There are two parts to intuition that are really important. One is the impulse of curiosity. What am I curious about? And then there’s a validation process. Am I right about this?
You walk off the streets of New York through a quiet lobby, and into a silent, dim concert hall. Some of the listeners seated within are already breathing deeply, eyes closed, relaxing into the lack of noise. Others are rigid with eyes wide open. One person fiddles with anxiety beads—or is it a rosary?
Broken Silence, created by Craig Shepard, is a unique, supportive, and non-adversarial listening experience designed to help process the ongoing sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic Church. The piece – which Shepard will present, free of charge, on January 6-8 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music – creates a communal space outside of any religious institution to acknowledge and engage the emotion that accompanies crises of corruption. No two performances are alike: the work’s text is set to malleable orchestration, and Shepard customizes the pacing to each group of participants.
The topic is a fraught but necessary taboo to reckon with, beyond legal or cinematic realms. Back in 2014, Shepard brainstormed new project ideas for 13 weeks and presented it to a group of collaborators that included Pauline Oliveros and Father Michael Lynch. Oliveros affirmed Broken Silence instantly.
“It felt uniquely charged and compelling,” said Shepard in a conversation after an August workshop performance. Shepard was baptized Catholic, grew up in the United Church of Christ, and converted and was confirmed in the Catholic Church in 2009. “There was something about the challenge of this topic, but also the sense that was a real need, and something that we as musicians and artists could contribute that perhaps no one else could.”
The piece is anchored by a 1982 letter written by Margaret Gallant to Cardinal Madeiros, protesting his silence and lack of appropriate action. Finding material – both content, and in respect to those involved – was a major concern, but court testimony was an unexpectedly useful source because the persons involved have already had the experience of it being in public. “It was just very clear to me that this is where we begin,” Shepard said of the letter. “Among other things, the letter is such a beautiful text. It really had a very clear expression of the emotional but also the some of the theological and the practical considerations for this particular situation. And it’s a source of tremendous hope. This was a grandmother who stood up to the most powerful authority in her life in at that time. That is a tremendous source of hope for me, that someone can and did do that.”
Hope, like orchestration, plays imperceptibly virtuosic in the piece. Shepard reads the text aloud and cues the musicians according to how the listeners are reacting to the material. The piece can contract or expand by about 20 minutes. The tenor and alto saxophones demand a rare technical ability to enter constantly from nothing. Steel-string acoustic guitars played with ebows, without volume pedals, demand muscle control to hold single notes for up to five minutes without changing. There are scores, but the shifting cues demand constant attention.
The emotional labor is also high. The musicians practice sitting together and settling into nonverbal communication to create the emotional foundation to support incoming participants. “We noticed very clearly last workshop that there’s a ‘container’ for each experience,” Shepard explained. “When that container is really strong and supportive, then the experience can go deeper. So we last time, when you were there, there was a very strong container and it happened very quickly. We don’t know exactly, but it has to do with everyone who is in the room.” Shepard uses his Somatic Experiencing training (a method founded by Dr. Peter A. Levine to work with people overcoming trauma) to sense nervous energy in the room and direct the flow of performance.
People have shared astonishing stories with Shepard, and survivors, priests, Catholic educators and school board members, and people without any direct connection have attended the workshops and affirmed their value. “Actually, we found that those outside the church might find it even more beneficial for them, because they’re often one step removed from the events,” Shepard explains, noting that such outsiders still are impacted by what has transpired. “In our culture at large, we have a crisis of corruption. And what do you do about it? How do you deal with it? And no one really knows. We don’t have a lot of solutions… but I do see an opportunity to begin to work through that, and part of the process is actually just seeing it as it is.”
Broken Silence is difficult to describe but remarkable to experience. Bodies have been abused; this honors bodily experience. Where silence has been covering and cowardice, here it becomes acknowledgement and courage. Isolation is transformed into something shared. The demands to participate in this piece are high, but the rewards are equal. Shepard hopes individuals can rest, and find more capacity to be able to contemplate painful topics.
“And,” he adds, “I do hope they enjoy it.”
Some advice for those who might plan to attend: Arrive early. Give yourself 30 minutes to settle in after being in taxis and subways. Audience members can linger in post-performance silence as long as they want. Shepard is available in the lobby, but talking afterward is completely optional. For some, it could take time to transition back into the city and the next activity. The piece is not therapy, and some people may find it helpful to go with a trusted friend. If you’re interested in attending the concert but are unsure, Shepard and former participants are available to talk more.
Craig Shepard presents Broken Silence at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music on Jan. 6-8 at 8:25pm; dimennacenter.org.
Lana Norris is a music journalist and collaborative pianist with a background in sacred music and religious studies. She brings an interest in diplomacy to her dedication to contemporary concert music.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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