It was May. George Floyd had just been killed in Minneapolis and violinist Ariana Kim was on a road trip from New York to the Twin Cities, to quarantine from the coronavirus with her family.
“And as I drove, with every hour there were new interviews and audio clips about George on the radio. And I just felt: When is enough going to be enough?”
Kim joined the street protests against Floyd’s killing and visited the memorial site, but her own rage clamored for more personal expression.
“I felt I had to do and say and create something. To honor George Floyd, to create peace and inspire unity. I kept asking myself how I could do that.”
The answer is “How Many Breaths?,” an 18-minute video meditation “in memory of George Floyd and countless others,” with music by Twin Cities composer Steve Heitzeg and a spoken text by Penumbra Theatre artistic director Sarah Bellamy.
Kim herself is the violin soloist in Heitzeg’s jaggedly expressive score. It premieres Sunday on the website of the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, where Kim is co-artistic director.
Kim grew up in Minneapolis, just 12 minutes from where Floyd was killed. Her father was a Korean immigrant, so she is no stranger to bigotry, and has watched with consternation the tally of Black people killed in police incidents.
With Floyd, though, Kim felt something was radically different.
“The killing was captured so completely and so vividly on film, there’s no gray area,” she said. “And as many more people than usual were at home because of the pandemic, we had the time and space to react to the killing, to be a community and to express rage.”
That’s felt in Bellamy’s text, which is raw and emotional, especially as voiced by Bellamy and her father Lou, Penumbra’s co-founder.
“It was a purging of grief and rage, and an outpouring of love for my Black community and for the Floyd family,” Bellamy says. “It was devastating what happened, and my text was an instinctual artistic response to the normalization of atrocity.”
The video’s imagery mixes press photos with iPhone pictures captured by Kim and Heitzeg on trips to the neighborhood where Floyd died. To edit them together, Kim needed to acquire some new skills quickly.
“I got really friendly with Final Cut Pro,” she said, smiling. “I learned as I went.”
Front-ending the video is a section with Kim’s own music. That, too, required technological wizardry.
“I started playing around with a looper pedal and improvising,” she said. “I ended up with three or four layers on different loops for the opening music, and I also did a pizzicato improvisation on the beautiful lullaby Steve wrote for the piece at the end.”
Putting “How Many Breaths?” together has been cathartic for Kim. An associate professor of violin at Cornell University, she has not played live professionally since March, and has felt the disorientation of the coronavirus period acutely.
“I have a mini-existential crisis daily,” she said with a laugh. “What is our role as artists? Am I an effective educator right now? Zoom is wonderful, but so many things are lost.”
Maybe, but Kim sees a potential benefit to the isolation. “I think as artists we’ve been able to step back a little from the crazy that is our normal pace of life — the next piece, the next rehearsal, the next plane, the next tour, the next performance.”
Quarantining, she said, has “allowed artists a space to think more broadly and spiritually about what our role is” — and to reconnect with one of music’s fundamental roles in society: bringing ordinary people together, regardless of creed, color or political allegiance.
“I’ve done some curbside concerts where I just go out with my parents and my brother and play on the sidewalk. People come with their lunches and we have a great time. They’re so happy to have live music that they can, like, touch in the soundwaves.”
Creating a similar, interactive space for reflection is central to “How Many Breaths?” To that end, an online discussion hosted by Walker West Academy will follow Sunday’s premiere, with the artists present.
For Sarah Bellamy, the aim of this project is clear. She wants it to be more than just another piece of ephemeral protest art, well-meaning but essentially irrelevant to the tougher interactions that drive real change in society.
“I hope it moves people to have the difficult conversations necessary to pass lasting protective legislation, to ensure that the extrajudicial killing of Black and brown people stops,” she said. “I hope ‘How Many Breaths?’ — and cross-genre collaborations like it — can support lasting change.
“I want us to be free.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.