Honoring George Floyd, Musical Remembrance Transcends His Death

Librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and composer Carlos Simon onstage with the Minnesota Orchestra and conductor William Eddins during a recent rehearsal of ‘brea(d)th’ (Photo Greg Helgeson)

MINNEAPOLIS — While the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers reverberated across the nation and set off waves of Black Lives Matter protests, the pain and horror of the 46-year-old man’s senseless death cut especially deeply into the psyche of the Twin Cities where it took place.

The Minnesota Orchestra knew it had to respond. After all, George Floyd Square, as the site of the killing has come to be known locally, is just three miles from Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, and some of the ensemble’s staff and musicians live nearby. “We were immediately processing the emotions around what was happening and then asking: As an orchestra, as an arts institution in the Twin Cities, how could we use our position in the community to effect change?” said Beth Kellar-Long, Minnesota Orchestra’s vice president of orchestra administration.

Beth Kellar-Long, Minnesota Orchestra’s vice president of orchestra administration

The answer to the question is brea(d)th, a work for chorus, orchestra, and spoken word that conductor Jonathan Taylor Rush and the Minnesota Orchestra will premiere May 18-20 along with the Minnesota Chorale, Twin Cities Choral Partners, and 29:11 International Exchange — 150 singers in all. The 35-minute work by composer Carlos Simon and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph references Floyd’s death but also transcends it, setting the incident in a broader continuum and offering a prayer of hope.

“George Floyd’s murder is a flash point and culminating moment in American history,” Joseph said. “It is George Floyd, yes, but it also Breonna Taylor, Tyre Nichols, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Renisha McBride. What the piece investigates is a wide swath of American history and American promise and why that promise is either unfulfilled or violently repudiated systematically.”

The Floyd killing took place in May 2020, and just a month later the Minnesota Orchestra solicited ideas from its board, staff, and musicians for what the organization might do in response. It received more than 100 suggestions. The orchestra’s diversity, equity, and inclusion board committee reviewed them, and what stood out most strongly was the idea of commissioning a work. “An honest way for a musical organization to respond, of course, is with music,” Kellar-Long said.

It is easy to wonder whether a symphony orchestra 20 or 30 years ago would have done anything in reaction to an event like Floyd’s murder. But in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo Movement, orchestras have had to reexamine how they operate and how they relate to their communities. “We are definitely always thinking about relevance,” Kellar-Long said. “I think it has become more and more obvious how important that is.”

Librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph during a rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra (Photo Greg Helgeson)

A commissioning subcommittee was formed with two board members, two musicians, and three staff members, and it set to work in the fall of 2020 evaluating potential composers for the project, ultimately selecting Simon. He serves as composer-in-residence for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and his latest album, Requiem for the Enslaved, was nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award for best contemporary composition.

Simon, though, hesitated to accept the commission. He had already written music about police brutality toward Blacks and didn’t think he had anything new to say. “In fact, there was a bit of frustration on my part, just seeing the world not really changing and in fact getting worse,” he said. But he discussed the possible project with friends and colleagues and realized he could write something that would not only speak to Floyd’s murder but go beyond it as well. “It’s not just about the moment or just glorifying the moment but more so what comes after this. The antidote,” Simon said.

Garrett McQueen, a St. Paul-based bassoonist and co-host of the Trilloquy podcast

Right from the start, Simon knew he wanted Joseph, a writer and arts activist, who serves a vice president and artistic director of social impact at the Kennedy Center, to be his librettist. The two had worked together on several previous projects, including it all falls down, one of four short operas premiered in March 2022 at the Washington National Opera as part of a program titled Written in Stone. “We are in the habit of working together,” Joseph said. “Fond of one another. Fond of one another’s work. Just a lot in common and a good rapport.” Added Simon: “We’re homies, basically.”

Work on brea(d)th began in April 2022, when Simon and Joseph came to Minneapolis for the first in a series of meetings with Floyd’s family and community members. During that initial visit, the two visited the site where Floyd was killed and talked to Angela Harrelson, Floyd’s aunt, and Jeanelle Austin, executive director of the George Floyd Global Memorial.

Garrett McQueen, a St. Paul-based bassoonist and co-host of the Trilloquy podcast, became involved around the same time as an artistic consultant. He participated in listening sessions and conversations around the project and sought to make sure it was being handled in an equitable way, involving as many local and marginalized voices as possible.

Composer Carlos Simon follows his score during rehearsal (Photo Greg Helgeson)

“It’s definitely been a journey,” McQueen said. “There will always be people a little critical of the fact that neither the composer nor librettist are local. I think that argument is completely fair. It’s an important part of the conversation and the Minnesota Orchestra has definitely heard the conversation and has been receptive.”

Acknowledging they were outsiders who experienced the Floyd killing as “citizens of African America and not Minneapolis,” Joseph said that Simon and he tried to take what he called a “humble posture” and not make assumptions as they worked on brea(d)th. Alongside Simon, Joseph did a lot of listening and taking notes and wrote 25 minutes of verse, around which Simon wrote his music.

The composer originally envisioned a work for chorus and orchestra, but in looking at Joseph’s text he realized it would make sense to have the librettist also serve as a spoken word soloist for the work and be its central voice. “I was like, ‘You need to be a part of this piece. You need to be front and center,'” Simon said. “So the piece is really around him as a soloist.” The chorus echoes that spoken word and reinforces certain themes, and there are couplets that the chorus sings alone.

In creating the work, Joseph said, he and Simon didn’t want to fashion a requiem or what he called a “melodic biography.” Although Floyd’s name is never mentioned, the murder is clearly referenced, and he and the community are duly honored. But the two creators wanted to go further and incorporate the ongoing trauma of violence in the Black community and focus on what Joseph called the “premise of the promise,” a prayer to what could be. “Before the sun rises tomorrow/May we feast on the bread that bought us one more day to try to get it right…,” the central voice in the piece says and the chorus echoes.

The Minnesota Orchestra outside its home, Orchestra Hall (Travis Anderson)

The work has five movements. Besides a prologue and three sections keyed to the words “breath,” “bread,” and “breadth,” Simon has included his Elegy: A Cry from the Grave, a 2015 instrumental piece that commemorated three previous victims of police brutality — Martin, Garner, and Michael Brown, who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo. Its inclusion is meant to be a reminder that eight years after that composition was written, we are still dealing with the same issue.

In writing the work, Simon wanted to find a musical language that would be accessible even to people with little familiarity with classical music. “We didn’t want a piece that was so heavy that it didn’t reach people who would be going to George Floyd Square or that George Floyd himself wouldn’t listen to,” he said. Like other compositions he has written, it includes elements of jazz and gospel. He also looked to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection), which provided what he described as the feeling of the work. “It’s something that really resonated with the text and the overall DNA of the piece,” he said. “That really helped me write brea(d)th.”

The new work will be performed during a set of three concerts, with the May 19 performance to be broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television and live-streamed on the orchestra’s website. During intermission that evening, there will be live and pre-recorded interviews, including one with Austin. In addition, Juxtaposition Arts, a youth-centered visual arts center in Minneapolis, has constructed an installation for the lobby that reflects on Floyd and the composition.

What comes next? At one point, the text in brea(d)th asks, “So much work has been done. Who does the work that’s still left?” That’s a question the orchestra is already wrestling with. For now, it is presenting a small chamber performance of parts of the piece the following weekend as part of Rise and Remember, an annual event marking the anniversary of Floyd’s death.

“We don’t want this to be a piece that we play this one time, and it is never heard again,” Kellar-Long said. “We want to do it again. We want other orchestras to perform it. And we want other action and other art to come out of it.”