Posted on March 27, 2019

‘Seven Last Words’ Provokes Radical Empathy

Jessica Langois, Tallahasee Democrat, March 24, 2019

The last words of unarmed black men who were unnecessarily killed by police or authority figures isn’t the typical subject matter for classical music.

In my liberal neighborhood, we believe black lives matter. We put up yard signs in violent agreement with each other, protesting among ourselves. The slogan is a passable finish line, guarding us against the difficult work of empathy outside our realm of understanding.


Such is the achievement of classical music composer Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a work of irresistible power, stunning for its beauty and its stealth. You don’t see it coming.

More: ‘Seven Last Words of the Unarmed’ symphony, dialogue to bridge racial divides, spur empathy

Moved by Iranian artist Shirin Barghi’s #lastwords project, which illustrates tweetable depictions of the last words of victims like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Mr. Thompson wrote “Seven Last Words” as a way to process his personal feelings about being a young black man in a country that doesn’t seem to care about his existence. He chose seven sets of last words as the text for his piece, arranging it into seven movements that purposefully parallel the text structure of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ.”

The effect is radical empathy.


Orchestra subscribers remain predominantly like me: white, of moderate income and largely disassociated with violent acts. {snip}