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A Knock on the Door

For 2 choirs, keyboard and percussion, with pre-recorded band

Composition date: 2022

Duration: 23'


A Knock on the Door

Music: Sally Beamish

Text: Peter Thomson

for 2 choirs, keyboard and percussion, with pre-recorded band

I was invited to write this piece by Quaker Concern for the Abolition of Torture (Q-CAT), to raise awareness, through music, of the profound evil of torture.

Torture is illegal and immoral, and the damage it causes is physical, mental and spiritual: it damages the tortured and their families; those inflicting the torture; those who give the orders; those in power who authorise it or collude in its use; and members of society in any country that condones its use.

Information extracted under torture is inadmissible in British courts of law and in some other jurisdictions. It is unreliable. The majority of good intelligence is obtained by building up rapport with a suspect.

And yet the use of torture continues.

The commission from Q-CAT was extremely challenging, and approaching the subject profoundly uncomfortable.

I asked playwright Peter Thomson to create a text. He uses plain contemporary English, creating a dialogue between the two choirs, and giving voice to the roles of both ‘tortured’ and ‘torturers’.

Opening in nocturnal calm, the music draws on eclectic sources; from dance to music hall; from minimalism to heavy metal.

Towards the end of the piece the two choirs swap roles. Victims and torturers are not assigned these roles from birth, and research suggests that personal experience of violence leads to a greater propensity to inflict violence on others.

So a victim is capable of becoming an oppressor. Fear for oneself, or for one’s family and friends, can lead to behaviour unthinkable in ordinary circumstances. The potential for cruelty is hardwired into us, and can manifest itself under threat.

We wanted to explore the ’ordinariness’ of the protagonists, and the universality of human weakness and suffering. In the music, I have used simple themes, which draw on the familiar without suggesting any particular culture.

Peter Thomson and I are grateful to the former Beirut hostage John McCarthy for his shared insights, and particularly for his observations on the importance of humour in the darkest of situations. Humour gives relief, but is also an act of defiance.

The first performance of A Knock on the Door was given by Ex Cathedra, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore, on 13th November 2022 (Armistice Day) in Birmingham Town Hall.

A Knock on the Door was commissioned by Quaker Concern for the Abolition of Torture (Q-CAT). Q-CAT carries the concern for British Quakers who stated in 1999 “Torture is a profound evil, causing unimaginable human suffering and corrupting the spiritual and political life of the human family. British Quakers re-commit themselves, and wish to encourage other people of faith, to work for its eradication world-wide.”

Q-CAT thanks the Trusts and all the Quaker individuals, local and area meetings who have so generously supported this commission.

Sally Beamish 2022

The heavy metal band music was recorded by guitarist Arthur Dick.

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