For her master’s recital, French hornist Kristen Fowler chose a program of pieces that describe her journey through sexual assault survival and recovery.
“Words can very easily get misconstrued, and you can pick apart someone’s speech for days, but you can’t pick apart someone’s soul,” Fowler said. “That’s where music comes from. That’s where the power lies. It permeates those boundaries we put up. It unites people.”
In March 2015, Fowler was driving home from a rehearsal when an NPR story mentioned childhood sexual assault. In that moment, all of the memories that she had repressed from her traumatic experience at 13 came flooding back.
She had been struggling with anxiety and depression and had been in counseling for years, but she never understood why she was the way she was. When she finally realized what her subconscious had been struggling with for 11 years, she decided to use her experience as a tool to help others.
Fowler picked four pieces for the program composed entirely by women that expressed her emotions during her journey. Because her recital date is in April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Fowler said her feelings that she had to tell her story were cemented.
The first piece of Saturday’s performance is “Glass Echoes” by Tonia Ko for solo horn. Fowler said its mysterious and lonely mood tells the story of her childhood, with the repression of turbulent emotions just underneath the surface.
Her accompanying pianist, Daniel Inamorato dos Santos, will join her on the second piece, “Pour le Cor” by Odette Gartenlaub, which embodies her moment of realization and the waves of released emotion that followed. The third piece, “Songs of the Wolf” by Andrea Clearfield, depicts her flashbacks and the predatory nature of the wolf, then an empowering moment of finding her instinctual womanhood.
“It parallels how I learned that I can occupy space and not feel bad about it,” Fowler said. “I realized that I deserve to exist, to say what’s on my mind, to seek happiness and that I deserve this life that I have. I deserve to live it.”
The final piece is the “Sonata for Horn and Piano” by Margaret Brouwer. The first movement was inspired by grief and emotional turmoil, ending with bittersweet acceptance.
Fowler said the first movement signifies how she came to a place of inner peace. The second is about how to go on after accepting tragedy or trauma.
It ends triumphantly, which is a perfect end for the recital, Fowler said.
“I was angry for a long time about my experience, once I realized it, and I hated the whole world,” Fowler said. “I wondered how we could live in such a terrible place because, when you go through something like that, you see some of the worst parts of humanity. But the recovery process has shown me how good people can be. Having seen both sides of the spectrum, I’m choosing to align myself with the good.”
Fowler said she was inspired by Jeff Nelsen, her professor at the Jacobs School of Music, to tell stories through music. Storytelling using music is one of the elements of Nelsen’s strategy called “fearless performance,” he said.
“It’s about evolving the music that you play into something that is yours instead of just regurgitating the music and playing the notes on the page,” Nelsen said. “You have to put a story to the music and make it mean something to you so that you can give that to the audience.”
Fowler’s story is as powerful as it is because it is deeply personal, Nelsen said. He said he is proud of her for being so fearless and transforming a personal ordeal into an inspiration for the audience.
“It’s dangerous to define ourselves by tragic events,” Nelsen said. “She’s doing the opposite. She’s celebrating awareness and moving through it, her pain but her growth as well. For an audience to be a part of that can inspire those people to look more deeply into their own lives.”
This is the second time that Fowler has performed her recital. Her first performance was April 10 at Virginia Tech, her alma mater. She said the reaction there was amazing.
Her message of overcoming hardships of every kind struck a chord with the audience, and people came up to her afterward to thank her and share their own experiences. Doing the same, strangers commented on the live stream of the performance on Facebook.
“Hearing other people come forward and tell me their stories drove home for me how powerful each of our stories are,” Fowler said. “We all have stories; we all have struggles; we all have things that happen in our lives that motivate us, inspire us or have traumatized us in some way. I think that sharing those stories and receiving them with an open heart is the key to empathy. That’s what we need more of.”
Fowler said she hopes people will leave with a more open heart. She will be providing survivors with resources and information about where to go for help and counseling.
There will also be information for others who want to get involved about where to go to provide help. Middle Way House and the Feminist Student Association will be present, and materials from IU Health Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services and Sexual Assault Crisis Services will be provided.
She said she wants to continue activism through music in the future.
“I want survivors to know that there are good people in this world, and that they are not alone,” Fowler said.