Thursday, May 22, 2014

Harvey Milk Day

Happy Birthday to Harvey Milk, and also to his legacy.

A couple of years ago, I was inspired, and I'm sure I was one among many, by the anniversary of Harvey Milk's death, to write a piece of music based on his words, and in his honor. I chose to set to music, for a capella male chorus, words from his famous late speeches and recordings. The music was premiered approximately one year ago, in concert.

I share it here in continuous celebration of the life and legacy of Harvey Milk.

Words by Harvey Milk
Music by Arthur Durkee
Performed by Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, Madison, WI
dir. by Ken Forney

You Gotta Give 'Em Hope    

I know that you can't live on hope alone.
But without it, life is not worth living.
And you— and you— and you gotta give 'em hope.

Hope will never be silent.

I cannot say enough what these words means to me: Hope will never be silent. I set these words to music, more than any other, in my piece. It is the refrain. You gotta give 'em hope—hope will never be silent. That is the message of the music. If I am at all a good composer, I hope that I have made the words come alive for you.

I am not by nature a positive thinker, a deeply hopeful person, or a Pollyanna optimist. Despite what many people who know me think, I am also not, therefore, a person who is by nature a negative thinker, or a cynic, or a pessimist. I am none of those. What I am not, however, is blindly or thoughtlessly optimistic, or a positive thinker who ignores reality. If you look at the record of history, you can see that hope is one of the most important dynamos of change. But it is not blind hope, it is activist and effective hope. It is the kind of hope that Harvey Milk embodied: laughing hope, refusal to despair, willingness to speak out in opposition to oppression, even thoughtless and ignorant but otherwise unintentional oppression. He could have despaired. He did not. He never gave up. He inspired many to keep fighting for what was right, past every obstacle, even past threats of death, and actual murder.

If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.
Burst down the closet doors once and for all,
and stand up and start to fight!

Harvey Milk continues to inspire me. For me, his words are a beacon of hope. And I struggle with hope. Hope doesn't easily to me—because all too often the kind of hope that is presented to me is toxic hope, built on fantasies and expectations, that in the end leads only to more disappointment and suffering. That's not the kind of hope Harvey Milk teaches me to follow: he teaches me to follow difficult hope. Earned hope. Hope that has been earned by struggle, and by an occasionally stubborn unwillingness to give in to all-too-available despair. I often struggle with this. Despair comes all to easily to someone who has been through the dark night of the soul, and who is (hopefully) intelligent enough to observe and report on life as it is, not just as we wish it was. Harvey Milk teaches me clear-eyed hope. Hope that is real because it acknowledges suffering, and is built on experience rather than fantasy or ideology. Harvey Milk gives me hope.

This is why I wrote this music.

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