Photo by Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Piece for Minnesota Orchestra places murder of George Floyd in context of America

By Jenna Ross Star Tribune

May 5, 2023
Photo by Jerry Holt, Star Tribune
The Minnesota Orchestra will debut the commissioned work "brea(d)th" this month.
The Minnesota Orchestra will debut the commissioned work "brea(d)th" this month.


hey wore fine coats and chunky eyeglasses and braids piled atop their heads. One man, from South Africa, donned a Zulu warrior's hat.

One morning in March, a few dozen people arrived at Orchestra Hall for a rehearsal. But it felt more like an occasion.

They were about to hear the first reading of a world premiere. A piece of music the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned after George Floyd's murder. A piece two Black artists composed after visiting George Floyd Square. A piece titled "brea(d)th," which the orchestra will perform with the help of 150 singers May 18-20.

After hugs and handshakes and fist bumps, spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph took his spot onstage, pencil in hand. Carlos Simon, one of the country's hottest composers, settled into Row 14, his score lit on a stand beside him.

The strings began, solemn. Then Joseph's voice filled the hall.

We pledge co-llegiance

To the facts

That the United States of America

Is racially healing in public

So you could understand

How some in this nation

Wonder, God

Could dignity be afforded to all?

With language both specific and expansive, Joseph centered that day in May 2020 within centuries, placing the corner of 38th and Chicago within the history of a fractured country.

His voice was strong, his cadence deliberate. But there was an aching, too.

"The piece is yearning," Joseph said later that day. "It isn't prescriptive. It isn't definitive. There's this undercurrent around inevitability. ... That moment in May, given our trajectory, was probably inevitable. But democracy is not inevitable. It is a promise.

"So that's the breadth of the task — to make good on the promise."

‘Part of a movement’

Simon nearly said no.

After Floyd's killing, he got a call from the Minnesota Orchestra, which was grappling with how to respond as an institution and as artists. The Atlanta-raised, Washington, D.C.-based composer worried that there was "an expectation to relive the moment — the knee on the neck," he said, "to go to a place where it's white guilt and Black trauma.

"And I just didn't want to do that as a composer."

But the orchestra seemed to be asking for something else. They wanted him to visit, spending time not only at Orchestra Hall but in the community. Talking with Joseph, a regular collaborator, he felt they could tap into something higher.

"I'm the son of a preacher," Simon said, "so I'm always thinking, 'How can I be a vessel? How can I be a conduit?'"

Simon's days, which he documents on Instagram, are packed with premieres. A recent Grammy nominee, he's among a cadre of composers sought by orchestras across the country. Seven of them share a text thread and call themselves "The Blacknificent Seven."

"We're all talking about the same things but in different ways," Simon said. "We are, I feel, part of a movement."

The Minnesota Orchestra has played Simon before, including the ominous but beautiful "An Elegy: A Cry From the Grave and Fate Now Conquers." His works are part of the orchestra's broader attempt to diversify its repertoire and rethink its operations.

Last year, near the second anniversary of Floyd's murder, the orchestra performed "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed," a piece by fellow Blacknificent composer Joel Thompson that sets to music the final words of Eric Garner and six other unarmed Black men killed during encounters with police.

As they did with that piece, the Minnesota Chorale, Twin Cities Choral Partners and 29:11 have used rehearsals for "brea(d)th" to engage with the topic not just as singers but as people, said Shekela Wanyama, a singer and doctoral student in choral and orchestral conducting. Through those conversations, she said, it's become clear that "we as a community have not dealt with George Floyd's murder and the aftermath."

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune
At a first reading of "brea(d)th" in March, singers with the Minnesota Chorale and 29:11, including (left to right) Homvula Maneli, Brendon Adams and Shekela Wanyama, discussed the piece's power. Invitees included Jeanelle Austin, lead caretaker at George Floyd Square. As the orchestra played his piece for the first time, composer Carlos Simon studied the score.

Protests and riots, tanks and helicopters, night watches and neighborhood cleanups.

"People are still carrying so much from that time period," she said. "So many questions, so much raw emotion.

"Perhaps this piece, although it's written by people who are not from here, is providing us as a community an opportunity to open that door and begin to process some of that."

After disappointment, dialogue

Back in July 2022, Joseph described the stakes.

"I come to you as a librettist," he told the group of musicians and staffers gathered in the Orchestra Hall atrium. "But I also come to you as a consultative body. ... I bring all my selves into this space."

He spoke about his work as vice president and artistic director of social impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and his belief that "if racism is structural, then anti-racism also must be structural." Then, with the help of a PowerPoint, he launched into a presentation about pedagogy, about processes, about change.

The worst thing that could happen, Joseph told the crowd, would be for the orchestra, facing this horrific injustice, to have an emotional response. To perform ally-ship. To allow guilt, fatigue and apathy to follow.

But what if instead the orchestra responded with empathy and compassion? With a rejection of performative ally-ship. With "real, vigorous work."

St. Paul-based podcaster and musician Garrett McQueen knows Simon, Joseph and their work together. But at first he felt that hiring them, rather than local artists, was "a bit of a misstep."

McQueen, director of artist equity for the American Composers Orchestra, pushed the orchestra to connect the duo with Minnesotans, even making a list. Over visits and conversations, he's appreciated what the orchestra has done both quietly and publicly "to make sure local voices are being included and space is being made." That includes students from Juxtaposition Arts creating a multimedia installation displayed in the Orchestra Hall lobby.

"It began with a bit of frustration, but where I am now is hopeful," he said. "The key to that has been dialogue."

He also appreciated that the orchestra picked to lead the piece's first reading local conductor William Eddins. At one point that March morning, Eddins, Joseph and Simon gathered near the podium, debating how to make a moment more dynamic. "I wonder what it would sound like ... " Simon said, eyeing the score.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune
Local conductor William Eddins, left, worked with composer Carlos Simon and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph onstage as "brea(d)th" filled Orchestra Hall for the first time.

Eddins waved his baton and the string players rapidly bowed their instruments.

"See, that works!" Eddins said. "That works!"

Joseph snapped a photo of the moment: three Black men leading a major orchestra.

‘A voice of conscience’

After two visits to Minneapolis, after coffee with artists and activists, after time at George Floyd Square and "Say Their Names" cemetery, Joseph began writing.

He wrote about history, land and beauty, about promises made and broken. He wrote about the 24 demands that community members compiled shortly after Floyd's murder.

God bless American bread and the hands that have prepared it

May the bounty be baked into

24 demands

Seasoned by 2,000 seasons

True to our native land

Before the sunrise tomorrow

May we feast on the bread that bought us one more day to try to get it right.

Sitting at his piano, Simon listened to a recording of his words and improvised beneath them. Music that, at one point, evokes a jazz club. Music that Floyd himself might have listened to, Simon said.

The work centers spoken word, with the choir repeating and amplifying key phrases, said Wanyama, who is writing her thesis on the piece. "The chorus acts like a voice of conscience."

At the reading in March, the choir didn't perform. But the orchestra had invited them to be in the audience. Afterward, Wanyama and other singers gathered among the rows, comparing notes.

"How does this piece compare to 'Seven Last Words' from last year?" asked Jeanelle Austin, lead caretaker at George Floyd Square. "Singing this piece, hearing this piece, feeling this piece. Do you sense any kind of difference?"

A few singers suggested differences in music and themes.

Then, Austin answered her own question.

"'Seven Last Words' sees our death," she said. "This sees our living."