One of the advantages of working at a university is that I have easy access to live music. The choral ensembles and orchestra at Northern Michigan University recently performed a new composition, “The Unarmed Child,” by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm, who visited campus and worked with our student musicians on this piece. It had been performed publicly only once before, on the west coast, so we were truly privileged to be able to hear it. The performance was incredible. The music was stunning and gorgeous; yet the lyrics sometimes bordered on despair.
“The Unarmed Child” is a protest against gun violence, and the child in the title represents the many, many children who have died because of gun violence in the United States in recent years. The piece includes movements that rely on rituals many of us are familiar with, particularly the Agnus Dei and Lux Aeterna. Another movement also referred to the Requiem Mass but incorporated hip hop and gospel rather than relying on the classical European tradition many of us might have expected, an acknowledgment that many victims of violence are African American. Later movements included poems by Shantel Sellers, one of Bussewitz-Quarm’s collaborators, as well as by 19th century English writer Christina Rossetti and Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. I don’t think I’ve ever heard another piece of music so diverse in its influences.
Tagore gets the last word. His poem “Where the Mind Is Without Fear” forms the last movement, and its last line is “let my country awake.” Let my country awake. I left the auditorium with those words echoing in my mind and rumbling through my spirit. As I said, this composition borders on despair, but it was neither written nor performed with despair. It was created with hope, as perhaps all art is. Hope can energize us if we let it. Hope can impel us to change if we let it. I’m grateful to be able to work with such talented students and dedicated colleagues. I’ll really be grateful, though, when a composition like “The Unarmed Child” is no longer necessary.