Composer Justin Merritt (b. 1975) is assistant professor and composer-in-residence at St. Olaf College. He was the youngest-ever winner of the ASCAP Foundation/Rudolph Nissim award in 2001 for Janus Mask for Orchestra. He is the winner of many other awards including the 2008 Copland Award, the 2008 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Award for River of Blood, the 2006 Polyphonos Prize for Hay Días, the 2006 VocalEssence Essentially Chorale Competition for Adoro Te Devote. Other works include music for orchestra, ballet, and opera. He has also worked as composer and musical director in dozens of theater productions, ranging from Shakespeare to DaDa. Merritt earned his D.M. from Indiana University where he studied composition with Sven-David Sandström, Samuel Adler, Don Freund, Claude Baker, and electronic and computer music with Jeffrey Hass.
From 1979 through 1989 (at least) much of Central America was embroiled in a war in which terrorists and right wing juntas squared off against their own populations in an orgy of blood and terror. We, the United States, were on the side of the terrorists and murderers. We funded them. We armed them. We supported them politically. We lied for them.
For two years I’ve been reading about and listening to stories of the terror, especially the events in El Salvador in 1980. So why am I smiling?
I came to this story accidentally. I was commissioned to compose a new work for the Esoterics, a terrific new music-centric choir in Seattle two summers ago. The theme of the concert was “War,” and I was determined to compose music that was relevant. The newly Democratic congress was in the process of escalating the war in Iraq, and I was feeling impotent and small. How could I compose another bit piece of pure music when the world was going crazy?
I stumbled across a poem by a Salvadoran journalist Jaime Suarez entitled “Hay DÍas”. The poem was a beautiful mixture of sadness, joy, sex, and love, and I knew immediately that I had to set it. But it also got me to reading about the events in El Salvador. Suarez was a young journalist out to report the activities of the ruling right-wing junta. Soon after he wrote the poem, his body was found dumped in the streets of San Salvador, mutilated and tortured. He was not alone.
The more I read, the more dispirited I became. Throughout the ’80s the Salvadorans were the victims of a campaign of violence barely imaginable. Whole villages were wiped out by the military using American bought equipment and raided by American trained soldiers.
Just last week I had the chance to meet a Salvadoran man working at St. Olaf as a janitor. As a 13-year old in 1980, he was walking to school through a cornfield when he came across the bodies of his neighbors. All of them were killed, including the children and their pregnant mother.
River of Blood is a work about the first large-scale massacre of the Salvadoran Terror. Noam Chomsky writes about the particular incident:
On March 7, 1980, two weeks before the assassination, a state of siege had been instituted in El Salvador, and the war against the population began in force (with continued US support and involvement). The first major attack was a big massacre at the Rio Sumpul, a coordinated military operation of the Honduran and Salvadoran armies in which at least 600 people were butchered. Infants were cut to pieces with machetes, and women were tortured and drowned. Pieces of bodies were found in the river for days afterwards. There were church observers, so the information came out immediately, but the mainstream US media didn’t think it was worth reporting.
There is much more to be said about the history, and I hope this week I have the chance to remind some people about this terrible event and our involvement. But right now another question is bothering me: Am I exploiting this terrible event? Is it right to be so pleased at one of the biggest performances of my career?
I wrote River of Blood because I felt it was the only small thing I could do as a composer in light of the enormity of the crime at hand. But now here I am heading to the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute almost giddy with excitement. Here is a major orchestra about to tackle a work of mine. I am thrilled! But ashamed. Can I be both happy at my own good fortune and devastated at the distant cause?
I will find out soon enough.