked about?

A: Oh, it was hard. There were people in the chorus who didn’t want to perform it. We had alums of the club who had a problem with it. But Dr. Rogers’ pedagogy was crucial, and needs to be adopted by other predominantly white choirs. He made sure all the men did their research about these deaths, that they were educated. Everyone’s cultural competency went up like five notches.

Q: The piece itself is just so emotional and raw.

A: There was everything about me in there; there was no need to censor myself. It was as honest as possible. Now that I’m aware of an audience, it’s hard to return to that same state of vulnerability, but it’s always something that I’m aiming for.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m supporting myself through composition commissions right now, but I’m also a full-time student at Yale. I start the doctorate in musical arts program in September. I’ll be either the fourth or fifth Black person to be in the program.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

Today's News

July 2, 2020

Mauritshuis acquires Portrait of Jakob Omphalius by Batholomäus Bruyn

Eli Wilner & Company offers museums a fully-funded replica frame grant opportunity

Collector's family to get looted Pissarro after French ruling

This theater plans dividers to keep patrons socially distanced

Paris show relives Pompeii's final horrifying hours

Hindman's Asian Works of Art auction totals more than $1M

Hauser & Wirth to open a new gallery space in Zurich's historic cultural centre on Rämistrasse

Auction offers an eclectic selection of 42 colourful artworks that evoke the spirit of the iconic Côte d'Azur

Nationalmuseum receives gift of filigree beakers by Rudolf Wittkopf

Galerie Miranda exhibits works selected along the themes of nature, calm and the beauty of simple things

Ten signature images from Milton Glaser's eclectic career

Freeman's first Art + Design auction solidifies ongoing streak of successful online auctions

World auction record for Bloomsbury artist at Bonhams Modern British and Irish sale in London

Phoenix Art Museum announces appointment of philanthropist Carl Thoma to Board of Trustees

Sotheby's Zurich's first online auction sees spirited bidding and strong prices across categories

The Museum of Russian Icons appoints Lana Sloutsky as Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

Ketterer Kunst celebrates 500th anniversary with sale of art by contemporary and modern American artists

He turned 'I can't breathe' into protest music

US creates force to protect monuments amid anti-racism protests

Auschwitz museum reopens to visitors after lockdown

New citywide responsive exhibition features 50 NYC-based artists

Whitechapel Gallery plans July reopening

Richmond removing Confederate statues, Mississippi retires state flag

Dazzling Ruth Asawa sculpture tops Bonhams sale of Post-War & Contemporary Art

5 Reasons Why You May Want to Consider a Rolex Alternative

Is wealth management matters or what?

How to Maintain Your Shed Structure

Best Sculpture Accounts on Instagram

Influential Architects of the Past 50 Years

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

sa gaming free credit
Truck Accident Attorneys
Accident Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc

ignaciovillarreal.org juncodelavega.com facundocabral-elfinal.org
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful