Shortly after the Emanuel Nine tragedy, composer and former Charlestonian Jim Stephenson posted a Facebook message expressing his feelings of hopelessness as to how to respond. “Most of us composers/performers would probably love to write/play music in response to these tragedies, but no one would listen/care, because classical music is getting shelved by (probably) the same powers-that-be that are guided by the money/politics that enable these tragedies to continue,” he wrote.
Plenty of people weighed in, many agreeing with Stephenson, and it could have all stopped there. But among the people who responded was musician and Coastal Carolina University professor Nathan Tucker, and he had a different idea. “Nathan wrote me saying, ‘Jim, are you serious?’” Stephenson says. “We can organize something.”
Now, a little more than a month later, Stephenson’s piece “there are no words,” which honors the victims of the shooting, is set to premiere at the Sottile Theatre on Aug. 7 at the Charleston Response Project Benefit Concert, which was speedily put together by Tucker and Chamber Music Charleston. The performance is being presented free of charge, with donations to either the Lowcountry Ministries: Reverend Pinckney Fund or the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund strongly encouraged. All the artists who are performing are donating their time and talents.
When Tucker approached Chamber Music Charleston director Sandra Nikolajevs about assisting with this project, Nikolajevs was eager to help. “As musicians, we find ourselves in a unique position, to try and use our art to respond,” Nikolajevs says. “I feel it’s my obligation — as part of a well-respected organization, I feel so much more responsible for acting on these feelings, instead of just sitting back and saying, ‘I wish I could do something.’ So I personally was trying to figure out what to do, and I know my talents lie in bringing people together.”
So Nikolajevs and Chamber Music Charleston went to work on the production end: finding a venue, recruiting musicians, and forming partnerships with other artists in town. Despite the short timeframe, she was very successful — in addition to musicians from Chamber Music Charleston, Charlton Singleton will be leading performers from Jazz Artists of Charleston, and S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth and performance poet Marcus Amaker will both read poems they composed in response to the tragedy.
Stephenson describes his piece, which is scored for a mixed ensemble of 13 players, as a journey through the five stages of grief. “I didn’t know, musically, how to respond — I didn’t just want to write an elegy, you know, four or five minutes of sad music,” he says. “It was important for me to go through the process of grief in my mind … I knew from the beginning that I was going to end the piece with hope and forgiveness, because I was so touched and impressed by how the victims’ families responded.”
He also read Wentworth’s poem, “Holy City,” which includes a recitation of the victims’ names. “They had a rhythm to them, a music,” Stephenson says. “The last phrase I wrote repeats nine times. When I started writing the piece, I kept thinking, ‘How do I possibly represent these people with music? How do I do justice to nine lives?’ But I think when I sat down at the piano and started that last section, with the nine names, it all became a little easier.”
The community has responded in huge numbers — Nikolajevs happily reported this week that the concert was already sold out, although there is a waitlist on which people can put their names. Tickets are being held for the family members of the nine victims and for members of Emanuel AME Church, but some of those tickets might be released Thursday. To sign up for the waitlist, email Nikolajevs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And of course, even if you can’t get tickets, you can always donate to the Lowcountry Ministries or Hope Fund here.