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Art & Activism

University of Michigan Men's Glee Club
University of Michigan Men's Glee Club performing Seven Last Words of the Unarmed (photo credit: University of Michigan)

A conversation with composer Joel Thompson.

Composer Joel Thompson’s The Snowy Day makes its much-anticipated world premiere this December at the Wortham. Based on the enduringly popular children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats and created with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, the HGO-commissioned opera shares the sweet story of a young Black child named Peter, out exploring the city on a snow day.

In many respects, The Snowy Day, Thompson’s first opera, is a new kind of project for the composer. Until now, he has written music to process grief and pain, and to confront an unjust society. Yet the innocent wonder of Peter’s day in the snow carries with it its own form of activism: a vision for a better world. HGO Dramaturg Jeremy Johnson sat down with Thompson to talk about the role of art in society, in activism, and in healing.

JEREMY Johnson: Talk to us about music as a form of activism.

JOEL THOMPSON: I’ve always been aware of music’s transformative power. Music-makers within the canons of almost every genre use their craft to address what matters most to them, from the political (Beethoven’s Eroica, Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout) to their own existence (Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Ives’s The Unanswered Question, Spalding’s 12 Little Spells). Sometimes I feel that to characterize my music as a form of activism is a slight to real activism, an artform in and of itself. I see myself as more in dialogue with the aforementioned artists, creating works about whatever matters to us. I want to use my art in service of the positive transformation of my community, my society, my world, myself—we can call it whatever: activism, ethical artistry, community building, or even just survival.

JJ: Your most frequently performed work is Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, commemorating the lives of seven Black men killed at the hands of authority figures—which is perhaps unexpected, since you originally wrote it without any intention of having it performed.

JT: At that time, when I had just finished my master’s in choral conducting and was teaching at a small college in south Georgia, I only wrote music for myself. When I wrote Seven Last Words, in about November 2014, I was in a state of depression: I only realized it after the fact, but writing this piece was not a healthy process, even though it felt cathartic at the time. I used it as a way to process my own feelings and grief about what had been an extended spate of murders. I put the piece away, and it wasn’t until the following April that I took it out again, when Freddie Gray died in Baltimore. I was in search of the same catharsis I had when writing Seven Last Words, so I reached out to some friends in Atlanta to see if anyone wanted to sing the piece together. We got together in a room at Emory, and the energy in the room completely shifted. Someone called Dr. Eugene Rogers at the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, and he brought the piece to U-M the following November. It brought an end to what I had been doing, which was just writing for myself, and I’m still excavating those emotions and moving on from there, still grappling with the performative and private aspects of composition.

JJ: It premiered in November 2015 for men’s chorus and piano, and since then you’ve made mixed chorus and orchestrated versions of the piece. Was it difficult to share this private composition with audiences?

JT: I was afraid of what people would say. At the original premiere, I sat by myself in the audience, and I made sure no one knew who I was. Dr. Rogers called me to the stage for a bow and blew my cover, though—when I went back to my seat for the rest of the concert, everyone in the audience was looking at me like I was radioactive, and I was so afraid of what they were going to say. It was mostly a positive response; if people were uncomfortable, they avoided me. It wasn’t until after the premiere that I heard about so much of the negative feedback. There was a district judge in Michigan who wrote a letter to the U-M Glee Club, asking why they would ever choose to commemorate these “thugs.” There were vitriolic responses threatening to withdraw financial support from the university. I was always afraid that something bad was going to happen at the following performances. Those feelings weren’t even close to the emotions I felt at the premiere of the orchestral version, a little over a year later. I sat next to Amadou Diallo’s mom. We held hands and wept the whole time. After the performance, she leaned over to me and whispered something that will stay between the two of us, something that made me so aware of and in awe of the power of music in our lives. I keep that memory in my mind at all times.

 

Joel Thompson in New Haven workshopping The Snowy Day (photo credit: Matthew Fried)

Joel Thompson in New Haven workshopping The Snowy Day (photo credit: Matthew Fried)

 

JJ: You once told me that you hope Seven Last Words of the Unarmed would never be performed again.

JT: I don’t know where I stand on that statement now—still in the process of figuring that out. It’s difficult to express the complicated feelings I have around this piece. After it was first performed, no one else wanted to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Fast forward to 2020, and the piece is being programmed everywhere. For all the performances this upcoming season, it’s still going to be “relevant”—if we’re not talking about George Floyd or Daunte Wright or Ahmaud Arbery, we’re going to be talking about other people who look like us who have died in the same way. Especially as the pandemic is lifting, if we’re going “back to normal”—and normal for Black people in America is death—then this piece will remain in the forefront, and I hate that about it. I hope for a day when the piece will be performed like it’s a relic, like, “Oh, this is what happened back in the day, this doesn’t happen anymore.” And now there are so many tragedy-oriented pieces of music. It’s part of this ambulance-chasing element of composing, writing about the most recent tragedy, and it’s tiring. It reinforces the belief that the foundation of Blackness in America is tragedy, is death. To a certain extent that’s true, but there’s so much more. Now that the spotlight is centered on the marginalized, Black composers are in a tricky spot. I talk about this with my peers a lot. We want to be honest about our reality, to be true to the state of our country and our place in it, our community’s place in it, but we also don’t want to revel in it or have it be the summation of who we are.

JJ: How does The Snowy Day fit into this context?

JT: The piece I was writing right before this commission was An Act of Resistance, an orchestra piece that comments on the divisiveness and turmoil in our world, and our deficiency in empathy and the strength to love one another. I had also recently finished “After,” a song for mezzo-soprano and violin about sexual assault. I was grappling with a lot of negative content, and then here comes The Snowy Day—I was trying to figure out what my way into the story could be, and all of a sudden Peter (the story’s protagonist) started talking to me about finding my inner child. I was looking at the world with eyes of wonder instead of fear, where fear had been my predominant perspective before The Snowy Day. Working on this piece really did show me that there’s another way of looking at the world. I’m so glad this was my first opera. The opera is a representation of the society that I want to live in, what I’m aiming for. The goal of everything I’ve ever written bends toward what’s going to happen on stage with The Snowy Day, where a little Black boy can wander in the snow, learn about himself, learn about the world, be safe, be happy, and connect with others regardless of background, or ethnicity, or any other differences. I hope audience members can see themselves in Peter and his friends and reconnect to their inner child. I hope that the final product will provide the audience with the same healing, and rejuvenation of empathy, as the compositional process did for me.

JJ: When an artist makes a statement about the world around them, someone who disagrees with that statement often says something along the lines of “you’re only here to entertain us.” What are your thoughts on that sentiment? What future do you want to see for opera and its role in cultural society?

JT: When I take a breath and set aside my hurt at that comment, I realize that the art has worked. The art has created a state of discomfort in which one can then choose to grow—to grapple with the concepts presented and the emotions stirred, and to look inward—or to remain unchanged and dismiss the opportunity for growth because of how uncomfortable it would be. I love when art throws you into that dilemma. It’s sometimes deeply disturbing, and sometimes angering, but then we have a choice. We can examine how and why it provokes such a visceral response within us, or we can angrily demand a refund. If we choose the former, we can still dislike the art and our experience of it, but we will learn something about ourselves and each other. For me, that’s how the growth happens, that’s how the transformation happens. Opera is an art form that combines the transformational power of music, visual art, theater, and dance in service of a singular communal experience—it depends on our capacity to connect to one another through our stories. If we do the work to make opera a space where people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, and levels of education have access to this art form, I think that opera can revolutionize our society. If everyone in a community can see and hear themselves on stage, and in the creative team, and play a part in sharing and holding space for each other’s stories, opera can become the space where we connect in an age of increasing isolation. That’s the future I’d like to see.

Jeremy Johnson

About the author

Jeremy Johnson

Jeremy Johnson is the Dramaturg at Houston Grand Opera.

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