Musical Ensemble Conspirare Spreads Message of Love During ASM

Grammy Award-winning composer Craig Hella Johnson and his choral ensemble Conspirare use musical arrangements to share messages of humanity and hope with their audiences.

On October 12, 1998, college student Matthew Shepard died after being abducted and beaten by two men in Laramie, Wyo.. Composer Craig Hella Johnson and his Grammy Award-winning choral ensemble Conspirare tell Shepard’s story in the musical work ‘Considering Matthew Shepard.’

Johnson and Conspirare performed excerpts from the work and discussed its significance at Wednesday’s All-School Meeting (ASM).

In forming Conspirare, Johnson sought to create a talented group of musicians who were dedicated to both their work and its impact on the world. According to Johnson, Conspirare has achieved just that.

“I wanted to see if it is possible to create a community of musicians who make music at the highest level and just wanted to say, could this be a group of world-class artists who also are dedicated to really caring about one another and caring about their world and not only focusing on their craft but using their gifts to share broader messages, to let music speak through them and be really conscious and aware of the potential of art’s impact on all of us and the way it can transform our perspective,” said Johnson during ASM.

Henry Crater ’20, a member of The Fidelio Society and Chorus, said that seeing Conspirare perform live was an exciting experience for him, and that he hoped other students were inspired to go to Conspirare’s concert that night.

“I thought the ASM was really awesome because I’ve actually never heard Conspirare sing one of their pieces [full out], so that was sort of a first sneak peek, and I’m really glad they did it at ASM because I think a lot of students were like, ‘Woah, that’s super cool. I gotta go see that tonight.’ I hope a lot of students thought that,” said Crater.

Johnson explained how the music of ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ is meant to bring people together, both as individuals and as a whole community. He emphasized how each member of Conspirare and of all communities as a whole have their own unique gifts.

“The other aspect of this is, can we be fully individuals and also know what the meaning is to say that the whole is greater than the sum of our parts, so that even as wonderful and fabulous as each one of us wants to become, all the dreams that you have, all the individual paths you want to follow, the things you want to be, can we do all of that and celebrate our unique gifts, our unique perspectives, our unique experience, be fully ourselves as an independent, autonomous being and at the same time, really celebrate that maybe even as wonderful as all that is, we’re even stronger as a ‘we’, when we come together,” said Johnson.

Johnson also explained how Conspirare sought to explore the seemingly large divides between groups of people through their music, as well as the stories the music told. According to Johnson, he tried to ask, if not answer, fundamental questions about human nature and what binds us together.

“We tell stories so that we can learn about who are and what we remember, and each one of us is doing that in our own unique way… We’re aware too that this is such a painful story to remember. It’s important, however, to remember it. We want to meet in these difficult places and really ask these questions about our human condition. In what way do I share any qualities with these perpetrators is one of the questions we ask. I haven’t murdered anyone, but are there ways that I participate in a culture that allows acts of hate to be permissive? I want to ask those questions of myself, and I want us to ask them. How can we contribute to a more loving world?” said Johnson.

The lyrics in “Considering Matthew Shepherd” were inspired by the tragedy of Matthew Shepherd’s murder in 1998.

Rhea Chandran ’19, Co-Head of the Fidelio Society and a member of Chorus, explained how being able to sing with Conspirare and witness them sing pieces from ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’ was impactful to her. Both the Fidelio Society and Chorus had the opportunity to workshop Johnson’s pieces, as well as joining Conspirare at their concert in one of the final songs of their movement, ‘All of Us.’

Chandran, along with Katherine Wang ’19 and Abigail Johnson ’19, introduced Hella Johnson and Conspirare at the beginning of ASM.

“It was really inspirational that I got to [introduce Hella Johnson] because this group has touched so many lives of students at [Andover] and because we’ve been singing their music and Dr. Craig Hella Johnson’s music for a year now, so it was really meaningful that I got to do that,” said Chandran.

Hella Johnson also tried to integrate what he finds to be the fleeting nature of life into the composition, reminding the audience of their long-forgotten roots.

“Is there a way we can get back to remembering a simpler way to live? Is there a way to get back to remembering who we are more deeply in all the chaos that we see in our world and that we feel? We live lives of forgetting. We forget that original essence of who are,” said Hella Johnson.