Rehearsals are underway for the first performance of my choral symphony at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. I am saddened to hear that some students are boycotting my work since they consider it “blasphemous.” I believe a Canadian university must be a safe place to discuss controversial topics and respect differences – a haven for critical thinking, experiment and inquiry – and I hope every student pouring their hard work and musicianship into this project can feel safe and proud performing my piece. I post this open letter not to judge, but to invite reflection and reconciliation.

Dear Students,

Love and respect to you from Toronto.

I am very sorry to hear that you will not be participating in my piece “Babel: a choral symphony.” I understand your religious beliefs are in conflict with my creative work. I don’t imagine my words can change your mind, but like the Shepherd who returns to find the one lost sheep out of ninety-nine, I feel compelled to coax you back into the fold, and hopefully shed light on the text which brings offence.

My music certainly does not attempt to divide people, but rather to bring them together in a spirit of cooperation, creativity, questioning and working together to solve the larger problems of our world. Hopefully by discussing challenging texts, we can find solutions that benefit the whole, not just the self.

My sister’s text “Babel” is a masterful, poetic reflection on a Biblical story that grapples with our great human problem – we can’t understand each other. Our cultures and languages divide us, and hinder our understanding of “the other.”

The despair and anger expressed in my sister’s poem, which you find disrespectful to God, is also Biblical: the same anger that drove Job to curse the day he was born, the same despair that caused the Psalmist to beg God to cease relentless punishment, or brought our Lord himself, when faced with the ultimate anguish of the cross, to cry out “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me.”

Despair and anger are authentic human emotions, and music and poetry help us deal with that reality. Writing this piece was cathartic for me, at a time in my own life when I was bent low with grief, having lost the person I loved most in the world. When Glenn Buhr asked me to write it, he did not know that he was saving my life. Composing it gave me a purpose to carry on. I immersed myself in the imaginary world of post-apocalyptic Babel, where my ego could disappear and deal with issues far bigger than myself.

To question God’s actions is not wrong. It is human. We are created in the image of a great Artist who is generous enough to embrace me, imperfect as I am, with all my faults and fears. My God is neither petty nor vain, but works on a grand, universal scale that my small mind cannot begin to comprehend or express. Only in some perfect place, outside of time and space, will we be truly “translated” and our human language replaced with a divine understanding.

Your silent protest is a very powerful negative statement against a work, which I believe is filled with spiritual truths. I hope you might be able to reflect on the poetry afresh and perceive it with a new heart. Nothing would make me happier than if you could see a way to sing this challenging music to the glory of God.

Stephanie Martin, composer
Feb 26, 2016

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42 Responses to An open letter to students boycotting my work

  1. Bob Loewen says:

    Stephanie – This is a wonderfully written, well thought out letter. I was moved to tears to read “Glenn Buhr…did not know he was saving my life”. In our many struggles in this world, I don’t believe there are straight, easy answers. God, G-d, Hashem, meets us where we are. Even in your letter you challenge me, in a personal way to “embrace” knowing that there are issues far greater than each of us.
    Thank you, always, for you challenge both here and in your gracious music making.

  2. Michael Tansley says:

    You made me aware of this conflict only yesterday, which I found disturbing. Your open letter to those who would question is exquisite, and my hope too is that there is indeed reconciliation as a result. The very fact that you have addressed this conflict head on is a mark of your strong belief and personal experience, showing how it is possible to see things “in a different light”, and in a greater context. I feel certain your letter will have the desired effect. I commend you for this.

  3. Arlene Jillard says:

    Stephanie, you have expressed yourself with true grace. I hope the students who are boycotting the opportunity to experience your music are gently guided toward an understanding of what boycotting and censoring really accomplish: the closing off of honest dialogue and exclusion based on fear of something different to one’s own perspective. We need artists like you to lead us forward, to help us find our best selves, even in disagreement. Faith that is divisive will never allow humanity to show its “best self” and conflict will always be the result.

  4. Lana Jutzy says:

    I don’t know the words of this piece you’ve composed, Stephanie, but your letter truly moved me. At times like these when we feel challenged from all sides, it’s encouraging to me to read your response above. Thank you for sharing it here. Take heart, dear friend. May God bless you, your work, your calling and your students. PS….we sang your Children of the HEavenly Father arrangement last week in Boise.

  5. Angela says:

    Hi Stephanie – I saw your letter shared on Facebook. I want to add that these students are mislead. So much music is written with this sentiment behind it – with this feeling of loss or disconnect from the divine. Faith is borne from questioning. Love is borne from seeking understanding from the other. This is a shocking reaction from artists who at the very least should respond critically with art and not by withdrawing support to the act of art making. A disappointing turn for WLU. I teach music composition in a high school – (which includes a couple of students considering WLU as a destination) – we will be discussing this case in class next week. I wish you the best with your work – I hope it is performed another time somewhere I can come to see it. All the best – Angela in Grimsby.

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      The work will be performed at WLU with 150 student musicians on April 2nd and 3rd. The conductor Lee Willingham has been 100% supportive, as is the whole WLU faculty.

  6. Bruce Rutter says:

    Beautifully said. I wish I could come and hear your work, truly I do.

  7. Richard Birney-Smith says:

    Thank you for sharing your letter. It is both well stated and deeply moving. As one who knew and admired you and Bruce together and separately, I am so thankful that this commission appeared at the right time in your grieving process.

    I sincerely hope that the boycotting students will reconsider their position and rejoin the performance.

    Soli Deo Gloria,


  8. Naomi Ridout says:

    I will put the date in my calendar and try to attend! we are moving to Guelph from Ottawa in 10 days.

  9. Rev. Diane J. Strickland says:

    Thank you, Stephanie, for your gracious and self-disclosing response to an unfortunate display of negative energy.

    So much of our creative enterprise grows out of an authentic spiritual experience of reaching what appears to be our human limits, and discovering we can go even deeper still. Like you, I have always been grateful that the sacred texts of my faith are full of examples that tell us God is quite “up to” the despair and confusion we express and experience. I hope to hear your new work one day and now, having heard some of its personal inspiration and grounding, it will no doubt be a richer gift.

    Although we’ve never met,I know your work as a composer. I co-edited The Psalter for The Presbyterian Church in Canada, and that worship resource also was richer because some of your refrains were published in it. Your sensitivity to sacred text, congregational song, and personal faith are remembered.

  10. eline brock says:

    I do hope those “protesting” will receive a failing grade in their large ensemble class.
    Theoretically these students want to be the musicians of tomorrow. The hard facts are these– that very few of these students will get work as performing musicians, that those who do will probably play in orchestras, and that, as a symphony musician, you play what is put in front of you or you don’t keep a job.
    You don’t have to like it, to agree with it, nor do you have the right to refuse to play it up to anything less than your best ability both technically and musically. Period.
    This smacks (to me, anyway) of the “entitled generation” who believe that the world must always conform and capitulate to them. I call BS.
    Best of luck with your concert–
    Eline Brock, Assistant Principal Violin,
    Quebec Symphony Orchestra

  11. Brad Walton says:

    Excellent letter. It is quite depressing how moribund is the spirit of honest seeking, open discussion, and critical thinking among certain constituencies in contemporary academia. Best of luck with the debut of your new symphony.

  12. Betty Ann Acres says:

    Excellent letter. We should be open to art that challenges us.

  13. Matthew B. Tepper says:

    Heaven forbid that the boycotting students should pursue professional careers as musicians. For then they might someday find themselves in the orchestra pit, or on the stage, for a performance of an opera (other than a comic one, that is). The stories of adultery, theft, rape, murder, incest, and even just plain lying would doubtless offend such tender souls. Why, the Devil himself appears onstage (or just off) in some works in the standard rep!

  14. Lee Rickard says:

    I can only echo the word most commonly used in these comments: grace. Your letter is so full of optimism that the students will think harder about the meaning of the piece, and that they will come to understand the need for multiple views of these deep problems. You give us such insight into how to address such confrontations. I am so glad to have had the chance to meet and work with you.

  15. Emily says:

    Powerful, personal, forgiving, understanding, reaching out and expressing the true meaning and spirit of faith and ‘loving the other’. Stephanie, your words are once again profound and show the depth of your caring heart. The God of our universe is much greater than our comprehension. Choral music has the ability and the responsibility to shine a light of greater understanding and acceptance, and that is most powerfully done by exploring for deeper truths, no matter how difficult or painful the process. You’ve moved those of us who’ve read your open letter of reconciliation, may it move those who act in protest to your work. May the lives of all who perform your choral symphony and all who hear it be enriched. God Bless

  16. Matthew Larkin says:

    God bless you, Stephanie. Every good wish for this performance, and I hope that the people for whom you have written this letter can see the purity and sincerity that is in your heart.

  17. Howard Dyck says:

    Dear Stephanie, your response to this unfortunate situation is both profound and eloquent. I’m afraid that what you’re encountering at WLU is indicative of a creeping attitude in academe which discourages open debate and dialogue. When political correctness and religious myopia blend, the result is truly dismaying. Your response to all this is truly refreshing. Soar like an eagle!

  18. Dear Stephanie,

    I applaud your serene courage and deep artistic integrity in writing this letter. I remember that you published your sister’s text some time ago; is there a chance that we might have a link to it within this post, so that people who are unable to attend the performance can read it again and decide for themselves what the text means to them? (Perhaps you have recently done so and I just can’t find the text).

    I hope that this entire experience becomes one of learning and growth for those students who feel threatened by the rawness of emotion that “Babel” explores. For me, text and music is only an approximation of emotion, and I suspect that some of those who object to your work have yet to experience the kinds of emotions described and illuminated within it. You have gone a long way toward fulfilling your mission of nurturing the growth of others with this open letter, and I know that you will continue to do so in so many parts of your life as a conductor, composer, and educator.

    As one ages one begins to realise that life is filled with many emotions, not all of them “light” ones, but all of them part of what it means to be an adult human being. As 1 Corinthians 13 says, “When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with all childish ways.” They are young; they will learn. Keep teaching them.

    Courage… and best wishes for a moving performance of your choral symphony,

  19. It has been in the moments of some of my deepest despair, chaos and loss – my Job time – that I have recognized God’s love falling on me like an avalanche.

    Sometimes, when I am listening to great works that reflect that most human chaos, I am taken back into that realization, without having to live in that place of pain and loss again.

    I hope that those boycotting your work will realize the importance of this. (And I hope that they would do some better exegetical work in their own lives, as well!)

    Although I live in Vancouver, I hope to hear this peice some day.

  20. Audrey says:

    Thank you Stephanie for your excellent letter. You’ve addressed the issue with grace and explained the context of the poem exquisitely.
    My choirs have sung many of your pieces and loved them, I will be in attendance of the “Babel” Symphony – My daughter is in 3rd year violin performance at WLU. Hats off to Lee Willingham for supporting a true Canadian Composer.

  21. Elisha Denburg says:

    Thank you Stephanie for this very well-articulated letter. It is very important to distinguish personal/religious struggle and critical questioning from ‘blasphemy’. Of course we all know the historical ramifications of this. Congratulations on your upcoming premiere!

  22. Mo Bock says:

    I was surprised not to find a single comment from one of the ‘protesters’. If any of them have some actual message to convey, maybe they could convey it instead of simply sulking? Your letter showed an open mind, but I have to confess I would have been a bit less accommodating with respect to the absurdity of a boycott in this situation. It’s a simplistic and cowardly way to object to something intellectually or philosophically challenging, and as a taxpayer I resent the implication that higher education is also being boycotted. If these students don’t want to be exposed to intellectual and philosophical freedom, they should get out of university and into the work force. Alternatively, they should receive some kind of official censure for flaunting the ideals of higher education. It’s a double-edged sword in the sense that theoretically they have a ‘right’ to object, but the appropriate response would be to publish some kind of manifesto, which could then be subjected to the kind of scrutiny you are brave enough to

  23. Rachel Laurin says:

    Dear Stephanie, Beautiful letter! It certainly reflects what the music sounds like! Musicians, singers, performers have to express every emotions in a beautiful way. In French we say “sublimer”, to transcend our suffering into beauty. But for musicians, music passes first! One great composer said: “The words should serve the music, not the opposite!”, meaning that you judge a musical work by the music first instead of all the “stuff” surrounding the creation of the work. I don’t mean the text is not important, BUT, that it is a tool and a trigger to produce a creative musical piece of Art! This society in which we live has became so intolerant on every aspect of the social sphere! I understand a gesture of boycott by musicians in some very significant situations, and I would be the first to encourage it in a very clear situation where we need to make a statement, but for a text: it appears so narrow-minded. The greatest saints of the Christian church were the ones who were questioning more intensely the object of their faith. Music is not only a statement, it is also quite oftne a “question mark”!

  24. Ursula Kucharski says:

    Open minds are an increasingly rare commodity in today’s world.While not everyone’s taste will run to the same things – and that is the beauty and joy of being a thinking individual – we must nevertheless leave a space in our lives and thoughts for those whose tastes do not neccessarily coincide with our own. It is foolish to think that a personal sense of what is acceptable, and what is to be rejected, should set the standard for everyone.

  25. Bente Hansen says:

    I am so happy to see the support you are getting from most of your students and your colleagues. Those students who choose to boycott are simply losing out on an awesome opportunity to understand something from a perspective other than their own. That they refuse to do that begs the question of why they choose to be in university, since one would hope that participation in a degree would indicate a more forward type of thinking. I wish nothing but the best for you and for this performance. I would love to see it performed here in Lethbridge, Alberta some time.

  26. Doug Pritchard says:

    Raised in the 60s generation I certainly participated in my share of protests both in university and since. But it’s important to have a dialogue, in the streets or in the office or in the classroom, not simply a withdrawal. Then the kinds of background info and insights that Stephanie has shared so courageously here can be part of that dialogue and perhaps move hearts and positions. Remembering Bruce and how this piece is a tribute to him and their love brings tears to my eyes. Blessings on all who will perform and hear this work, and most especially on you Stephanie for your gift to Canadian music and the church and the academy.

  27. I have not met this composer. These are the kinds of struggles that go on in our art. First we create our expression, at great cost and thoughtfulness whatever we are saying in it, and then we have to negotiate performances. It requires nerves of steel. Stay courageous.

  28. Susan Korstanje says:

    Stephanie, thank you for sharing this letter openly, not only with those who are boycotting your work. I faced a similar situation when a work I was directing was boycotted by a group of families in the Christian school where I taught. I know how hurtful and divisive this can be for a whole community, and can only imagine how much harder it must be when it involves your own composition. I’m glad that you are staying the course, and that so many people are continuing to share this musical and spiritual experience with you. I wish I were close enough to come to the performance. In lieu of that, would it be possible to get a copy of the poem your sister wrote? I would love to read it, especially after reading your letter.

  29. Pattie k says:

    Stephanie, as a visionary, an artist and revolutionary, you continue to enlighten and to inspire. You and your sister are a magnificent duo.
    Babel will prove to be (has already done so) a work that that compels and provokes; a work that demands the that the young minds, the spirits and the “talents” of these students shake and move. They need Babel. We all need Babel. And, most importantly, Babel saved your life.
    Looking forward to being in the audience for this formidable premier. Shine on!

  30. John Bullick says:

    Appreciated Stephanie’s thoughtful letter along with the equally articulate comments. Refreshing in this day and age of trolls, under every bridge it seems, to read without wincing. Good luck with the performance. Regards, John.. PS Where can I read the text of ‘Babel’

  31. Peter Nikiforuk says:

    Stephanie: What a thoughtful and generous response to a sad situation in a supposedly secular university. It is particularly sad since the academy is supposed to be the very place where debate and diversity of opinion can flourish. I’m very much looking forward to the performance.

  32. There must be powerful truths in your composition if there are small-minded, fearful responses to the point of protests. Jesus himself blew boundaries open. Of course, he ultimately received torture in an attempt to send him into the realm of extinction. If I can’t let my spiritual boundaries be tested, then I am preventing my soul’s development. Keep composing on the continuo of truth.

  33. Caitlin Stuart says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    As a WLU alum who actually got the opportunity to do a read through of your work last year, I just wanted to apologize for the students who are unfortunately not going to be able to experience this wonderful musical opportunity. Hopefully these students read your message so they become educated in what they’re actually boycotting. I hope to hear the performance of your work in April!

    Thank you for your talent!

  34. Ian MacMillan says:

    I suppose I should not be surprised when people who call themselves Christians act in an intolerant hurtful, and unforgiving manner. This rigidity seems strange to me when contrasted with Christ’s messages of compassion and empathy.

    The emphasis on interpreting the Old and New Testaments “literally” is also strange, considering the extreme complexity of the Bible. Much of it seems to be contradictory, not the least of which is the contrasts between the two Testaments; and to choose to adhere strictly to some isolated lines in the Old Testament is to reject not only other parts of the Old, but the overall message of Christ and the New Testament. Do these Christians think that lines of, say, Leviticus are more truthful and more important than the teachings of Christ?

  35. Davy says:

    Are you certain that all the boycotting students have exactly the same motivation? I muskeg would never participate in any action that promoted theism. This is the privilege of every rational person.

  36. Davy says:

    My comment appears to have been censored. Perhaps you were not as open to others’ points of view as you ought to be?

  37. Avery says:

    I must read the text, hear this work! Painful though conflict can be (inner conflict, or between groups and individuals), I have seen great creativity and awareness arise from acknowledging and engaging in conflict resolution. Your letter is a wonderful invitation to do so.

  38. Laraine Wolley says:

    Will there be a piece coming up that will question Allahs’ authority…or Brahmas’…or Ik Onkars’? It would be a marvelous opportunity to expand critical thinking to a variety of students’ faiths!

  39. Larry Beckwith says:

    Beautifully written, Stephanie. Sending you support and best wishes for a wonderful performance. We will try to get down on April 3 for it. You’re an inspiration in so many ways!

  40. Paul Rapoport says:

    Splendid music, amazing poem, phenomenal letter. Listened to it all, so thank you for posting the performance! I wish I had been there. Although I don’t know the objections, do those who protest understand art — its nature, means, purpose, challenge, glory? I’m reminded of what is going on in various American states where governments are privileging and codifying narrow pseudo-religious suppression of others. I add that I have spent a chunk of my life pondering and writing very positively about music whose basic tenets I do not come close to holding. One work is a gigantic setting of the Te deum… bravo to the whole lot of you!

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