When Gerald Gurss, artistic director for One Voice Chorus/Sotto Voce (Charlotte, N.C.) and Midlands Men’s Chorus (Columbia, S.C.), was contacted by the Turtle Creek Chorale’s Director Sean Michael Baugh to compose a piece to honor the memory of Dallas, Texas slain police officers, he was tasked with a monumental responsibility. How does one even begin to do this?
Inspiration came from a photograph taken earlier this year by former Dallas Voice publisher Robert Moore of a police officer who was poised in ready position during a demonstration against fatal shootings of black officers across the country at a Black Lives Matter march. White officers of the city’s police became the target of an assailant where officers were killed. “Moore, who lives downtown and has been recognized for his travel photography since leaving the newspaper, came downstairs from his apartment to shoot some pictures of the demonstration, when he was caught in the crossfire,” the newspaper reported.
“While protestors were able to escape the gun shots, Moore was trapped in the middle of the street. He ducked behind a police car, where an officer protected him for several hours during the siege. Several photos he took while crouching behind the DPD [Dallas Police Department] cruiser were printed in Dallas Voice and other newspapers around the country and were broadcast on TV,” the Voice added.
“Be At My Side” was premiered at the season opening of the Tower Arts concert series at Highland Park United Methodist Church, the Voice reported. The commissioned piece was performed by the Chorale’s 250-voice chorus. The series began in 2004 and brings in world-class artists to the church and to the city, the Voice added.
Gurss was approached in a Denver, Colo. airport by Baugh the day after the end of the 2016 GALA Choral Festival in July.
“Two days prior, 12 officers were shot at a Black Lives Matter march in Dallas. Seven of those officers were fatally wounded. I was asked to write [a] new work in response to the shootings. While honored, I suddenly felt overwhelmed with the gravitas of the task — to write a work to not only honor the victims, but to speak to the ongoing violence concerning police officers across the U.S.,” Gurss shared.
A Police Officer’s Prayer
Lord I ask for courage
Courage to face and
Conquer my own fears…
Courage to take me
Where others will not go…
I ask for strength
Strength of body to protect others
And strength of spirit to lead others…
I ask for dedication
Dedication to my job, to do it well
Dedication to my community
To keep it safe…
Give me Lord, concern
For others who trust me
And compassion for those who need me…
And please Lord
Through it all
Be at my side…
— Author Unknown
Beginning the process was challenging, but Gurss developed a process by which to accomplish his assignment.
“The first step in any vocal composition is selecting the text. While it may be obvious that, writing for instruments only can have an extramusical narrative, a selected text for a choral/vocal composition will dictate the direction the music takes while being formed. The text will dictate melodic shape, structure and harmonic context,” Gurss said.
“In finding words to set to music, the Turtle Creek Chorale director, connected me with the photographer Robert Moore. Within a couple of days, I was on the phone with Moore. Moore was at the rally capturing images when the gunman started opening fire on the police officers. One officer in particular shielded Moore and took him to safety behind a police car. The officer stayed with Moore for over three hours during the time of unrest at the march,” Gurss shared.
“During that interview, I remember being in tears, as I could hear the gratitude in Moore’s voice throughout the story. During his time behind the police car, Moore captured an image of the heroic officer that, within days, had gone viral. Soon, Moore had been asked to appear on numerous news programs, including ‘Good Morning America.’ During my phone interview with Moore, he emphasized how thankful he was to the police officers who were on duty that day. Moore comes from a family of police officers,” added Gurss
Rather than using Moore’s words for the basis for the text, he found an anonymous prayer entitled, “Police Officer’s Prayer.” The words hit his core.
“When I sent the prayer to Baugh, he instantly agreed that, this was the text for the new piece. I knew this text would both honor Moore, as well as honor all the public servants who go to work each day, knowing that it could be their last.”
Gurss is a doctorial student at the University of South Carolina and works at Brixx Pizza when not in class. He said that he remembered asking for four days off from work to go down to Columbia to lock himself in his “room/office” to do nothing but write.
“Day one yielded nothing but little bits of music with no coherence. . .but day two started with me playing a sequence of chords that touched my heart. I sat at the piano playing through what I believed to be the proper notes (never settling for less than the perfect chord at the right time) for about three hours, when the piece had developed a clear form. From that point, it took me the whole three days, stopping only for food, gym and sleep, to finish the piece. The final touch was the ‘Amen’ section. ‘Amen’ literally translates to ‘let it be so.’ I’ve never felt so convicted about the meaning of ‘Amen.’”
Two days after he sent the work to Baugh. Baugh’s reaction said it all: “I finally sat down at the piano with the piece. It is stunning!”
Gurss immediately felt a smile in his heart, knowing they were about to embark on a piece of music that would touch many lives.
“The text, from which I selected portions to set to music … there is no ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer; however, my convictions said, ‘this must be so for all who serve our communities. Add the Amen.”