Wednesday, July 1, 2020

New York Times: He Turned ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Into Protest Music: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” written in 2014

Credit...Douglas Segars for The New York Times
The New York Times

Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” written in 2014, is finding new listeners in a summer of unrest.


June 30, 2020

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, Mo., and Eric Garner died in a chokehold during a botched arrest on Staten Island. For weeks, Mr. Thompson — then 25, with a degree in choral conducting — watched footage of Mr. 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 Mr. Brown, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Credit...Chris McElroy

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. Mr. Gray’s death inspired Mr. 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, Dr. 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, Dr. Rogers led the university’s Men’s Glee Club in the premiere.

Mr. 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 in 2011. After moving through the words of Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Mr. Brown, Oscar Grant and John Crawford, the final section is a stirring rendering of Mr. Garner’s words, now a rallying cry: “I can’t breathe.”

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

“I took a lot of heat,” Dr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

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