Getting To The Heart Of The Truth

Nov 1, 2019

Libby Larsen
Credit Ann Marsden / libbylarsen.com

A piece by acclaimed American composer Libby Larsen will be given its world premiere this weekend at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The work is inspired by the true stories of migrants.

NIU Choral Director Eric Johnson said he wanted something special to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his professional choir, Cor Cantiamo, the choral Ensemble-In-Residence at NIU.  He said Libby Larsen, a much sought after composer with whom he’s worked before, was the perfect choice. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts helped make that possible. He also wanted to continue a string of commissions by the choir that center on themes of social justice.

“In our conversations," he said, "we kind of coalesced around this idea of immigration and what's going on in the world. And then we encountered the Latinx oral history project here in the [NIU] Center for Latino and Latin American Studies."  

Larsen said she is very aware of what is going on at the southern border of the United States.

“It breaks my heart to see families separated," she said.  "And I thought, 'I wonder if I could look into the stories of migrants who are telling their stories and then having them recorded in the archives.'”

So she spent a weekend listening to those stories. Next came a search for some way to tie them together. But how to do that?  

“In every person, and every person's story, is a child," she said. "A child who maybe was brought here by grandparents, a child who was left in Mexico. So I thought what I would do is follow the trail of the child.”

But, Larsen said, that still left a couple of problems to solve. First, the words were true, but were they musical?

“And question two," she said, "is ‘What right do I have as the part of the demographics of the United States that I am to use these words and musicalize them?’”

Larsen decided she needed to find appropriate poetry that dealt with the subject. As it happens, she had long been a fan of the work of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.

“And it just hit me like a thunderbolt that I could pair with Gabriela Mistral’s poetry," she said. "And the poetry itself actually represents the heart of the piece rather than the story of the piece. The poetry is actually the journey of the soul of the child.” 

Credit Cor Cantiamo

The 20-minute work that resulted is called Verdad, a Spanish word that can be translated as “true,” but also as “truth.” Larsen said the piece works both ways, because it’s inspired by true stories, and, through poetry, expresses truth. 

So what does she want the audience, who may know only the headlines and not the individual stories or Mistral’s poetry, to take from Verdad? Empathy, she said.  

“When we sing about the little feet of children," she said,  "those feet are wounded  and cut and bleeding.  I hope that the distance that we can use as a self defense mechanism in a situation where we're actually putting children in cages -- my music, I hope, will remove that distance.”   

Cor Cantiamo Director Eric Johnson said that goes for the rest of a program that includes works by Latinx composers expressing the full range of emotion, as well as an art installation dealing with immigration by NIU graduate student and instructor Heriberto Ponce, titled Journey to Fallen Dreams: A migration of the persecuted, poor and undocumented to the unknown, next to the concert hall.

“Painting a broader picture," he said, "of turning the other into people. We are not 'others.' We are all human beings: We love, we fear, we hate. We hope for better lives for our children.”

And, Johnson said, so in Larsen’s piece: One feels both sorrow and joy.