Noteworthy: A Reminder that "Art Should Not Always Be Comfortable"

A powerful piece based on the dying words of African-American men killed in police encounters is an opportunity to reflect on universal issues of love, loss, and our shared humanity.

Seven Last Words of the Unarmed
by Joel Thompson
Recommended by Eugene Rogers

From Eugene Rogers:

When I first saw the score for “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” I realized immediately that it was a strong piece, one that needed to be heard. In seven short movements, Joel Thompson gives new resonance to the dying words of African-American men—men killed in police encounters, including Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

The idea for the composition came to Joel on seeing the texts depicted by Iranian-American artist Shirin Barghi. From more than a dozen of her illustrations, he chose seven statements that most readily aligned with the textual structure of Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.” Christ’s final words were, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Joel’s piece ends with “I can’t breathe,” the plea Eric Garner repeated as he lay dying on a Staten Island sidewalk in 2014. The point is not to suggest Garner and the six other men were Christ-like, nor does the piece cast blame on anyone. Its primary aim is more universal: to recognize and value lives that have sadly, even tragically, been cut short.

As if to underscore that notion, Joel avoided obvious gospel or spiritual influences and instead borrowed from musical theater, Bach, Brahms, and even aleatoric music—a different style for each of the seven voices. Fragments of the often-quoted French Renaissance song “L’homme armé” appear throughout as a recurring motif. There are episodes of anger, but along with them are moments of meditation and sweet melancholy. Through a remarkably well-crafted composition, Joel manages to amplify the powerful message contained in the simple words of these dying men.

Although I connected with “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” on many levels, I hesitated before taking it to my glee club; I did not want them to think I was pushing an agenda. At the same time, repertoire that deals with issues of social justice is important to me, a part of my philosophy of teaching. It engages our audience, builds a strong sense of community amongst our singers, and can foster musical ubuntu. As Nelson Mandela defined the philosophy, ubuntu holds that our personal humanity is dependent on the humanity of others. Providing a safe place for students to express and process issues that affect us all can be very rewarding and act as another vehicle for bringing change to our world.

With all of that in mind, I decided to introduce the piece to the chorus. Initially, some members felt performing it would be overly political. We talked about their concerns, and some wrote essays about them. Together we found resonance in the central theme of loss, and that enabled us to get through the journey. Some of our audience expressed similar misgivings, but most of the response was extremely positive. One woman wrote to me, “I’m reminded once again that art, whether it be on a canvas, on a musical staff, or in writing, should not always be comfortable.”

In preparing the premiere of “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” I collaborated with Joel and Minneapolis composer J. David Moore. During one of our conversations, David thanked Joel for not making the piece angry, for writing it in a way that invites reflection and meditation. That is exactly how I feel. That is why I needed to do this piece. Choral music has the opportunity not just to educate and entertain, but to motivate and call to action, as “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” so eloquently demonstrates. I highly recommend the piece to colleagues all across the country.

Performance note from Eugene Rogers:

The impact of “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is sobering, as it ought to be, but at the premiere we wanted to leave our audience with a message of hope. With that in mind, we transitioned without pause to a choral arrangement of “Glory,” which John Legend and Common wrote for the film “Selma.” After experiencing that approach, Joel Thompson has asked that his piece be paired with “Glory” in all future performances.

Listen to "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed" here.


View excerpts from the score in PDF form.

Movement II: Trayvon Martin
Movement VI: John Crawford

Watch a short video produced by the University of Michigan about the piece.

Date of premiere: November 7, 2015
First performer: University of Michigan Men's Glee Club (Eugene Rogers, conductor)
Author/source of text: various
Length: 12-13 minutes, not including recommended companion piece "Glory"
Parts: TTBB, piano, and strings; SATB version available summer 2016
Recording information: University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, Eugene Rogers, conductor; January 2016; University of Michigan

Eugene RogersEugene Rogers

Recognized as a leading conductor, pedagogue, and lecturer, Eugene Rogers has appeared throughout the United States as well as in Africa, Canada, China, Singapore, England, Portugal, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Mexico, Spain, and Italy. Recently, Rogers conducted the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club in Salt Lake City, Utah at the national convention of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA). In December 2014, the Naxos recording of Milhaud's monumental L'Orestie d'Eschyle, on which Rogers served as a chorus master, was nominated for a 2015 GRAMMY® Award ("Best Opera Recording").
Rogers is currently associate director of choirs at U-M where he teaches undergraduate conducting, conducts the Men's Glee Club and the University Choir, and is the faculty director of the MPulse Vocal Arts Institute, a national high school summer program. His past appointments include Macalester College (St. Paul, Minnesota), the Boys Choir of Harlem, Waubonsie Valley High School (Aurora, Illinois), and Anima Young Singers of Greater Chicago (formerly the Glen Ellyn Children's Choir). In 2013, Rogers co-managed the production of the joint CD Ye Shall Have a Song with the Michigan, Yale, and Harvard Glee Clubs, a collaboration celebrating America's three oldest collegiate choirs.

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously, at NPR in Washington, DC, he was executive producer of Performance Today.