Seattle Peace Chorus is presenting “Freedom of the Press/Freedom of Song,” dedicated to the importance of free speech and expression, and a mix of related themes, narration, instrumentals and singing.
The numbers are unnerving.
The independent, nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) tracks international data about reporters killed, jailed or missing while in the course of their work. Since 1992, 1,262 journalists have died on the job while covering politics, human rights, war, crime and more. A 2016 prison census showed 259 in jail and 55 missing.
The CPJ also lists on its website (cpj.org) nations with heaviest censorship of the press (Eritrea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are the top three), and articles about innovative ways some countries suppress media. In the United States, President Donald Trump has called an independent press the “enemy of the American people,” labeled many outlets “fake news” and, last month, suggested news organizations he disagrees with be shut down.
Seattle Peace Chorus’ ‘Freedom of the Press/Freedom of Song’
“It’s extremely alarming,” says Seattle Peace Chorus director Frederick West. “I think most of us cherish the First Amendment. Freedom of the press is what makes other freedoms possible.”
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West and Seattle Peace Chorus (SPC) are about to do what they do very well, this time in support of journalism at a difficult and, in some places, dangerous time. On Friday and Saturday (Nov. 17-18), SPC presents a pair of choral concerts, “Freedom of the Press/Freedom of Song,” dedicated to the importance of free speech and expression.
Several artistic collaborators are involved with the shows, including Grammy-nominated Brazilian jazz ensemble the Jovino Santos Neto Quinteto, pianists Kent Stevenson and Tom Bell, and former Dubliner Tom Creegan playing Uilleann pipes during a dedication to Irish crime reporter Veronica Guerin, who was murdered by drug lords in 1996.
“Seattle Peace Chorus has a long history of doing work that champions peace and justice,” says West. “As a nonprofit group we can’t say, oh, we’re going to go sing for Bernie or something. But we can address specific issues. So we decided we would celebrate journalists. We’re doing several things: noting journalists who have died or been threatened or injured, reading names of those jailed or killed for their work, and drawing attention to black South African journalists during apartheid.”
The concert program is a potent mix of related themes, narration, instrumentals and singing. There will be Renaissance music taking the audience back to the 15th century and the invention of the Gutenberg printing press; readings from American writers Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou; a civil rights-era song (“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn You Around”) with accompanying quotes from the 19th-century-slave-turned-statesman Frederick Douglass.
Also on the bill are readings from press coverage of the 1937 bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War; a brief narrative about Chile; original compositions by West; and music by Mozart, Bob Dylan and Paul Rardin (his rousing choral work “My Spirit is Unchanged,” with text from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”).
Such an explosion of expression in an evening’s concert is an example of what West says is SPC’s “civic duty.”
Founded in 1983, SPC ‘s mission, he says, “is to be singing ambassadors, using the common love of music with choirs in different countries to try to bring people together. It’s simple but moving and effective.”
SPC made several trips to the Soviet Union during the 1980s, and brought the Vladimir Chamber Choir (based in Vladimir, near Moscow) here for a concert at St. Mark’s Cathedral. SPC has also performed in Venezuela and Chile, and traveled three times to Cuba. West says he is trying to bring a Cuban choir to Seattle “even though doors that Obama opened have closed again.”
The organization performs one program in the fall and one in spring. Last June, West directed the chorus in “Verdi for the People: Requiem of the Resistance,” a re-creation of Verdi’s “Messa Requiem” as performed by prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Next June will see the premiere of West’s new composition, “People of the Drum,” honoring Native American legacies.
SPC also has an activist subgroup, the “Action Ensemble,” that performs at rallies, demonstrations, marches and other gatherings in support of peace and justice.
“We urge people to speak up for issues they care about,” West says. “We’re in a crazy time, and we have to speak out. Our freedoms were hard won. What upsets me is when our leaders forget just how precious those freedoms are.”