By Amin El Gamal
I’m streaming choral group Conspirare’s Considering Matthew Shepard album. My playlist tends to be more Cardi B than chorister, so I’m not quite sure what to expect. Plus, my rude millennial gayness obliges me to resent the image of the tragic, victimized queer. Enough already, we’re fine now, right? RIGHT?!
I finally press play. The album starts quietly with a haunting piano progression. Then voices rise in pristine harmony setting up a sort of beat. I hear what sounds like a cowboy yodeling and the clank of hooves – unexpected. Then post-modern, staccato-y voices describe the Wyoming landscape:
These are the things that sway and pass
Cattle, sky, and grass
Dance and dance
Never die, never die, they circle
There is something both ancient and very new about the sounds. I feel this joy pulse through me, this connectedness to earth, humanity, my queer ancestors. The pulsing voices sweep me far away while also reassuring me that I belong there and everywhere. A few tracks later and the album has dipped into rock, folk, blues, country, hymn, chanting. The lyrics weave from news accounts and Matthew’s journal entries to interview material and words from the likes of Rumi and Michael Dennis Browne. I remember the times I was bullied and overcame. The way theatre and Sufi poets saved me and so many of my friends. I saw all those things and the beauty of the grit and hope that overcame them.
I am now mesmerized and on a beautiful journey I never expected.
Luckily for LA, there are two opportunities to hear the stunning three-part fusion oratorio live at the Ford on June 15 and 16. The piece was created by GRAMMY®-winning conductor Craig Hella Johnson, who will also lead the 30-voice Austin-based Conspirare choir and a small instrumental ensemble at the Ford.
In case you’re not familiar, Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old gay student who was brutally beaten and left to die on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming back in 1998. His story ultimately – though forever tragic and enraging – became a groundbreaking moment, one which helped galvanize, unite and ultimately strengthen the LGBTQ community. The landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 has saved and continues to save countless lives.
Similarly, Considering Matthew Shepard transcends tragedy. It is sad at times, but mostly hopeful, reaffirming, full of life and sometimes even funny. It has a daring honesty too – like when Johnson, who is also gay, explores what he could have in common with Matthew’s killers in the song “I Am Like You.”
“If I’m being honest, I think there are certain things I have in common with the murderers.” Johnson said in a recent interview. “I have never met them, but I do know that they were incredibly lost. To do something like this, how could they not be completely lost? And I know that sometimes I get lost.”
That level of complexity makes Considering Matthew Shepard a completely different experience from other tellings of the story that I have encountered. I think the difference is the medium of music, which enables Johnson to explore the bounds of love and compassion in a visceral, unifying and ultimately, hopeful way.
"In the midst of these unfathomable, dark, confounding aspects of life which we all experience, is love anywhere to be found? Is it something that is only available when we are in happy circumstances? Or is love still somewhere present, even when we are faced with some of life's hardest circumstances?” Johnsons poses. “It was an honest and simple question, and this piece was born out of that. So, the focus is really on the 'consideration,’ the listeners and creating a space for their interior journey with these kinds of questions. I also attempted to find a way to transition from Matt's story to contemplate whether hope is possible, and whether true healing is something we can even envision. In performing it, we leave each performance renewed.”
Johnson himself grew up in rural Minnesota and spent much of his early life in struggling with his sexuality. "There was nothing in my world that said it was positive a thing to be gay,” Johnson said.
I am struck, even with our generational differences, how connected my story is with Matthew and Johnson. And how powerful and empowering that connection is. I can only hope that one day everyone can hear the healing words and sounds Johnson has assembled:
Life over death
Love over hate
Light over darkness
See Considering Matthew Shepard at the Ford on June 15 & 16. For tickets and more information click here.