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Artistic Responses to Tragedy

Not a free seat was to be found on Tuesday night at Augsburg College as audiences gathered for the latest installment of Nautilus Music-Theater’s Rough Cuts series of opera and musical theater (and things in the middle) excerpts. The performance kicked off some 15 minutes after the official 7:30 pm start time, thanks to the crowd of people that continued to filter in, forcing the organizers to add extra chairs.

The occasion for this event was the end of Nautilus’s 2016 Composer-Librettist Studio, which pairs five composers with five librettists in rotating assignments – groupings that go on to write 25 original new songs in just two weeks. Of the 14 songs given a public presentation on Tuesday, many were comedic, some serious, and most had a delightful mix of both. Two were artistic responses to two of the great tragedies of recent times: the plight of refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and the Orlando Pulse club shooting. In the first instance, Gary Briggle sang a haunting solo song titled “A Land Meant for Me,” with words by Rick Widen and music by Benjamin MacInnes, replete with the sound of water lapping. In the second, Dieter Bierbrauer, Teri Parker Brown, and Quinn Shadko sang a dramatic trio named “Pulses,” dedicated to the victims of the June 12 shooting.

Political rhetoric aside, the responses to the Syrian Civil War in this country have been relatively muted – it is, after all, a problem on Europe’s doorstep, not ours. But a shooting in Orlando, Florida, an area inseparably associated by most Americans with the so-called Most Magical Place on Earth? That hit home hard and reverberated. Orlando’s artist community came out in force, creating tributes, memorials, calls to arms, and more. The Empire State Building went dark, while LGBTQ artists and their allies mobilized in collective grief and support. Something resonated abroad, with civic buildings as far away as Australia and Israel bathed themselves in rainbow colors as a memorial to the victims. Financial support for the victims and their families has been refreshingly strong; here in the Twin Cities, One Voice Mixed Chorus (a community choir embracing Minnesota’s LGBTQ community and its allies) immediately announced that it was donating what was expected to be half of the ticket sales from its Showtune Showdown concert and fundraiser to the Orlando Shooting Victim’s Fund.

Art is many things, including a channel for engaging and processing things that mere words cannot adequately express, and which are solitary actions cannot ameliorate or remove. Briggle, who commissioned “A Land Meant for Me,” noted in the pre-performance remarks that he had been troubled by the refugee crisis for some time. Against a horrific civil war that has ranged for years (one not at all like the curiously casualty-free part of the Captain America movie), what can a renowned singer-actor and director do that is meaningful against that scale? As in The Pianist, the response is: respond through art, delve deeper than normal words and contemplation can manage, and make sure that tragedy is not quietly forgotten.

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is how it brings people of similar minds together. One of the terrible things about the Internet is how we are increasingly aware of the terrible things and terrible people in the world. The local LGBTQ community here in the Twin Cities was roiled by the news of the shooting, brought brutally home through news, social media, and the understanding that if it can happen in Orlando…it can probably happen anywhere. Courtney Stirn, the lyricist for “Pulse,” described that mix of fear, sorrow, and anger in the pre-performance remarks – a mix fueling, and sometimes in conflict, with the desire to say, do, and create something in response.

There will always be people who try to control how others respond artistically to tragedy; some responses, like the film United 93, were probably better not made – so high is the trigger potential when you seek too much verisimilitude too soon. “Pulse,” though, is wonderful, tragic, and beautiful – and ultimately cathartic. Stirn’s lyrics begin with realistic dialogue and conclude pseudo-Biblical verses, creating points of resonance with ancient religion and grief.

The ancient Greeks used the word katharsis to describe the cleansing that comes from a heightened experience of emotions, as from crying and watching stage tragedies. To embrace the feelings and gain a release, without dismissing what has happened – that is what art can do and does so well when it succeeds. Responding with hate is not the way to do justice and honor to those who have lost their lives to early, as “Pulse” composer Basil Considine noted. To acknowledge those involved and to call attention to the problems in our society that contributed to the tragedy? That is.

Describing a song, its impact, and its importance is a task for a musicologist, not a newspaper editor, but sometimes things happen beyond your control and you need to respond to them anyway. “Pulse” is in its technical sense a vocal trio with piano, written in an idiom that is partly choral and partly musical theater. It begins with the sound of church bells tolling 7 AM, followed by a brief and somber reading of text from the New York Times‘ coverage of the shooting. One by one, voices emerge: someone who was at the club, someone who lost someone at the club, and someone who is reacting to the shock of the news. They join in a musical canon – sometimes in two parts, sometimes in three – with rolling waves of shock, anger, and grief. The texture builds up, strips back to a single line, and blossoms into polyphony propelled by streams of music, a heart-quickening pulse in the piano, and the sound of bells (or is it breaking glass?) shattering emotions. Two, three times, this happens, the text going from reaction to quoting what seems like ancient scripture, building again before ending on the haunting, half-whispered question, “How much must we pay for our breath?”

In the week since the Orlando Pulse shooting, some patrons have returned somberly to the city’s LGBTQ clubs. Broadway stars have made their tribute, Melissa Etheridge penned a song, and other musical and poetic memorials have come in from across the globe. May something better come of it than a pulse that is soon forgotten – the victims deserve that and more.

Hanne Appelbaum