The Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge typically has a cleric speak at its annual Community Prayer Breakfast. This time, the event struck a different chord.
Instead of giving a sermon or speech, Robert Kyr turned the 250 who attended the breakfast Thursday morning at Boudreaux’s into composers.
Kyr, a composer and music professor at the University of Oregon, enlisted the crowd into writing down its thoughts about violence, and he plans to use that material to create a choral work that will be produced next spring in Baton Rouge.
“That’s what we’re going to be doing, co-creating a work that addresses this crucial issue of violence,” Kyr said. “This is a major issue in our entire society, in our country and in the world.
“We’ve got to keep our minds and our hearts and our lives focused on that journey from conflict to reconciliation. That’s where we’re going together.”
The idea to bring Kyr to the breakfast grew from a meeting that the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, the Interfaith Federation’s executive director, had with the composer last year. McCullough-Bade met Kyr in Santa Fe, N.M., after attending the performance of a musical he had written, and they had a long breakfast conversation the next day.
“We talked about … the power of music to heal,” she said. “He talked about his desire to come to Louisiana since Katrina, and it’s never worked out.”
The federation invited Kyr to the breakfast, but to use it as a catalyst for creating a musical work. Kyr’s topic was “Waging Peace,” and he spoke about how violence has affected him.
In September, a close friend and former colleague, former Oregon School of Music Dean Anne Dhu McLucas, was shot to death along with her domestic partner, James Gillette, by Gillette’s son.
“We haven’t begun to understand it,” Kyr said. “It’s a journey. It takes time.”
But people are affected by violence even when it happens to those they don’t know. Kyr, 60, said his father and two uncles fought in World War II and often spoke about it. When he was 16, Kyr’s mother revealed something she had not spoken to anyone else about.
At war’s end, she volunteered for the Red Cross and was sent to Germany. As a secretary, she went with military personnel into death camps and biological and chemical warfare units, taking notes and writing reports about what had happened there. The reports, Kyr said, remain classified.
“She could only talk about that for 20 minutes in her life, and that was to me, and she felt a deep responsibility to at least connect with somebody in the hope that perhaps that I would go on and, based on what she shared with me, do something in the world that might make a difference so this would never happen again,” Kyr said. “It was beyond comprehension.
“She spoked for 20 minutes and stopped, and we sat in silence for a long time. You know what that is like, an eternity of silence after these horrific revelations.”
Last year, Kyr wrote a work about the Holocaust inspired by that conversation called “The Unutterable.” After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he spoke with middle-school students and used their thoughts to produce a choral program that they later performed in New York City.
“We sang around the city,” Kyr said. “We engaged people in dialogue about 9/11 and expressed our support for the people there and our true hope. The No. 1 hope is for peace — peace in the world, peace in our communities and peace within ourselves. You can imagine the effect that has on hardened New Yorkers, the effect it has on your children. It was a very moving time for all of us.”
For the Baton Rouge project, Kyr asked those at each breakfast table to discuss how violence has affected them, then to write about how they would like to speak against violence and how they or the community might bring about peace.
After Kyr’s presentation, Rabbi Tom Gardner of Beth Shalom Synagogue spoke briefly about the difficulties of combating violence.
“Everyone wants peace,” Gardner said. “So, we ask ourselves why there is so little peace in the world. The conclusion, I think, is everyone wants peace, but everyone has a different interpretation of what peace requires, what are the elements that make up peace.
“To get people to agree on peace is easy, but to get people to agree on what constitutes peace is very, very difficult.”