Everyone who’s alive now – you, your friends, your family – one day won’t be. It’s an unavoidable fact, and yet we often go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging it. Jules Howard explains why that might be a mistake.
We in the West are, in the words of social psychologist Sheldon Solomon, masters of “burying existential anxieties under a mound of French fries”. But that’s understandable, right? Death is horrible. We live. We die. And then it ends. What possible reason could there be for thinking about death more? Plus, French fries are delicious.
According to some scientists, however, there are advantages to thinking about death more. Psychologists, in particular, point to a number of studies that suggest that thinking about death (‘mortality salience’) can raise people’s self-worth, encourage them to be less money-orientated and even make them funnier. Buoyed by research like this there are social movements, such as so-called Death Cafés and the Death Salon collective, that provide space for people to meet and talk openly about death.
In many ways, groups like these mirror Eastern philosophies, which have urged people to consider death and the frailty of human existence, for centuries.
Buddha, for instance, was an advocator of ‘corpse meditation’ where dead bodies are observed in various states of decay. “This body, too,” one text states… “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”
And the very notion of ‘yin and yang’ – the dualistic idea of ‘light and dark’ and ‘fire and water’ and ‘life and death’ – appears to inspire in non-Western audiences a greater appreciation of everyday things than in Western audiences.
So, are we in the West thinking about death wrong? I would argue, no. Because there’s no ‘wrong’ way to do it.
But we could certainly do with thinking about it more. Not loads more, just as much as each of us feels is right. In so doing, our perspective on day-to-day events might be imperceptibly improved. After all, to those of us that know that life is impermanent, the French fries have never tasted so good.
Global events such as pandemics can momentarily focus attention on a fundamentally overlooked pre-existing human condition: the sheer inequality of how individuals in power decide who lives and who dies.
By: John Troyer
Pandemics make ignoring death harder to do. That doesn’t mean government officials and friends alike won’t symbolically look the other way or reflexively stare harder at their phones during mortality spike events. But the longer any act of ignoring continues, the more obvious the avalanche of death being ignored becomes.
Ignoring something is, of course, different than repressing it. We are acknowledging its existence by ignoring it. We see death. We understand it happens. All of us know people who have died. Everyone reading these words will eventually die.
Which brings me to our current death moment.
The Covid-19 pandemic is but one example from a long list of morbidity and mortality events that momentarily exposed the politics of death for everyone to see. And by everyone, I mean the citizens of every single country on the planet who are suddenly witnessing what those of us who work in death full-time already knew: Our leaders regularly choose to decide who lives and who dies.
Now flip that last statement into a question and one can begin to see the genealogical shadow of Queens and Emperors: Who lives and who dies? Thumbs up or thumbs down? These are foundational and urgent questions that confront modern governments with choices to make on any given day but especially so during a pandemic. The early AIDS epidemic remains a tragic illustration of how different governments decided that the queer communities watching gay men die in unprecedented numbers could be ignored until suddenly those same governments were dealing with a pandemic that remains with us today.
Thanatopolitics, or the Politics of Death
Who lives and who dies are clearly not new questions, but global events such as pandemics can momentarily focus attention on a fundamentally overlooked pre-existing human condition: the sheer inequality of how individuals in power answer those questions.
And while it is correct to state that all biological creatures die at a certain point, that dying is hardly universal in how it impacts different communities. What I’m saying may not come as a surprise, but it is important to foreground this information as a way of stating that when discussing death in the modern Western world, we are often discussing the politics of death. Even if people do not realize this distinction when talking about death and dying — and many people, I believe, do not — the ways end-of-life trajectories become discussed focus on the dynamics causing that death to happen. This distinction matters since understanding how a person died — the core causation of the death, especially during a pandemic — is often laden with political questions around access to care, medical ethics, and economic stability.
While death and dead bodies are obviously connected, the politics surrounding each remains unique and should be distinguished from one another.
This death politics can properly be called a thanatopolitics, borrowing thanato for death from the Ancient Greeks and working with both Giorgio Agamben’s and Michel Foucault’s ideas around biopolitics and forms of life.
What this thanatopolitics of who lives and who dies — with a heavy emphasis here on the “dies” bit — is not is the related concept of necropolitics. The latter is a distinct and important idea first suggested by philosopher Achille Mbembe that more accurately describes the politics of dead bodies (the necro in Ancient Greek). The thanato/necro distinction is crucial in everyday circumstances since the politics of death is often described using the necro- prefix — and while death and dead bodies are obviously connected, the politics surrounding each remains unique and should be distinguished from one another. Dead body politics and death politics occupy distinct experiences for the average person, and recognizing the difference between what death is and what a dead body is remains profoundly important for medicine, the law, and everyday decision making in places such as hospices.
In my book “Technologies of the Human Corpse” I devote the entirety of a chapter to discussing precisely these distinctions between the bio, thanato, and necro, since the politics of each remains simultaneously always visible (if you know where to look) and completely hidden. The book manuscript was completed in 2019, before Covid-19, but spends many pages discussing the ways AIDS both impacted and significantly changed how funeral directors handled dead bodies, e.g., personal protective equipment, or PPE, an acronym we’re all sadly familiar with by now.
By discussing the thanatopolitics of the early AIDS epidemic (which is still happening, lest anyone forgets), it is easy to see how the Covid-19 pandemic ticks all the boxes as to what contemporary thanatopolitics relies on: social and economic disadvantages that contribute to higher mortality rates, especially in brown and black communities; hundreds of thousands of people dying entirely preventable deaths in populations that become economically acceptable deaths (e.g., the elderly and disabled); access to life-saving medical treatments that significantly favor wealthy communities and nations, and so on.
Where Covid-19 thanatopolitics morphed into something I had not predicted was when the emergence of what I call virological determinism became the logic that almost every local, national, and global governing body used to lay blame for preexisting societal problems. This is a gloss on technological determinism, the tendency we humans have to blame any “technology” for causing our very human-created problems, and works much the same way. By taking a rapidly-out-of-control pandemic and mixing in contemporary health inequalities and unprepared — and sometimes negligible — political leaders, we in the West ended up in this thanatopolitical quagmire.
I say quagmire, since it is unclear right now if and when any of this will actually be “done” no matter the speed with which people want to move on. But there are lessons to be learned, and in this way, thanatopolitics can be extremely productive and useful.
The politics of death become a way to acknowledge all those who died and what should be done in the future to prevent more needless deaths. One of those key lessons includes governmental leaders both knowing about pre-existing pandemic response plans and then using those plans when responding to a non-stop mass fatality event such as Covid-19. In addition to following the already extant response plans, leaders should continue to update and renew those plans on a regular basis. HIV/AIDS taught the world how quickly a virus could adapt to everything we threw at it. I remain hopeful that we reflect on that lesson in the coming decades.
Understanding how a person died is often laden with political questions around access to care, medical ethics, and economic stability.
On March 18, 2020, I flew on a plane from the UK (where I normally live) to my hometown in Wisconsin to help my parents with some health issues. I did not know it then, but this was one of the last planes to make that trans-Atlantic flight for many months due to the pandemic.
On the flight, I read an incisive essay by Michael Specter in the New Yorker on the cascading failures of the U.S. health care system. It ends with the following prediction that presciently understood the who-lives-and-who-dies thanatopolitics that defined the past 18 months: “The bigger question is whether we will learn from the fact that this [Covid-19] pandemic will kill many more people than it had to. I’d like to think we would, but, if the past is any guide, this pandemic will end with a bunch of new commissions and ominous reports. As soon as they are printed, they will be forgotten.”
We can choose to ignore death and the thanatopolitics that choice brings for future body counts. But if Covid-19 has demonstrated anything it is that we do so at our own peril.
It’s lockdown number whatever, and this time I’m going to make it count. No sourdough therapy, no binge watching Schitts Creek, no ordering recklessly expensive artisan cakelets. This time I’m preparing for death.
A few years ago I helped my mother write her advance care plan. Now it’s my turn. I download it and work my way through the personal details to the end-of-life section. Who do I want to make medical decisions on my behalf? When do I want the plug pulled? I surprise myself with the strength of my written response.
It corresponds to the fierceness with which I guard my mother’s humanity: from well-meaning nurses who try to infantilise her, from doctors who talk to me about her as if she’s not in the room. I ask them politely to address themselves to her. Witnessing this, powerlessness and the loss of a stake in discussions about my own welfare have become the things I fear the most. I’ve seen firsthand how easily control of our destiny can slip from our grasp.
Her diary, once a daily record of her reflections, has become a hit-and-miss affair as her memory fades. A well-meaning relative has taken to recording my mother’s activities as a means of jogging her memory. She’s having none of it. Her latest entry reads: “Please leave me to write in this diary. It is beginning to look as if it has no idea who I am.” Despite her loss of autonomy, she has retained her sense of humour.
The fear of powerlessness is not the only prompt for my end-of-life preparations. I’m driven in part by the wish to make my passing easier for my children, whom I confidently expect to be inconsolable at the loss of their mother. To this end, I begin the task of gathering and storing my will, enduring powers of attorney, property deeds, birth, marriage and divorce certificates and, most importantly, the passwords to all my accounts.
Dying is a serious business. If a heart attack doesn’t kill you, the paperwork will.
In the search for the whereabouts of my will, I come upon some correspondence that has me reassessing my offspring’s expected levels of postmortem devastation. Two years ago I sent them a short email advising them where to find my will, and the spreadsheet that lists their individual advances on what we laughingly call their “inheritance”.
“Child X has as yet no entries in her column,” I write. “That’s what a life of abstemiousness and no driving licence can do.” To which Child Y, the party-boy comedian, responds: “How do I get my hands on some cash now? The email dragged on a bit so I couldn’t finish it.”
Undeterred, I dust off my “official documents” file from the cabinet under the stairs and sort the useful from the outdated, the originals from the copies. I find a useful online resource to list my bank details, assets, liabilities and funeral instructions.
Calculating your net worth can be confronting when the entry you put next to the dollar sign in the car column is “Not much”. Worse, the column is actually titled “cars”. I have very few entries in the “assets” side – nothing under “boat” and no idea what “other toys” might mean – but even fewer under “liabilities”. Freedom from debt may well be the only legacy I leave my children. Having gone through a financial settlement a decade ago, I’m determined to live within my means. So far I’ve managed to do it.
I’m taken with the Japanese concept of yutori: what Robert Dessaix describes as “just enough – time, friends, love, books – and a little bit more”. It’s giving yourself enough time after you have arrived at a destination to look around you. For me, it’s about having a comfortable life without the need for those notional “other toys” and the financial burden that comes with them.
My funeral wishes are essentially limited to the desire to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in my family’s happy place – a small coastal town. The musical component of my funeral is much more significant than the logistics.
Five years ago, I compiled a musical wish list before an extended overseas trip and surprised each child with their own vinyl copy, complete with album notes. Absolute Lizzie – The Funeral Selection was a highlight of my parenting career. It was a snapshot of the life I shared with my children, full of meaning and memories for all of us. The playlist is a chaotic combination of soundtracks and sentiment; a shameless play for laughs as well as a heartfelt homage to those long-dead musical geniuses who added so much joy to my life.
Lost in a reverie, I’ve managed to pass a long lazy afternoon in lockdown surrounded by dog-eared papers and wrapped in a warm maternal fug. I highly recommend it.
Preparing for my death has provided me with way more entertainment than is seemly. And a few ideas for a follow up album: Absolute Lizzie – The Afterlife.
I went to the theatre for the first time in 15 months to see the Theatre Royal Windsor’s new production of Hamlet. Starring Ian McKellen and directed by Sean Mathias, it really resonates in a time of ongoing pandemic. Mckellen’s very contemporary, teenage Hamlet slouches around in a hoodie and trackie bottoms, grieving, isolated and angry.
The setting, like the original, is the city of Elsinore, Denmark. In this version, COVID funerals are disrupted and truncated. Hamlet, a latterday prince, is a bisexual university student stuck at home with mum and step-dad when he wants to be back at uni in Wittenberg, hanging out with his friends and lovers.
Mental health issues afflict those in mourning, especially royalty. Hamlet muses “to be or not to be” as his lover, Horatio, gives the prince that most precious of things in lockdown, a haircut. Characters are overwhelmed by feelings of loss. Suicidal thoughts lurk. Denmark feels, and looks, like a prison. The government is morally corrupt.
Much of the play, this modern interpretation and Shakespeare’s original, speak to the circumstances and current climate in which we live. There is much in it to relate to and also learn from as our world widens and we learn to “live with the virus”.
The spectre of plague and pandemic hung over much of Shakespeare’s life. He was born in April 1564, a few months before an outbreak of bubonic plague killed a quarter of the people in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. Such pandemics would recur during his time in London in 1592, 1603, 1606 and then 1609.
When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, usually dated around 1599-1601, feelings of grief, mourning and bereavement were probably at the forefront of his mind. His parents were very elderly by contemporary standards. Shakespeare’s father, John, died in September 1601 around 70 years of age. Five years earlier, in August 1596, Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, had died aged 11, possibly of plague.
It is an uncanny coincidence that the name Hamlet is so close in sound to the name of Shakespeare’s son. The play is obsessed with fathers and sons, and how to navigate mourning a father’s death. It is full of speeches about grief and attempts to move on after bereavement. Hamlet is not alone in this as Ophelia and Laertes also suffer from unresolved grief in the play.
What galvanises Hamlet out of his emotional lockdown is theatre. When he hears travelling players are in town he leaps into action. Like so many in the audience he has really missed the theatre.
Despite the modern dress, Sean Mathias’ production eclectically evokes the theatre practices of the troupe in Hamlet. Most obviously, casting ignores age, ethnicity and gender, something which evokes the fact that Shakespeare’s stage had young men playing women. So while Jonathan Hyde is realistically cast as a plausible, efficient Claudius, the teenage Hamlet is played by an 82-year-old, while Francesca Annis who plays his elderly ghost.
Lee Newby’s set design also encourages audiences to think of early modern playing conditions, transforming the Theatre Royal stage into a black metal, faux Globe theatre with two banks of seats on either side of the stage and a gallery at the back.
As a result, the onstage audience are clearly on display, sharing light with the performers. The mandatory face masks offer a constant reminder of COVID, while blanking out the audience’s reactions, but they also offer a reminder that Shakespeare’s playhouse had to navigate its own pandemic and often had to negotiate sudden lockdowns.
When the weekly plague death count reached 30 in Shakespeare’s time, the playhouses closed. Plague transmission was not properly understood, but it was clear that people congregating created a super-spreader event of sorts.
Shakespeare, a player, playwright and, most importantly of all, a shareholder in the Globe, seems to have seized the moment and written prolifically during plague lockdowns. In 1592 he was writing narrative poetry – Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece – as plague raged.
The years 1603 to 1604, 1606, and 1608 to 1609 were also bad for plague, and seem to have given Shakespeare space to write. For example King Lear was performed at Whitehall Palace on Boxing Day 1606 at the end of a year of plague. From 1597 on, Shakespeare could also escape to his sprawling Warwickshire country mansion, New Place, one of the largest houses for miles, with at least 20 rooms.
By contrast, many players were desperate for any income and facing destitution. So, sometimes playhouses would reopen before the mortality rate fell to the level considered “safe”. The thought of what a “freedom day” was like in the early modern playhouse, with those standing (known as groundlings) pressed closely together in the yard, is perhaps even more daunting than watching people flood back now restrictions are lifted.
Now that so many restrictions have been lifted now in the UK since July 19, I am feeling very ambivalent about the shared experience of live theatre. The Theatre Royal created what feels like a very safe space and, personally, I could get used to having such a generous amount of leg room in front of me. In a COVID-secure theatre, there’s no need to get intimate with complete strangers while trying to squeeze through to your seat.
But after “Freedom Day”, the theatre is only insisting that masks remain mandatory for the audience onstage who are in such close proximity to the actors. The theatre will only “strongly encourage” the rest of the audience to mask up.
During the first decade of the 1600s, pandemic ravaged the country’s population and theatres were closed as often as they were open. This might be the case now too. Already productions have had to close to isolate, including London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, after positive cases among cast and crew. Maybe restrictions indoors could stave off more productions having to close. It took 30 deaths to close the playhouses in the 1600s, but now all it takes to close a theatre is one case of COVID.
Death is in the news. There’s the pandemic — all the souls who died alone, a large proportion of them elders in long-term care. Now extreme heat-related deaths are making headlines. There are deaths in contexts as diverse as the Florida condo tower collapse and the unmarked graves on former Canadian residential school sites. Human-made systems and structures are dying, as is too much of the plant and animal life on this planet.
Then my mother died.
Having cared for her 24/7 for 12 years at home, right now the days are too long and the nights are too quiet.
She was diagnosed with dementia in 2007. We moved her in with us and travelled with her on her journey. It was always about quality of life, and death with dignity.
On the day she died, the people who loved her were there, including my four-year-old twin goddaughters, who called her “Nana.” I was talking to their mother, and the girls were playing by the bed. Then I noticed Mom take a deep, pleased sigh and move her mouth slightly. I initially thought she was rousing a bit because of the visitors. But a moment later I noticed she wasn’t breathing. We checked the pulse, and Mom had passed. It was very peaceful, with bright sunlight streaming in the windows. The room could have felt empty, but because the girls were there, it was full of the heartbeat of life.
It was a good, meaningful death. I know I’m lucky.
The last 12 years exhausted us, taught us, changed us. They were full of humanity, interdependence and love. This was happening in parallel to the bigger world becoming increasingly fractured and uncaring.
Coming out of this experience, as a living embodiment of my mom’s legacy, how do I honour what we learned? Perhaps by deeply questioning why we all aren’t able to live a good life, in what some Indigenous peoples call “right relationships,” and respect death in a way that informs life.
In a death-denying culture, what does all of the death around us mean? Our story around death is empty. In a context of an anti-aging fairy tale, it’s obscured by numbers and hidden in shadows. This speaks to our way of life.
Climate scientists talk about three themes moving forward: mitigation, adaptation and suffering.
Ironically, our way of life is not only causing death, but is literally built on death — from millions of years of compressed dead plant matter. When we talk about climate change, we focus on carbon as the problem. The real problem is that we don’t live carbon, we live lives — and our way of life is empty.
The most practical question we face today is how to commit to some notion of human flourishing in the face of existential threat.
Indigenous peoples warned colonists that going against Natural Law, the law of life which respects death, is like going against life, toward your own demise.
Native American Faithkeeper Oren Lyons was involved in the creation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As a document that’s fundamentally about life, he has said it can be summed up in four words: “values change for survival.”
In medieval times, memento mori was a Latin phrase urging people to “remember that you must die.” Death is supposed to give life more meaning. It’s a teacher in plain sight, helping us discover what really matters.
If all the death around us is to mean anything, it should be a call to reclaim our humanity, a way of being that works for the continuation of life. Life and death are not inconsequential accidents, but organic parts of a greater whole.
This is the slippery, messy, vital work of our time. Legacy work connects your life story to other life on the planet, and to the even bigger story of lifetimes across generations. Values that are full of life flow from that kind of rich story.
Legacy is not a trivial thing. As a profound connection across time, in the context of lifetimes across generations, it can be either a burden or a gift. It’s where the power is. We don’t take that power, that responsibility, seriously enough.
Before you die, before I die, I have a question: What’s worth living for and dying for, in what we do and how we do it every day, year into year, generation over generation?
Once while I was visiting my mother, she looked out of the window and saw some strangers wandering around in her backyard. She opened the sliding glass door and asked, “Can I help you with something?”
Sheepishly, one of the visitors replied: “We heard about your garden and we just wanted to take a peek.”
My mother had a beautiful English garden. It was her pride and joy. I know for a fact that on the morning that she died, she had worked in her garden. Which is exactly what she would have wanted. Sometimes, when I visited, we would walk through the garden together. She would give me a tour; while pulling a weed or two she would teach me which plants should be near one another, and what to plant to stave off intrusive insects or aggressive vines. She carefully cultivated each section of her garden, paying regular, focused attention to what was or was not working and adjusting as needed. I view her garden and her work as an analogy for our own spiritual practice.
“I don’t envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, leads to such great harm as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated leads to great harm.”
“I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, leads to such great benefit as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, leads to great benefit.”
“I don’t envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about such suffering & stress as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about suffering & stress.”
“I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, brings about such happiness as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, brings about happiness.” (AN 1: 27–30)
We are like the flowers in the garden. We require careful cultivation. To grow in our practice, we need to place ourselves in an appropriate environment, surrounded with the right companionship, placing regular, focused attention through learning and meditating and following the Noble Eightfold Path.
During our garden tours, Mom would often cut back or completely remove a dead or dying plant. On more than on occasion she said to me: “There is a lot of death in the garden.” Her tone was very matter of fact. Her statement came from a place of this is how it is.
Mom never let gardening deaths and disappointments get the better of her. She had a very good understanding of the expected lifespans of her plants. She was not completely surprised if a raccoon dug up her bulbs, or if a passing deer bit the head off of a flower, or if a plant seemed to randomly die. Occasionally she would express annoyance at the raccoons and the deer, and disappointment when a plant did not work out, but she did not dwell on it.
Mom gardened with non-attachment. With a complete understanding of horticultural impermanence, she did not avoid using a flower that would bloom quickly and then fade away. She would showcase that flower. Finding a way to surround it with plants that would allow it to have a brief moment of stardom. Then, the surrounding plants would have their turn. And eventually, they too would disappear. Within the context of her garden, Mom understood the truth of aging and death. She knew that once planted, a flower would bloom and then die.
“The aging of beings in the various orders of beings, their old age, brokenness of teeth, grayness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of life, weakness of faculties — this is called aging. The passing of beings out of the various orders of beings, their passing away, dissolution, disappearance, dying, completion of time, dissolution of the aggregates, laying down of the body — this is called death. So this aging and this death are what is called aging and death. With the arising of birth there is the arising of aging and death.” (MN 9.22)
We are like the flowers in the garden. Once we are planted and begin to grow, we will die. And others around us will die. Take a look at a garden, or a park, or a forest. There might be tall and mighty trees that are more than a hundred years old. Then there is a flowering ground cover that shows up in early spring and fades away with the summer heat. There are rose bushes, which last several seasons. And, perhaps, tulips or daffodils that pop up once a year; they have one bloom and they are done. We do not know who that seasonal ground cover or the ancient tree will be.
Do not let the concept of impermanence discourage you. When the meaning of impermanence is misunderstood, it can push you toward nihilism. Some develop an attitude of “if nothing lasts, why bother?” If my mother had taken this point of view, she would have missed out on all the joy she felt while gardening. Her neighbors would have been denied the opportunity of walking past such beautiful scenery.
Go all in. Instead of avoiding experiences in life, learn the most you can from those experiences. Instead of avoiding relationships with others, be fully in those relationships, without attachment. Learn from the present moment because it will be gone. Don’t think, “Why bother? This will not last.” Do think: “This opportunity will not be here again. Let me really be in this moment and let it be my teacher.” Like my mother with her garden, be skillful in how you cultivate your practice and your mind. Be aware of death. And let it encourage you to live.
What arises, ceases. With each passing moment, even the strongest, sturdiest tree becomes closer to death. Today, petunias might be blooming, yet they will wilt under the hot summer Sun. It is not about if we and our loved ones will die, it is when.
You’ve probably heard a story like this before. Courtney Bryan’s Requiem was set to premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in late March 2020. In a time of incalculable loss, her music became part of another kind of casualty: the sounds that vanished from stages around the world.
Like many premieres originally planned for the past year, Bryan’s Requiem, written for the vocal quartet Quince Ensemble and members of the Chicago Symphony, was stranded in limbo. But through the orchestra’s turn to online programming and a season-ending series organized by Missy Mazzoli, its composer in residence, the piece was given a new date this week, when the latest episode of CSO Sessions lands on the streaming platform CSOtv.
Maybe it’s actually more fitting that the Requiem be released now, as the United States emerges from its worst days of the pandemic — over 600,000 deaths later — and the country celebrates its first federally recognized Juneteenth, a year after the emotional, nationwide peak of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd.
“I think about the loss in my own life, but I know that a lot of people have had a lot of losses during this time, due to Covid and other situations,” Bryan said in a recent interview. “So I’m really happy that this is the actual premiere.”
Bryan, who is based in and from New Orleans, is a composer and performer who deals in collaboration, with an open ear to traditions like jazz and gospel — and, occasionally, to topics around racial justice like Black Lives Matter. In “Sanctum” (2015), she wove live orchestral playing in with sounds including the voices of demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo. Her oratorio “Yet Unheard” (2016) commemorated the life of Sandra Bland.
Her Requiem was meant to be more abstract — haunted by contemporary tragedies, perhaps, but not explicitly tied to any one in particular. It draws from a broad range of inspirations, including death rituals from the Anglican Church, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Neoshamanism’s death rite known as the “great death spiral” and New Orleans jazz funerals, as well as text from the Bible and the traditional Catholic Mass.
Its five movements — Bryan associates that number with life — begin with a gentle, a cappella harmony built from elemental “mmm” sounds before each of the four voices of the Quince singers begins to follow a unique line, with detours into half-sung Sprechstimme and percussive sibilance. The other instruments don’t enter until about seven and a half minutes in, when the clarinet and brasses offer a chorale-like interlude, mournful and dignified.
The Requiem is primarily a showcase for the Quince singers. They follow that instrumental passage with repetitions of the word “listen,” in different ways: The score instructs one to exclaim, and the others to plead, chant on pitch and whisper. A bass drum resounds, signaling the start of a dirge that includes a duet of simultaneous yet lonely melodies from the clarinet and trombone. By the end, after sadly beautiful word painting with the “Kyrie eleison” text and a clarinet solo of upward runs, Bryan arrives at a finale that is less restful and resolved than a traditional Requiem’s, but more cyclical, closing with the “mmm” vocalise that started the piece.
Bryan talked more about the work and its inspirations in the interview. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Was this commission specifically for a Requiem, or was that your choice?
It actually goes back to when I met Quince. I was really taken not only with their music and their voices, but also how they talked about music and the things that they cared about. We bonded, and then a year after that — about four years ago — we were talking, and I told them I would like to write an a cappella Requiem.
I grew up in an Anglican church and was deciding between the Catholic Mass and the Anglican Mass, and thinking of writing a Requiem, but in my own style. As I got into it, I started reading about different dying rituals from traditions around the world, how people approach funerals and the celebration of life. Then I took a pause, because it got really big. There was a lot to learn, and it was changing the way I approached it — and because we didn’t have a specific deadline, I stepped down.
Later, I heard from Missy Mazzoli about a commission at the Chicago Symphony, and I knew that Quince was on the program. So I changed it. The first section is still a cappella, but then I added instruments.
Even with more musicians, it’s still far from the scale of something like Verdi’s Requiem.
It was already going to be chamber size. But yeah, I ended up going kind of minimal with the way I used the instruments. I checked out classic Requiems, definitely Verdi’s and Mozart’s, and the feeling I got — or even just from reading the Catholic Mass — was this feeling of rising up against death. It feels like there’s a battle or a triumph, and I found that I was most interested in thinking about death and the cyclical nature of life and death, and more, kind of, an acceptance. So all my text was Christian, but it’s my perspective on the Requiem.
I was about to say, there’s a tension at the end of your piece, between triumphant language like “Death will be no more” and music that’s more unsettled and mysterious.
It felt like a natural ending because it’s a life cycle; it wasn’t a triumph or an arrival point. And with the text, “The first things have passed away,” I thought it was something that was not an ending or a beginning.
When you were exploring traditions of mourning, what did you find yourself attracted to, conceptually and artistically?
The one that hit home the most is just thinking about New Orleans — the idea of the celebration of life and the jazz funeral. There’s the walking of the casket from the church to the burial ground, but there’s a whole ceremony in a jazz funeral that starts with the dirge, and then it goes up-tempo to a celebration of life. So that was a major influence on the instruments that I chose: the brass band or the New Orleans ensemble. I wasn’t trying to replicate the style, necessarily, but there are little symbolic things.
What do you make of the context of this Requiem’s premiere, as opposed to spring last year?
I know some commissions come in response to this historic thing, and you have your own take, but this was something that I just wanted to do. That’s why it’s interesting that it took its own time and that the actual premiere is after this really profound time of loss. I find these kinds of things mysterious, how they happen. So, I hear it differently. It sort of came out of some of the work I was already doing, where I was writing music about police brutality. I wouldn’t say this piece is about that; it was a chance for me to go in deeper into these ideas about life and death.
Quince asked, in the middle of the rougher parts of the pandemic, how I would feel if they just recorded the first, a cappella part and put it online for people — just something to share. The folks at the Chicago Symphony were very supportive of that, so we did. It felt good to have something like that to offer, and I feel the same way as it is being offered now. I hope it will be healing to people.