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Fronteras: ‘Can We Know the Sound of Forgiveness’ blends art, music, and spoken word to explore the complexities of existence

A large-scale charcoal work from New Mexico-based artist James Drake was used as inspiration for a monumental project that merges art, music, spoken word, dance, and movement.

Several collaborators helped bring the project, "Can We Know the Sound of Forgiveness", to life.

The music was written by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, and the text was provided by El Paso poet and writer Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

The performance — which unfolds in five movements — also features members of the Houston Ballet, Grammy-winning chamber choir, The Crossing, and military veterans.

It premiered Jan. 20, 2024, at Rice University in Houston.

Drake said the artwork — which was inspired by a poem he wrote — blends themes of suffering, violence, war, and healing, all with an undertone of immigration.

“(The painting) describes the dynamics of people in conflict, people in agony. Also, people in love, and people being in a protective mode or in an aggressive mode,” he said. “I wanted to cover a lot of the emotions that I think the performance piece covers.”

Ortiz said she wrote the score to complement the drama of the original artwork.

“James’ painting is like listening to (a) Mahler symphony,” she said. “It really represents what human beings are, and for me it represents everything.”

Stephen Jiménez, producer and director of the project, spoke about what he wanted the audience to take away from the performance.

“We really tried to evoke the best in human beings, but also claim and own the violence that we’re living in every day,” he said. “What we have tried to do is open up as a place of possibility, of possible hope, but at the same time, claiming responsibility.”

The performance’s next stop is Carnegie Hall in New York this October.

Watch a preview of the project below:

Read an excerpt of the text used in Can We Know the Sound of Forgiveness by Benjamin Alire Sáenz below:

You wrap your name tight around my ribs and keep me warm.
I was born for you.
by You,
by You surrounded.

I wake to You at dawn.
Never break your knot.
Sálvame, Mi Dios…
Trágame, Mi tierra.
Salva traga…

Read James Drake’s poem, Do We Know the Sound of Forgiveness, that inspired the painting:

Put us to the question
Can we learn from Bach
Can we know the sound of forgiveness
Baroque tables of witness
Grow in the wilderness
Rooted in gilded illusion

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1