Responding to Tragedy

In the wake of terrible events, choruses and choral leaders have found ways to be part of the response and healing process.

Tragedy. We borrow this term from Greek drama to describe the shocking, incomprehensible killings that have claimed scores of lives around the world and in the American communities of Orlando, Dallas, Charleston, Newtown, Boston, St. Paul, Ferguson, and more.

Inherent in the experience of tragedy is a yearning for reasons, for release, for comfort. Ancient Greek drama gave voice to that yearning via the chorus—actors who performed as a group, singing, dancing, and reflecting on the dramatic events unfolding before them.

That voice can still be heard today. In the cities named above and many more, choruses, and choral music, have been integral to community response to tragedy.

Putting Together an Immediate Response

On June 12, as soon as they learned about the Pulse nightclub shootings, which left 49 dead, Orlando Gay Chorus (OGC) staff members realized they could not wait for the phone to ring. Marketing and communications director J.D. Casto made his way to the Orlando LGBT Center and found out there would be a vigil that night at Joy Metropolitan Community Church. Seeing organizers were preoccupied, Casto knew he could not wait for an invitation to sing that night, or at the local government-organized observance the next day at the city’s performing arts center. “We said, ‘Screw it. We’re showing up.’” 

Bridge of SongMPR's "Bridge of Song" event after the shooting of Philando Castile. Credit: MPR Photos/Steve Cohen

Now in its 26th year, OGC is a "pillar in the gay community," Casto says, but less familiar outside that circle. That situation changed quickly. In the space of 17 days, OGC members were asked to appear at 14 vigils, according to OGC Member Council president Carol Studer. For the first time, the Orlando Magic and other local sports teams invited them to sing before games. “None of these relationships existed before,” Casto says. As a result, he adds, chorus members have come to see themselves as “ambassadors of hope, love, and healing.”  

In Dallas on July 8, the morning after a gunman ambushed and killed five police officers monitoring a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, Jonathan Palant got out of bed with an additional reason to feel upset. He’d just heard someone speaking on the radio, someone he had expected to deliver a message of hope and solidarity. “When there was nothing, I was annoyed with that person. Then I thought, ‘How can I expect him to do something if I haven’t?’”

So Palant went to work. He is the founder and conductor of Credo, a non-auditioned community chorus whose mission emphasizes “community, learning, equality, and…sharing one’s fortunes with those less fortunate.” Through an acquaintance, he was able to get the city of Dallas to donate the use of Meyerson Symphony Center for a July 14 event. That started the ball rolling. Then he put out the word via fellow conductors, the Choristers Guild, ChoralNet, and a press release. "Then the media started to take hold of it," Palant says. With three days’ notice, he prepared for 500 singers in his massed chorus. He got 726 to turn out for the event, called “Dallas Sings/Dallas Strong: Music and Message in Response to Tragedy.” “Our community needed to heal and still does,” he says. “If you have the vision and the cause touches hearts universally, then the resources will fall into place very easily.”

Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR) Brian Newhouse lives a half mile from the spot where, on July 6, a police officer shot a 32–year-old black man after pulling him over on a suburban St. Paul street. “If I had been on the doorstep I would have heard the shots,” Newhouse realized. The proximity brought home issues that have been front-page news in the Twin Cities and across the country. “I felt afraid for our neighborhood, our city, and our sense of decency as a society,” he says.

When a colleague texted him about “Dallas Sings,” Newhouse says an image immediately came to mind: a bridge connecting the two cities. To create this “Bridge of Song,” MPR decided to use the streaming video service Facebook Live, beaming live video images between the Meyerson Center in Dallas and Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, enabling participants in both venues to join in song.

Managing Event Details

Even without a high-tech component like a video link, any performing organization attempting an immediate response to tragedy faces daunting logistical challenges. The first step is securing a venue. While that took Palant only ten minutes, for Newhouse and MPR the effort contributed to “a tense first day.” "We asked ourselves some very uncomfortable questions," Newhouse says. "This event was prompted by the police shooting of an African-American man. That is where the narrative was. So we asked ourselves, 'How can we serve the entire community?'" They began by attempting to identify a space in an African-American neighborhood, but could not find one that was the right size and available at the right time at no cost. Ultimately they settled on a downtown Minneapolis location.

Bridge of SongJ.D. Casto and Carol Studer of the Orlando Gay Chorus with Anderson Cooper after an appearance on CNN. Courtesy of J.D. Casto

At the OGC, Studer faced her biggest worry when the call went out for singers. “We had no idea who’d show up” on the day of the first vigil, she says, “and because we weren’t sure we’d have an accompanist, we made the call to go a cappella.” From the 48 singers who responded that first night to the 30-40 they averaged for the vigils that followed, the chorus took it all in stride, says Studer. “They were leaving their uniforms in their cars and checking their emails to see if something popped up for that night.”

Choosing appropriate music is a logistical challenge as much as an aesthetic or emotional one. The more immediate the response, the more pragmatic the repertoire decisions must become. How many singers can make it to the observance? How about an accompanist? What music do we know well enough? Casto says the Orlando Gay Chorus felt fortunate that it could perform "True Colors" and "You'll Never Walk Alone"—two of its "signature songs"—a cappella.

Palant did not want "a rallying tone" to be part of the evening in Dallas, but he did want to encourage "rising up and feeling stronger without partisanship or politics or skin color or sexual orientation." The massed chorus, which rehearsed for an hour, performed Greg Gilpin's "Why We Sing," Mark Hayes' arrangement of "Grace," and "Let There Be Peace on Earth," closing with "America the Beautiful." Group singing added to the experience. At the end, when Palant turned around to encourage the audience to sing along, "everyone stood organically."

Two hours before the Minneapolis event, singers occupied fully a third of Westminster Presbyterian’s chancel. Newhouse was immediately struck by "how ready the community was for an event like this—an invitation to respond to tragedy by singing with neighbors, people they don't know, creating community, letting singing create that community." This core group arrived early to rehearse the music, which included "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place" from the Brahms Requiem, an arrangement of "The Good Fight" by Minneapolis rapper/singer Dessa, and the round "Be Like the Bird" by St. Paul composer Abbie Betinis. Newhouse says the choices were guided by beauty: "At a time like that, beauty is only thing that makes sense.

Coping with Emotion

Because they have earned a reputation as “ambassadors of harmony,” members of the Boston Children’s Chorus (BCC) also have grown accustomed to singing in response to troubled times. Following the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, city officials invited the chorus to sing at an interfaith church service and, one year later, at the remembrance tribute attended by victims’ families as well as President Obama.

These events posed logistical challenges from getting members released from school to securing Secret Service clearances. There was also the trauma all of Boston—including the young singers—faced in the bombing’s aftermath. Director of programs Ben Hires says that preparing the chorus to perform under such circumstances starts with “the chorus culture of developing empathy and understanding.” For example, if something upsetting happens to a singer on the way to school, that experience is shared with the group in rehearsal. “The whole culture of the organization is to be engaged with contemporary life,” says Hires, and this means that at difficult times, singers are ready “to use music to express what everyone is feeling.”

Months ahead of GALA Choruses’ quadrennial festival this past summer, organizers had paired the Orlando Gay Chorus with a Seattle a cappella chorus, The Esoterics, to perform together in a festival event. The Pulse shootings occurred in the midst of that process, which moved Esoterics founding director Eric Banks to compose a piece to honor the victims as well as his new Orlando friends. The Esoterics premiered “The Pulse of Love” at the Denver gathering.

The Esoterics often perform charged, emotional compositions, and Banks says that he enlists a number of strategies “that help the choir get through.” Rehearsing potentially troubling passages, he focuses on detail—placement of consonants or vowel stops, or rolling the r’s. He acknowledges that it’s OK to be emotional, but reminds his singers they “need to move through this in order to communicate the piece to the audience. My mantra is that it’s not our job to have an emotional experience; it’s our job to provide one for our audience.”

Creating Art that Heals

Composers who have created pieces in response to tragedies describe their own struggles with emotion – in their case, with the desire to create art that heals rather than dwells on pain. At the time he composed “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a TTBB setting of the dying words of African-American men killed in police encounters, Joel Thompson did not intend to have the piece performed.  He meant it to be "an authentic expression of grief in response to a specific issue.” In that context, he felt free to ignore his grad school composition lessons. “If I had composed this piece to be presented, I would have balanced light with dark. Because it explores just one emotion, it can be a little heavy, a little hard to take.”

When Eugene Rogers, conductor of the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, chose to premiere the piece as part of the University concert season, he decided to follow “Seven Last Words” with an arrangement of the uplifting “Glory,” from the film Selma. Response following the premiere allayed Thompson's fears that his music might provoke more trauma. Members of the black community have told him the experience was "healing and cathartic. I didn't expect that," he says. The University of Michigan produced a 30-minute video documentary inspired by the premiere, and the Sphinx Competition, which promotes diversity in the arts, has invited the Glee Club to perform the piece in Detroit when it celebrates its 20th anniversary in February.

Seven Last WordsThe Michigan Men's Glee Club performing Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, a setting of the dying words of African-American men killed in police encounters, in the music documentary Love, Life, and Loss. Credit: Michigan Media

Composer Steven Sametz had similar concerns  "about creating something on the back of grief" when he began work on A Child’s Requiem, a 10-movement oratorio dedicated to those killed in the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. But as he prepared to write, he realized that his own emotions were leading him to a question broader than any specific tragedy: “How do we keep children safe in a violent society, in a culture of violence?”

Sametz’s piece interweaves texts by Emerson, Dickinson, and others with schoolchildren's writing about loss and grieving. Respecting Newtown residents’ need for a private mourning process after such a public tragedy, Sametz reached out to schools and parent groups elsewhere in the country, working closely with students near Lehigh University, where he teaches. Many of the most striking stories came from an inner-city school in Philadelphia: "'I saw my father shot.' 'I ran when they began shooting at my brother.' These are wrenching stories of children robbed of their innocence too soon." After the work's first performances in 2015, some of those students have told Sametz that his piece has helped them. "If they feel their story is being told, then art can be healing. Why else would we write about tragedy?"

Finding Common Ground

Choruses and choral leaders responding to tragedy must also consider politically divisive issues the tragedies may raise. In planning "A Bridge of Song," Newhouse was immediately asked, are you taking sides with Black Lives Matter? For Palant, the question was reversed. Would "Dallas Sings" pay tribute only to the fallen police officers, or would he also include the African-American community? They responded with similar answers. The Minneapolis event was "intentionally depoliticized," says Newhouse; it was "centered on bringing the community together.” Palant characterizes “Dallas Sings” as a universal response to violence: “Every speaker was asked to remember the deaths in Dallas, and also to remember others who suffered elsewhere from shootings and impatience and racism.”

Dallas SingsDallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez hugs conductor Jonathan Palant at the "Dallas Sings/Dallas Strong" event. Credit: Francesca Paris

Eugene Rogers faced similar questions last year when he came across “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” He immediately felt Thompson’s piece conveyed an important message, one that ought to be heard, but he also knew some members of the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club would consider it too political. “It’s the kind of piece you want to prepare your community for, prepare them to go on a journey. It contains vivid and raw emotions.” After introducing them to the music, Rogers got his singers to talk and write about their reactions, “allowing a safe space to feel emotions they wouldn’t normally feel based on their own experience, setting up an environment where singers were free to agree and disagree.” Through those exchanges, they began to recognize a universal message, a theme of loss. “Even if we didn’t agree on all of the issues the piece raises, we could agree on that,” Rogers says.

Refocusing a Tradition on Current Issues

In 1969, the Choral Arts Society of Washington established a tradition of concerts celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. In the words of chorus founder Norman Scribner, the tributes "give musical and visual reality to the message that we are all brothers and sisters." Today the annual concerts, titled "Living the Dream...Singing the Dream," remain true to that vision, says Scott Tucker, who took over from Scribner in 2012, but "the stark reality" of persistent racial divisions has led to a new approach.

The programs had settled on a pattern of "uncontroversial" gospel music and hymns, Tucker says, "looking back to the Civil Rights Era in a way that almost seemed historical." Now, Tucker says, "we've decided to program in such a way that the concert doesn't run away from racial issues; it embraces them." This past year's King tribute included an arrangement of "All Good People," which the folk-rock band Delta Rae recorded soon after the June 2015 shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. The refrain includes the line, "We can’t hold our breath forever when our brothers cannot breathe."

The recent programmatic change builds on a partnership that began in 2011, when CASW and the Washington Performing Arts Society gospel choirs began sharing the Kennedy Center stage. The collaboration has resulted in “greater abundance of diversity” in repertoire and performance style, according to Stanley Thurston, artistic director of the Society’s choirs. In the new mix, Choral Arts can take the lead in pieces that call for experienced sight readers, while the gospel choirs step up when it's time for style and energy. "You put them together and you get a hybrid sound you can't get anywhere else,” says Tucker.

Thurston enjoys the camaraderie he sees in rehearsal. Recognizing that CASW members embrace what they do, his gospel singers feel “a great sense of pride.” For the audience, says Tucker, “with 200 or more singers standing up there, black-white, black-white, black-white, it sends a very powerful visual message that we’re all linked, we’re all connected." 

Eric Banks underscores the urgency of reaching new ears with that message. "Whenever something violent happens, people put up that Bernstein quote," he says, referring to a line from a letter Leonard Bernstein wrote just after the 1963 Kennedy Assassination: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” The problem, says Banks, is that Bernstein's quote "addresses how we should make music, but doesn't address for whom and with whom we make music. If we keep making music within our own communities, without trying to embrace others outside our bubble, then we are still not including others in our art."

Bridge of Song audienceCommunity members at MPR's "Bridge of Song" event. Credit: MPR Photos/Steve Cohen

Scanning the church on the night of the Minneapolis gathering, Newhouse estimated that 10% of the 1,800 attending, a capacity crowd, were people of color. "In Miami or Baltimore, 10% doesn't sound great, but that is new for us." After the singing ended, a young African-American woman approached him to express her gratitude. Earlier in the day, she'd been with friends planning to join a protest to express their anger over Philando Castile's death. "She didn’t feel that was her response. She wanted to do something to connect," Newhouse says. Newhouse now finds himself wondering whether positioning MPR to act as a convener at times like this might increase the impact of its music initiatives.

To avoid the complacency Banks fears, perhaps what's needed is a commitment to embrace more fully the power of music, particularly choral music, to bring people together. Sametz sensed that power as he witnessed concertgoers leaving the premiere of A Child's Requiem, asking what they could do to curb senseless violence. "We as chorus leaders, as choral communities, possess the capability of guiding people to their best selves. We contribute to the search that our souls do in times of tragedy. We create community, and that is the perfect response to tragedy."

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