Meet the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Bloggers, Part 2

Meet the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Bloggers, Part 2

Here at NewMusicBox, it is once again our pleasure to welcome the contributions of composers involved in the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute (Nov. 1-8). You’ve already met Ted Hearne. Now here’s a word from our other team blogger, Justin Merritt.

Then be sure to check back often this week and follow along as Ted and Justin give us an inside peek into the Institute experience. —MS

Justin Merritt

Composer Justin Merritt (b. 1975) is assistant professor and composer-in-residence at St. Olaf College. He was the youngest-ever winner of the ASCAP Foundation/Rudolph Nissim award in 2001 for Janus Mask for Orchestra. He is the winner of many other awards including the 2008 Copland Award, the 2008 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Award for River of Blood, the 2006 Polyphonos Prize for Hay Días, the 2006 VocalEssence Essentially Chorale Competition for Adoro Te Devote. Other works include music for orchestra, ballet, and opera. He has also worked as composer and musical director in dozens of theater productions, ranging from Shakespeare to DaDa. Merritt earned his D.M. from Indiana University where he studied composition with Sven-David Sandström, Samuel Adler, Don Freund, Claude Baker, and electronic and computer music with Jeffrey Hass.


From 1979 through 1989 (at least) much of Central America was embroiled in a war in which terrorists and right wing juntas squared off against their own populations in an orgy of blood and terror. We, the United States, were on the side of the terrorists and murderers. We funded them. We armed them. We supported them politically. We lied for them.

For two years I’ve been reading about and listening to stories of the terror, especially the events in El Salvador in 1980. So why am I smiling?

I came to this story accidentally. I was commissioned to compose a new work for the Esoterics, a terrific new music-centric choir in Seattle two summers ago. The theme of the concert was “War,” and I was determined to compose music that was relevant. The newly Democratic congress was in the process of escalating the war in Iraq, and I was feeling impotent and small. How could I compose another bit piece of pure music when the world was going crazy?

I stumbled across a poem by a Salvadoran journalist Jaime Suarez entitled “Hay DÍas”. The poem was a beautiful mixture of sadness, joy, sex, and love, and I knew immediately that I had to set it. But it also got me to reading about the events in El Salvador. Suarez was a young journalist out to report the activities of the ruling right-wing junta. Soon after he wrote the poem, his body was found dumped in the streets of San Salvador, mutilated and tortured. He was not alone.

The more I read, the more dispirited I became. Throughout the ’80s the Salvadorans were the victims of a campaign of violence barely imaginable. Whole villages were wiped out by the military using American bought equipment and raided by American trained soldiers.

Just last week I had the chance to meet a Salvadoran man working at St. Olaf as a janitor. As a 13-year old in 1980, he was walking to school through a cornfield when he came across the bodies of his neighbors. All of them were killed, including the children and their pregnant mother.

River of Blood is a work about the first large-scale massacre of the Salvadoran Terror. Noam Chomsky writes about the particular incident:

On March 7, 1980, two weeks before the assassination, a state of siege had been instituted in El Salvador, and the war against the population began in force (with continued US support and involvement). The first major attack was a big massacre at the Rio Sumpul, a coordinated military operation of the Honduran and Salvadoran armies in which at least 600 people were butchered. Infants were cut to pieces with machetes, and women were tortured and drowned. Pieces of bodies were found in the river for days afterwards. There were church observers, so the information came out immediately, but the mainstream US media didn’t think it was worth reporting.

There is much more to be said about the history, and I hope this week I have the chance to remind some people about this terrible event and our involvement. But right now another question is bothering me: Am I exploiting this terrible event? Is it right to be so pleased at one of the biggest performances of my career?

I wrote River of Blood because I felt it was the only small thing I could do as a composer in light of the enormity of the crime at hand. But now here I am heading to the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute almost giddy with excitement. Here is a major orchestra about to tackle a work of mine. I am thrilled! But ashamed. Can I be both happy at my own good fortune and devastated at the distant cause?

I will find out soon enough.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “Meet the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Bloggers, Part 2

  1. William Osborne

    Speaking truth to power about hidden injustice is cause for happiness, and even joy, because it leads to a better world for our fellow humans.

    Finally, someone in the new music community is really speaking out about the incredible injustices our country has perpetrated in Latin America. I could hardly believe my eyes, and I am joyful.

    One wonders how the events you describe remain so ignored. During the mid 80s, for example, about 200,000 Mayans were systematically murdered by US-backed death squads in Guatemala , but how often do you hear about this act of genocide? The details of the mass-murders are often so horrific they defy comprehension. So many small farms went fallow due to the murders that it changed the satellite photos of Guatemala because jungle overtook the countryside. So little is said about the US backed mass murder in Guatemala that it is often referred to as “The Secret Holocaust.”

    The Yale University Genocide Studies Program has useful information about The Secret Holocaust, including before and after satellite photos:

    How did we become a society that remains largely silent about acts genocide instigated and backed by our government? One can mention the most simple, straightforward truths, and yet people react as if the observations are radical. What happens, for example, if one protests that the airport in our nation’s capitol is named after a President directly involved in the instigation and support of the Guatemalan genocide?

    Do not for a second feel any hesitation about what you are doing, Justin. We have to look with sadness and shame at what our country has done and what it has become, but we can also feel joy when the truth is made known. There is always a glimmer of hope when we can speak the truth.

    Thank you, Justin Merritt! And thank you to the people who selected your work for performance.

    William Osborne

  2. pgblu

    I think, though, William, that you are rather proving Justin’s point. He will get some firm slaps on the back for addressing these events in his … title .. and maybe in his compositional method (what? folk music quotations?) — who knows? The question is, how does he prevent this horrific massacre from becoming trivial, from acting as window dressing that does little more than point back to the composer and his own oh-so-politically-aware self? Don’t get me wrong, I also find his interest in these events admirable, and his willingness to engage with them as an artist is rarely seen in our circles. I am just at a loss to see what good it really does. A listener might become aware of the history through Justin’s piece, but surely it’s not just a documentary, when a documentary would be much more effective. If the piece merely expresses sorrow, using standard lamentation tropes, then the piece could easily be re-programmed at some future date to lament historical events that Justin may have no interest in lamenting.

    My mind is open on this matter — but how does Justin keep from coming across as an opportunist, no matter how sincere his work appears? How does music carry a political message without becoming propaganda?

  3. William Osborne

    It is a fallacy to think that political art should lead to direct political action. This sometimes happens, but it is rare. In reality, art contributes to a body of thought and social awareness that can and should manifest itself in countless ways. Political art becomes part of a social Gestalt. In its simplest forms, this Gestalt can create a domino effect, chain-reaction, or network of thought with a rhizomic character that has a myriad affect on human endeavor and social consciousness. Justin, for example, read Jaime Suarez’s poem “Hay Días” and was moved to write a work a few hundred people will see, and that several thousand will probably read about. That poem and its setting also led to this discussion. The rhizomic effects of the work’s social Gestalt will continue to ripple, even if we can’t measure them.

    We should not reject the possibility of making social statements merely because our sphere of influence is limited. If we can’t change the world, then perhaps we can change the 15 square miles around us. If not that, then maybe a few people in our music department, church, or Rotary Club. We all have the responsibility to act within our abilities. That is the essence of democracy.

    …how does he prevent this horrific massacre from becoming trivial, from acting as window dressing that does little more than point back to the composer and his own oh-so-politically-aware self?

    People have always attempted to trivialize art and to use it as window dressing. Art will always be used and abused. And there will always be opportunistic artists. Fortunately, that did not keep Steinbeck from writing the Grapes of Wrath, Cervantes from Don Quixote, Dickens from Barnaby Rudge, Beecher Stowe from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Dostoyevsky from The Possessed, Orwell from Animal Farm, or Walker from The Color Purple. Nor Verdi from Nabucco, Britten from his War Requiem, Shostakovich from his 5th Symphony, Prokofiev from Alexander Nevsky, Rzewski from Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, or Adams from The Death of Klinghoffer. Nor did it stop popular musicians from Guthrie to Lennon to Hip Hop.

    We might not agree with these works, but it would be ridiculously facile to write them off as opportunism. If Justin’s work is good and sincere (and given the vetting process it went through I am sure it is) it will not be trivial.

    And finally, good political art explores the psychological, social, historical, and moral implications of world events in profound ways that are beyond the purview of documentary films. Above all, good political art weds social events with our own personal moral consciousness. (I wish I had time to elaborate on this, but I am pretty busy today and my pause if over.)

    It is unfortunate that the capacity for American artists to participate in the political process has seemingly been so severely curtailed.

    William Osborne

  4. Chris Becker

    If you’re wondering “what good” will out of writing something inspired by such atrocity, focusing on a single piece of music composed in what will probably be in Justin’s case a lifetime of music making may be a mistake. Music we compose resonates in ways we cannot anticipate even when we make every effort to be programmatic, to lay out the subtext, to write program notes, etc. THAT is music’s power – and it is that power that can (in part) create a better future.

    I spent five years composing and recording a CD of music inspired directly by music and icons of the American South (especially New Orleans) with participating musicians from New York and New Orleans. It was mastered two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. I spent another year then working with a New Orleans artist to create the CD’s packaging. In the wake of Katrina, we wanted to refer to it, but we didn’t want to “date stamp” the CD either. It was very important to me that the presentation be mysterious and almost mythic. It was a very challenging task.

    In contrast, Ted Herne’s Katrina Ballads is very much tied to moments in time mostly broadcast on television with the ballads’ lyrics being word for word transcriptions of people reacting to the tragedy. I think his concept is very specific to his generation i.e. people who were born in the age of the Internet, cell phones, and global communication and entertainment (I think Ted is at least 10 maybe 15 years younger than me). And I wonder (and this isn’t a criticism) how Katrina Ballads will play out another year, two, or ten years from now? What I do know is it is now a part of Ted’s body of work. It is a piece that may push him into another direction as a composer – especially if the “recovery” of New Orleans continues to move at a snails pace.


    William/Justin, you may or may not be aware of this piece:

  5. philmusic

    What I would ask is;

    Is this a question of an evocative/commemorative title for an instrumental work, or is this a tone poem with a scenario embedded into the music?

    Since I have composed political music myself I have found that songs, theatrical works, and tone poems tend to have less ambiguity of understanding.

    Then again, after all, the music comes first.

    Phil Fried

  6. rtanaka

    If Justin’s work is good and sincere (and given the vetting process it went through I am sure it is) it will not be trivial.

    I think it would largely depend if the composer is successful in providing an authentic representation of the subject matter from their perspective.

    This reminds me of a story a few years ago where a filmmaker did a documentary on the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. At the talks they brought in an actual survivor from the bombings, but she didn’t care much for the work because it was all about how the event made the director feel sad at the horrible event, rather than portraying it from the victim’s perspective. There are just some things that one will never understand unless they go through it themselves, and I think that artists really need to be honest with themselves about these sort of things.

    Sometimes good intensions aren’t enough…write about what you know, right?

  7. pgblu

    For the record, I was not accusing Justin of opportunism, in the sense that I do think his interest in these events is sincere. My point that his intentions cannot help but be misunderstood still stands, however.

  8. William Osborne

    I think I am beginning to understand what you are saying, Phil. People will listen to Justin’s work and question whether or not it is exploitive and opportunistic. And even though the work’s text explicitly references specific atrocities, it might eventually be exploited for false purposes.

    Critical assessments like these are actually part of what political art should engender. People should consider the work’s quality and possible meanings. One of the first steps is to consider its authenticity. And another is to consider how the work is contextualized in its overall presentation and what the implications are.

    These thoughts take us deeper into the work’s meanings. We determine what sort of relationship we want to have with it. We might reject it as inauthentic, or find a sincere confirmation of our own views. Or we might be led to perspectives we had not previously considered. With a good work of art, the possibilities of interpretation are often almost endless, and the same applies to good political art. Questioning the work is an essential part of the process.

    William Osborne


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