ND Folk Choir, Joe Henry relate ‘The Passion’ to clergy sexual abuse

South Bend Tribune [South Bend IN]

February 17, 2023

By Jack Walton, Tribune Correspondent

J.J. Wright, director of the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir, has already undertaken several ambitious large-scale music projects.

Most of them, such as 2019’s “Vespers for the Immaculate Conception,” recorded with the Fifth House Ensemble and St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, combined sacred choral music and improvised jazz. His new work for the Notre Dame Folk Choir is “The Passion,” a 90-minute description of the events leading to the death of Jesus Christ.

There is no jazz this time around, but the spirit of improvisation permeates the work. For some passages, the musicians play a loose set of chord changes, deciding on the details themselves. The singers get to do the same.

“Even some of the choir parts have aleatoric sections,” Wright says, referring to what’s also known as “chance music,” where the composer gives the performer the freedom to improvise. “There’s a box that indicates some instructions, but they can sing certain melodies any way they feel like singing them. Part of the reasoning for that was to give them some agency in the musical moment. It impacts your heart. (The undergraduate singers) can enter into the music just like professional musicians.”

That sense of immediacy was essential because of the subject matter. Wright and librettist Tristan Cooley wanted to frame the Passion story through a contemporary lens, and they saw the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis as a topic that shared the Passion’s themes of cruelty and betrayal.

“The first iteration of the piece began with my own exploration and discoveries about the Passion itself, and also the clergy’s sexual abuse and subsequent covering up of it,” Wright says. “I eventually found that the Passion story is a model for learning how to be present for the hardest things in our lives. It’s a way of grappling with things that don’t make sense.”

The production team

The Folk Choir took an early version of “The Passion” on a brief tour in March 2022 and then traveled to the Holy Land in May to record it at the Jerusalem Music Centre in Israel. The production team was formidable: producer Joe Henry and engineer Ryan Freeland have both earned multiple Grammy awards. Freeland was in the studio with the group, and Henry Zoomed in remotely.

Away from the producer’s chair, Henry has enjoyed a long and prolific career as a singer-songwriter and released his 16th studio album, “All the Eye Can See.” Although stylistically anchored in roots rock and Americana, Henry has pursued many diverse avenues of sound, such as his noteworthy 2000 collaboration with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” His production credits include albums by Solomon Burke, Mose Allison, Bonnie Raitt, Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco.

Wright and Henry met while the former was a classmate of Henry’s son Levon at the New School for Jazz in New York City. Since then, the two have wanted to collaborate, and “The Passion” gave them the opportunity to do so finally.

Henry’s production work is extensive, but a Catholic choir was something new. He kept an open mind.

“My first and most powerful response is instinctive. It’s not intellectual,” Henry says by phone from Harpswell, Maine. “If I have to think about why it’s meaningful, it probably isn’t. I heard those voices join together and wondered how powerful it would be to hear them take up this narrative. Beyond that, I don’t even need to hear it sung in English — I responded to the physical sound of the language. I was quite moved by it.”

Henry admired Wright’s determination to speak truth to power.

“I’m not sure how anybody continues to show up at a Catholic church without, in some way, personally reconciling what it means to patronize an institution that has not protected its most vulnerable members,” Henry says.

“The Passion story is very hard. It makes you cringe,” Wright says. “Nobody in their right mind really wants to listen to it. It forces you to confront what’s wrong with the world.”

Releasing the album

On Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22), the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore will host an event celebrating the release of “The Passion.” The double CD will be available for sale at the store and can be mail-ordered via the bookstore’s website, nd.bncollege.com. In mid-March, the Folk Choir will take “The Passion” on a five-date East Coast tour. On Good Friday (April 7), the Folk Choir will stage a performance of “The Passion” on Notre Dame’s South Quad.

Last year’s performances gave Wright a sense of how the piece hits audiences.

More from composer J.J. Wright:Notre Dame Children’s Choir debuts at No. 1 on Billboard chart

“In general, people were overwhelmingly moved by the experience of grief and sorrow,” he says.

The performers share that visceral sense of catharsis.

“Even with something so uncomfortable and painful, creativity itself can be an expression of faith,” Wright says. “As a sacred musician, that’s what I always hope to accomplish: that the work reflects back towards God. We’re just using borrowed materials.”