“ We are living in a world in which everybody and everything is interdependent. It is not white, this world. It is not Black either. The future of this world depends on everyone in this room. And that future depends on to what extent and by what means we liberate ourselves from a vocabulary which now cannot bear the weight of reality. ”-James Baldwin
This weekend, composer Joel Thompson’s new work, To Awaken the Sleeper, makes its DSO premiere on a program exploring the voices of America.
Thompson is best-known for his 2015 work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which premiered in November 2015 by the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club before being performed by choirs and orchestras throughout the country.
In 2014, before Thompson even considered himself a composer, he sat down to process his feelings on the 2014 police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the language of music.
Following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Thompson decided to bring his personal reflection to the public sphere. He took to social media, inquiring if anyone would like to work on producing the project.
The result was The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. Each movement of the composition reflected the last words of Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Eric Garner.
Thompson’s latest work, To Awaken the Sleeper, was born against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, after the killing of George Floyd led to mass protests around the world.
The piece shines a light on American writer and activist James Baldwin, weaving selections of Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son into a musical profile on one of the most powerful Black voices of his generation.
The DSO premiere will be conducted by Thompson’s mentor Peter Oundjian, who in his role as Principal Conductor of the Yale Philharmonia, encouraged Thompson to follow his instinct and center the work around Baldwin’s voice.
When speaking to the Seattle Times about the use of a narrator for the work, instead of a chorus, Thompson noted the cadence of Baldwin’s prose, saying that to not use a narrator “would be robbing the text of its inherent musicality.”
To Awaken the Sleeper will be narrated by George Shirley, the first African American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera. Born just ten years after Baldwin, Shirley developed as an artist against the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Shirley has long appeared on DSO programs, including Turandot in 2018, the first ever program conducted by now-Music Director Jader Bignamini; earlier the same year he was named a Classical Roots Honoree for his notable contributions to classical music and education.
Read the Baldwin excerpts included in To Awaken the Sleeper below.
SEE THE DSO PREMIERE OF THOMPSON'S "TO AWAKEN THE SLEEPER"WATCH HERE
To Awaken the Sleeper
“So be it! So be it. We cannot awaken [the] sleeper, and God knows we have tried. We must do what we can do, and fortify and save each other—[...] We know that democracy does not mean the coercion of all into a deadly—and, finally, wicked—mediocrity but the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in us, or that has ever been.”
“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected – those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! – and listen to their testimony.”
“Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any Black man, any poor person —ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.”
“Ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know whether or not [this country] has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
“Power, which can have no morality in itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings. When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt. When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities – and seas of blood.”
“The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them. They realize this—paradoxically—by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principles on which a new world will be built.”
“We are living in a world in which everybody and everything is interdependent. It is not white, this world. It is not Black either. The future of this world depends on everyone in this room. And that future depends on to what extent and by what means we liberate ourselves from a vocabulary which now cannot bear the weight of reality.”
*Quotes from James Baldwin’s works “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” “No Name In The Street,” and James Baldwin’s National Press Club Speech, December 10, 1986 are used with permission from the James Baldwin Estate.