By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
Bouncing off the gray, cement-block walls and muted lighting of a prison holding area, the self-composed music of pianist Eric Genuis, along with the haunting accompaniment of a cello, a violin and a vocalist, erupts in a technicolor of sound.
Genuis (pronounced JENN-us), 52, was born in Toronto and first learned to play the piano at age 7. He got his first church job as a volunteer, 11-year-old organist at St. Thomas More Parish in Toronto, when his feet barely could reach the bass pedals.
“It was tough to get some people’s respect at first from the choir,” Genuis said, laughing. “When I first started, there was an older gentleman who came to me and said, ‘Well, you know, we’re used to doing this and doing that.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re not going to do things that way anymore.’ He must have thought it was crazy bringing in this little kid. I started showing the choir what they were capable of, and that was it. I had their respect after that. Music is beauty. You bring beauty out, and people are affected.”
There was something magical about what the music of Bach and Mozart did to Genuis and to those around him, and he began to analyze why he liked that music so much, and it helped him create his own.
“The bottom line is that I started playing, and I started loving it,” Genuis said. “And, I fell in love with composing. I would write choral works, and then my choir would perform the works. A note is just a physics wavelength. It’s nothing. But, somehow, when you read these nonsensical notes together, they paint a picture that the mind has to grapple with beyond the visual. That alone can invite a deeper reflection and, therefore, a deeper digestion of beauty.”
Genuis, who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, is coming to Louisiana this month. Genuis will play a concert for St. Catherine of Siena students on the afternoon of Sept. 26 and then offer a public concert in the church at 6:30 p.m. All proceeds from free-will donations will go toward Genuis’ Catholic ministry of bringing music into the lives of those most forgotten: prisoners, juveniles in detention centers, nursing home residents, the homeless and students in hard-scrabble, inner-city schools. His concert is sponsored by St. Catherine of Siena’s prison ministry.
While in New Orleans, he will make his way to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and play three concerts, one for the first time to inmates on death row.
“I try to write music that has one goal – does it move the audience?” Genuis said. “It doesn’t matter that it impresses the audience. It’s not about entertainment. So, when people tell me, ‘Oh, it’s nice you go into the prisons and entertain them,’ my first reaction is, ‘That’s absolutely the last thing I’m interested in doing.’ The focus is to move the audience.”
In one of his first prison performances – which he calls “Concerts of Hope” – an inmate jumped to his feet and shouted: “I’d forgotten what it means to have hope.”
He frequently receives phone calls from inmates who have just been released.
“One guy told me, ‘You came at the right time. The noose was already in my cell,’” Genuis said. “He said, ‘You gave me the hope and the jolt I needed right at that point. I did my last five years, and I’m out. I’ll never go back. You’ll never hear from me again, Eric, but I just wanted to thank you. And then he hung up.’ Music has the ability to bring beauty. And what does beauty do? It elevates. It goes right to the core of who we are. It goes to our higher humanity.”
One teenage inmate, who was 15 and then sentenced to 30 years for a serious crime, asked Genuis after one concert if he could try to play the violin.
“He said, ‘That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,’” Genuis said. “Now, you tell me, why when a boy grows up in America, why was that his first exposure to the violin? That’s poverty. We have a world of music at our fingertips through the internet, and all he’s known is metal and gangsta rap. That’s poverty, and that’s what I’m trying to change.”
Genuis said he made a promise to God that he would never “say no when somebody wants an urgent concert,” which is how his prison concerts began 20 years ago. He got a call asking him to perform at a prison in Huntsville, Texas.
“One man stood up and started crying and couldn’t stop crying,” Genuis said. “I thought, ‘This is where I need to be.’ We need to go to these dark corners. Even in our Catholic culture, we’ve become very comfortable forgetting about many people. So, I play for the forgotten.”
Genuis and his wife Leslie have four children – their youngest, 15-year-old Anastasia, has Down syndrome and has had serious heart surgery – and they also have known deep pain. Leslie lost seven babies, two right after birth and five through miscarriage.
“What that does is it allows you to experience excruciating pain, so walking down those journeys is not easy,” Genuis said. “It’s very, very tough. But that allows you to see other people’s pain. It deepens the music, it deepens the conversation about humanity, and it allows you to enter into the lives of other people who have gone through maybe different but intense pain as well.”
Genuis says the vast majority of the prisoners he plays for were imprisoned first by drugs or other family traumas, which is why his ministry has taught him to let the stone fall from his hand.
“What we should just do is save our judgments and save our condemnations,” Genuis said. “Some of these people have done terrible things, but when you look at their backgrounds, it’s so painful. You wouldn’t believe how much drugs plays a role in their lives. Ninety percent of people in prison have true remorse.”
Genuis’ son was driving home from college recently, and Genuis reminded him that he would be passing three nursing homes on his five-hour drive.
“I told him, ‘Stop and have lunch with an older person. Remember, they only get one or two visits a year. Stop in and just ask them how their family is,’” Genuis said. “We’re so comfortable forgetting people. We have to get back to recognizing every one of them was made in the image of God, and everyone deserves dignity. We have the ability to share that dignity. Bring goodness to other people. Well find that elevates our own humanity.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.