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Death after death drove each step of "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed."

Footage from Eric Garner's death, which composer Joel Thompson watched on a loop, is part of what moved him to write the piece in 2014. News of Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal cord injury in police custody, pushed Thompson to get the piece performed.

Then, George Floyd's death brought the work to stage after high-profile stage.

This coming week, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale are performing the multimovement, 15-minute piece. A smaller group will perform it May 28 at George Floyd Square.

The work — which sets to music the final words of Garner and six other unarmed Black men killed during encounters with police or authority figures — launched Thompson's composing career.

But its performance always leaves him uneasy.

"It's the one piece I've written that I hope becomes irrelevant," Thompson said recently via Zoom.

A conversation in Minneapolis shifted that view, though. Meeting with Jeanelle Austin, lead caretaker at George Floyd Square, she assured Thompson that there's power in memory, power in memorial. That with this music, he is saving lives.

Joel Thompson
Joel Thompson

Provided by ECS Publishing

As an undergraduate, Thompson had planned to be a doctor. "I wanted to be a part of saving lives," he said. "So I'm letting go of this desire for the piece to be irrelevant. I want the scourge of police brutality to stop, of course. But I hear what she was saying about the power of music and what it can do for our community.

"I want to be a part of that."

The three performances May 19-21 at Orchestra Hall are steeped in conversations like that one.

Minnesota Chorale artistic director Kathy Saltzman Romey knew that this "very challenging and deeply moving" work would require a special kind of preparation. She enlisted two conductors she had taught and trusted: Adrian Davis and Shekela Wanyama.

"We tend, as musicians, to really zero in on the dots on the page — the notes, the rhythms, the pitches," said Wanyama, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota. "This is an opportunity to take a deep dive into the social and cultural and historical meaning of what we are singing about."

They studied the stories of these seven men. They enlisted Black singers from another chorus to act as section leaders. They invited Black artists to speak at rehearsal.

Through this process, many members of this majority-white chorus "are developing empathy," said Davis.

But as a Black man, he said, "this is something I live every day."

Going to his car, waiting for the light rail, heading home from work, he worries about being stopped by police.

"Jamar Clark was killed two minutes from where I live," said Davis, who revived Minneapolis Roosevelt High School's music program and last year completed his Ph.D. in music education at the University of Minnesota. "Philando Castile happened about a mile from where I was at the time. And Floyd ... one of my students was the one who recorded the incident to begin with.

"So it goes on and on and on."

Shekela Wanyama conducted a choral rehearsal for “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” (Provided by Minnesota Orchestra)
Shekela Wanyama conducted a choral rehearsal for “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” (Provided by Minnesota Orchestra)

Minnesota Orchestra

Although it premiered in 2015, the work made its way to classical music's biggest stages in the wake of Floyd's death.

Echoing the structure of 18th-century composer Joseph Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Christ," its movements agitate and mourn. But Thompson has an ear for the lyrical, and the piece's most poignant moments include a solo with the words of Amadou Diallo the day before he was shot 19 times by New York City police after reaching for his wallet: "Mom, I'm going to college."

Thompson wrote the piece never expecting anyone to hear it.

He composed it "as a catharsis" in 2014, before he really considered himself a composer. That was the year 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo. The year Garner died in a chokehold on a Staten Island sidewalk.

Thompson spotted artist Shirin Barghi's #lastwords project on Twitter and thought of the "Seven Last Words of Christ." That liturgy highlights the humanity of Jesus, rather than the divinity.

These killings — and what followed — robbed the men of any humanity, Thompson said. Take, for instance, the decision not to indict the officer who restrained Garner for murder or even manslaughter.

"If I were to find myself in a similar position as Eric Garner ... my friends and family should not expect justice," he said. "Being robbed of one's sense of worth, robbed of one's humanity, caused me to seek it. And here's this liturgy about another person who was unlawfully killed that really focuses on his humanity.

"So if I can focus on these men and their humanity, putting them within this liturgical context, I can by proxy gain my own [humanity] back."

Thompson, whose more recent work includes "The Snowy Day," an opera based on the 1962 children's book, first crafted "Seven Last Words" for a male chorus, but choirs kept asking for a mixed version, with alto and soprano voices, as well.

"So more people have access to it," he said, "but then I have to grapple with what it means that more people have access to my diary entry, you know? More people have access to the most vulnerable expression I have ever created in my life."

Then there's a bigger issue that every Black artist deals with, Thompson added: "When people who look like us die, we somehow benefit."

So that was on his mind when he spoke with Austin, executive director of the George Floyd Global Memorial.

"To see him wrestle with that was important to me," Austin said by phone.

She remembered someone asking Thompson: Who was the audience for the piece? And he said: Myself.

"That was the moment where, for me, it was critical to make sure this was performed in George Floyd Square," she said. So a quintet will play "Seven Last Words" May 28 at the second annual Rise and Remember, a four-day memorial celebration.

For two years, the folks behind the memorial have preserved more than 5,000 offerings left by people from all over the world. Some will be exhibited at Orchestra Hall during these performances. But not all offerings take physical form.

"That's why this piece is so fitting for George Floyd Square," she said, "because even though it was written back in 2014, it comes with the same energy, it comes with the same spirit, it comes with the same humility.

"It comes with the same hopes and aspirations for racial justice."


Seven Last Words of the Unarmed
At Orchestra Hall: 11 a.m. May 19, 8 p.m. May 20-21, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., $30-$99, 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org
At George Floyd Square: As part of the Rise and Remember memorial, 1-7 p.m. May 28, register via georgefloydglobalmemorial.org