Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed is a seven-movement choral and orchestral work that sets the final words of seven Black men who were killed by police or authority figures. In the above video, Thompson and choral collaborators discuss the work, its impetus and power in advance of the Minnesota Orchestra’s May 19-21 performances conducted by Thomas Wilkins, a program which also includes Franz Liszt’s Les Préludes and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.
Learn more about Seven Last Words of the Unarmed in the following program note by Michael Divino.
Seven Last Words of the Unarmed
“There was everything about me in there; there was no need to censor myself. It was as honest as possible.” This is what Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson said of the cantata he composed in 2014, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, in a 2020 interview with The New York Times. The work is an intensely personal one, born of the grief, sadness and horror Thompson felt as the composer and the world witnessed the highprofile police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. Thompson also found inspiration from visual artist Shirin Barghi’s #lastwords project, which turned the last words spoken by 15 different Black men and boys murdered at the hands of police and armed vigilantes into a series of simple black and white drawings. The words of seven of these men—Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Eric Garner—serve as the text of each of the cantata’s seven movements.
The journey to performance
Once the work was completed, Thompson put it away with no intent of hearing it performed, fearing there would be no one willing to listen to a piece with such sensitive subject matter. Spurred by friends, a read-through of the score was organized, after which Thompson was persuaded to send the score to Dr. Eugene Rogers, director of choral activities and associate professor of choral conducting at the University of Michigan. Despite the way Dr. Rogers was able to connect to Thompson’s work, he too was hesitant to bring it to life. In a 2020 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, Dr. Rogers relates: “I loved it and it resonated with me. But I didn’t know how I was going to do it with an historic group of mostly non-African American singers. I worried how it might be received by this community. It took me a long time, but I couldn’t put it away, I kept coming back to it.”
Eventually, Dr. Rogers was able to find an avenue to be able to introduce the piece to his musicians, saying that “...the idea of focusing on a universal theme—of love, loss, and humanity...helped me figure out a way to get my students to consider the piece as not just a political piece of music, because it never was intended to be political. Whatever you thought about the different cases surrounding these seven individuals, we could all come together and unite around the value of human life.” Dr. Rogers made a concerted effort to ensure that his musicians educated themselves on each of the individual seven men and their cases to ensure that his students could “form their opinions based on the facts.”
Dr. Rogers and the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club premiered Seven Last Words of the Unarmed in fall 2015. The fears that both Thompson and Dr. Rogers had about performing a work of this nature were not completely unfounded. At the time of its premiere, Dr. Rogers’ dean received letters. Several audience members stormed out of the auditorium in plain view of the choir, destroying their programs as they left. But in the intervening years since, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed has gained popularity and critical acclaim, as the United States continues to grapple with the continued killings of innocent, unarmed Black men, women and children at the hands of the police. “Here we are seven years later, and it’s still frighteningly relevant,” Thompson reflected during a recent visit to Minneapolis in which he discussed his music with Minnesota Orchestra musicians, staff and the community.
Detailed information about Seven Last Words of the Unarmed and U.S. policing and reforms, as well as educational resources, are available at the Seven Last Words of the Unarmed website.
About the composer
Composer, pianist, conductor and educator Joel Thompson this month completes a doctor of musical arts degree in composition at the Yale School of Music. He received a bachelor’s degree in 2010 and a master’s degree in choral conducting in 2013, both from Emory University. From 2013 to 2015, Thompson was the director of choral studies and an assistant professor of Music at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia, and from 2015 to 2017 he taught at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta. His teachers include Eric Nelson, William Ransom, Laura Gordy, Richard Prior, John Anthony Lennon, Kevin Puts, Robert Aldridge and Scott Stewart. As a fellow at the Aspen Festival, Thompson worked with Stephen Hartke and Christopher Theofanidis. He and Dr. Eugene Rogers won an Emmy Award in 2017 for Craft Specialty—Musical Composition/Arrangement” for their work on Love, Life & Loss, a documentary performance of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed from the Michigan chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Thompson, who comes from a Jamaican family, was born in 1988 in the Bahamas and moved with his family to Houston when he was 10, then settled a few years later in Atlanta.
A borrowed melody with complex meaning
Thompson weaves the melody of L’homme armé, an anonymously composed 15th-century secular French song, throughout Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. Within just a few years after its emergence, L’homme armé had been used as a cantus firmus in dozens of masses. Its only surviving verse warns of the dangers of the armed man:
The armed man should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The armed man should be feared.
The use of L’homme armé in religious masses allowed composers to imbue their works with complex layers of meaning. Its inclusion here not only provides thematic unity throughout the piece, but also a stark reminder that man has perpetrated horrifically violent acts against fellow man for centuries.
The composer’s description
Originally scored for tenor and bass choir, strings and piano, the work is heard this week in a newly revised version scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass choir and orchestra, with bass singer Marcus Simmons as soloist in the third movement, “Mom, I’m going to college.” The composer has provided the following descriptions of the cantata’s seven movements.
I. “Officers, why do you have your guns out?” Encapsulating the sense of gloom that arises upon the news of the death of another unarmed black man, the chorus rises from the funereal piano ostinato singing Kenneth Chamberlain’s last words interpolated with the medieval tune, L’homme armé doibt on doubter - “The armed man must be feared.” After the final iteration of the 66-year old’s dying breath, the chorus repeats one important word: “why?”
II. “What are you following me for?” This movement uses the classical form of the fugue not only to portray Trayvon Martin’s last moments trying to escape death, but also to sonically capture the daily paranoia of the black experience while driving on roads, walking on sidewalks, and congregating at various social gatherings. Quotes of L’homme armé in the strings underneath the imitative counterpoint in the voices lead to a climactic yell of surprise at the movement’s end.
III. “Mom, I’m going to college.” In New York, February of 1999, four police officers fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea. The undulating pattern in the piano simultaneously yields a sense of calm with its simple harmonic underpinning and unease with its odd 5/4 meter.
IV. “I don’t have a gun! Stop shooting!” Of the seven movements, this one contains the most anger. Through the use of agitated rhythms and multiple harmonic exclamations on the word “stop,” the target of the rage is media portrayal of black men on the news, in comedies, and in dramas. Even in the aftermath of such tragedies, the rhetoric and images used to describe the deceased was markedly appalling across all media. This was the case, especially, for Michael Brown.
V. “You shot me. You shot me!” Oscar Grant III’s exclamations of surprise and incredulity were caught on several cellphone recordings in the BART station in which he was murdered. The movement honoring his life is a sonic representation of this epidemic. Aleatoric spoken exclamations of the last words crescendo alongside the humming of L’homme armé in the style of the Negro spiritual. Underneath the cacophony, the pulsing C of the piano, violin, and viola persist unflinchingly like a heart monitor until the end.
VI. "It’s not real.” Although they were referring to the BB gun he was carrying in the Walmart where he was killed, John Crawford’s last words escape the lips of thousands of African-Americans. Thus, the movement’s beginning is the soundtrack to my mental utopia. Saccharine sweet and soaring, the voices and strings are joined by the piano “heart monitor” which persists and gradually infects the strings, like reality interrupting a reverie.
VII. “I can’t breathe!” The decision of a Richmond County grand jury to not indict the officer responsible for Eric Garner’s death was the impetus for this entire work, and it is only fitting that his last words end the piece. After using a mournful Byzantine texture for the first half of the movement, I tried to capture the panicked death thralls of asphyxiation in the music.
Changing “one heart, one mind”
When Thompson visited Minnesota earlier this year, he reflected on the evolving meaning of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed both to himself and audiences. “I don’t believe that one piece of music can completely change these big ideas and problems that we are tackling,” he noted. “But I think it’s a part of being an ethical artist nowadays, to understand the important role that community plays in music-making, that music can create community, that music can transcend boundaries....Holding these men and these victims and these communities in our memory will be a part of saving lives. I know that music has a transformative power, and if it could change one heart, one mind, then it’s worth it.”
Instrumentation: 4-part mixed chorus with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, marimba, harp, piano and strings
Program note by Michael Divino.
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