A Musical Memorial and March
Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson
Glory by Common and John Legend
University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club
Instead of praises of God, the last words from victims of police incidents echoed the grounds of University of Michigan. This work is aptly named Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. Inspired by Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, Joel Thompson mournfully shepherded seven Black American deaths into the public’s attention. Powerful voices from the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club (UMMGC) penetrated human emotions, stirring sympathetic vibrations of their outpour of energy. Anyone expecting a traditional highbrow musical drama should be forewarned, that this performance broke the convention of facing the audience by having rows of singers dressed in black facing each other. The two sections conversed back and forth in a compelling story of sadness and loss.
Written in 2015 immediately after the death of Michael Brown, Thompson channeled his frustration and grief on paper. As Brown’s death led to riots in Ferguson, Missouri at the time, Thompson withdrew the idea of performance. In a later serendipitous development, the two-time Michigan Emmy Award winning conductor Eugene Rogers discovered the piece and began to collaborate with Thompson. Dr. Rogers, who has led the Harvard, Yale, and Michigan Glee Clubs in the past, helped feature Seven Last Words of the Unarmed in the award winning documentary Love, Life & Loss in 2016. Dr. Rogers is also a professor of conducting at University of Michigan, and passionately led the talents of UMMGC.
As one of the oldest collegiate choruses in the country (founded in 1859), UMMGC executed beyond expectations, displaying absolute versatility in the range of production. Varying from velvety gentle whispers to sonorous brilliant solos, UMMGC displayed bursting confidence that took listeners on a secure journey. Perhaps the most sobering of moments was the slapping of chests followed by “You shot me!” The aleatory of shouts that erupted clobbered the audience into emotional submission. Amidst the chaos floated the ringing of a high C from the piano that morphed the soundscape to a hospital’s operating room, demanding listeners' attention to its eventual flatline.
The journey of sounds continued seamlessly into Glory by Common and John Legend. This Grammy winning piece became a literal journey as UMMGC marched across campus, declaring the fight for racial justice that is still going on today. The combination of rap, singing, and propelling snare ostinato would raise hair follicles of even the most hopelessly impassive audience, who would all walk away pondering about our social justice systems.