For composer and musician Blake Allen, his time in Utah was filled with emotional trauma and transcendent joy.
Allen compares his time studying music at Brigham Young University to a yin-and-yang symbol. “I have such fond memories of my friends and certain faculty members,” he said, “but during that same time, it was extremely difficult because I am a homosexual, going to a university that doesn’t really celebrate that.”
Allen recalled times when he and his best friend “would ditch class, grab a sandwich and drive in the mountains.” On such drives, they would talk “about learning how to love ourselves.”
Once, driving from Provo to San Francisco, they stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The sun was coming out, and the friends had been crying over something traumatic. Allen remembered steam pipes near the flats, and the sun hitting the salt just right.
“It was like … we are blessed to be alive,” he said. “It might be hard, but, look at this. This is glorious. We could come back tomorrow and it wouldn’t be the same.”
Ten years later, Allen has processed his trauma and experiences through music, and the result is a 30-song album, “The Shards of an Honor Code Junkie.” Allen released it last September, around the time BYU clarified an amendment in its Honor Code, prohibiting “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
The album’s listing on Apple Music labels it as “classical crossover,” but it’s impossible to place within one genre — it’s a wild autobiographical exploration with flairs of spirituality, operatic voices and classical roots, tied together with a “Hamilton”-esque bow.
It’s best described, simply, as a journey album.
‘I think in music’
Allen said the first seeds of the album were planted when he marked the fifth anniversary of a BYU friend’s death by suicide. Allen still hadn’t processed his friend’s death, and his therapist suggested he turn his journal entries into something that made sense to him: Songs.
“I think in music,” Allen said.
His ideas for the album, which began as a musical, developed into a storybook format — with different performers giving voice to characters in back-and-forth conversations, much like “Hamilton” or other stage musicals.
Allen, who has performed with such bands as The Eagles and The Who, doesn’t sing on the album. Instead, he gathered friends and acquaintances who have Broadway experience. The album, recorded in December 2020 and January 2021, includes Tony nominee Alison Fraser (“The Secret Garden”), as well as Michael Lowney, Teal Wicks, Kristy Cates and more. On one track, “The Escape,” Allen enlisted Jesse Havea — better known as Brita Filter, who appeared on the 12th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
“What was most difficult about having different voices was I was trying to be true to the person who’s speaking, while also making it like an everyman’s tale,” Allen said. “That’s why the people are called ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ and ‘child of God.’ So that way people can insert their own experience into the story.”
The singers portray characters who represent his family, and people at what he calls “Lord’s University” — a name he made ambiguous on purpose.
Songs — like “The Armoire,” which instructs “if you don’t discuss it, it doesn’t exist. There’s no problem if no one mentions it. You can’t live a life run by blind faith,” and “The Drawer,” from the point of view of his mother — make the album more dynamic both thematically and sonically.
In some songs, like “The Testimony,” Allen chooses to echo the chord structures that he says are “ingrained in him” from playing hymns in church.
Haunted by eight rules
Allen’s musical interests started at age 3, and were inherited from his mother, who majored in piano teaching when she attended BYU.
“I was really sick as a child, and she said when she would take me to church and the organ would play, I would be calm and I would stop screaming,” he recalled.
But while Allen grew up in a Latter-day Saint household, the family lived in Florida and El Paso, Texas — places where Latter-day Saints are a small part of the population. It wasn’t until college, when he arrived at BYU, that he was around such a large group of practicing members.
He describes being at BYU as “overwhelming” and “shocking.” Part of that came from his struggle of juggling being a closeted college student at a university known for not being accepting of homosexuality.
The eight rules of BYU’s Honor Code became haunting brackets for Allen’s life — and eight of the 30 tracks use the rules as their titles.
In “The Overture,” the Honor Code is referred to as a “contract.” Three tracks later, “Be Honest,” the culture of the university under these guidelines is described as “where normal isn’t normal.”
Allen said he created the album’s narrative arc around the code’s eight rules — and the main characters’ reaction led to the “shards” of the album’s title.
“I wanted to have it be eight scenes where the character boy either breaks the rule or has something happen [to him] that has to do with the rule that then breaks the facade of the mirror that he had growing up,” he said. “As each scene happens, the mirror slowly cracks. At the end, once all the rules have been broken, he rebuilds his self-image and learns how to love himself through that trauma.”
As much as the album is autobiographical, Allen also notes larger problems LGBTQ students at BYU face. He himself never got in trouble with the Honor Code, though the track “Participate Regularly in Church Services” mentions an instance with a bishop – where the boy shares a personal experience with sexual assault and is then victim-blamed — that Allen confirms is true.
In another track, Allen shares stories of friends who did get in trouble.
When he was enrolled at BYU, he said, there were “Honor Code spies” who would drive to gay clubs in Salt Lake City (dubbed “gay mecca” on the track “Live a Chaste and Virtuous Life” ) and note the license plates of cars that had Provo parking decals. One of Allen’s friends, he said, got in trouble this way with BYU’s Honor Code Office, while another was kicked out of BYU for taking a photo with a drag queen.
“My favorite rule of all the Honor Code rules is the last one, which is to encourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code,” Allen said, “which means that if you know someone’s breaking the Honor Code, you have to turn them in.”
When he attended BYU, Allen said, it felt like students were being watched at all times. Not only did they have to concentrate on getting good grades and keeping scholarships, but always having to be in pristine condition, as the Honor Code dictated.
“It doesn’t affect just queer students — straight students also have to deal with this,” Allen said. He recalled once when an acquaintance was turned in someone’s roommate for breaking a midnight curfew, because he left at 12:01 a.m. The roommate said she was worried she would get in trouble if she didn’t tell the Honor Code Office.
Healing and moving on
Allen’s relationship with his parents has had a lot of “pain thrown in both directions,” particularly after he came out. His art, he said, has helped him heal that relationship.
“Our communication is much more open,” he said. “I’ve learned through this process that my parents only know how to love me, how they know how to love me. And I have to accept the love that they are able to give me.”
He’s no longer a practicing Latter-day Saint. He was a Buddhist for a few years, before deciding that organized religion isn’t for him. He describes himself as “spiritual.”
Creating “The Shards of an Honor Code Junkie” over the last decade has been healing, he said. He admits, though, that in the back of his mind, he still fears consequences from BYU for his art.
Allen recalled the urban myth at BYU, that “the university at any given time [can] take away your diploma if they find out that you broke the Honor Code while going to this university,” he said — adding that he has never heard of this actually happening.
Twelve years after Allen graduated, BYU was under federal investigation for how it disciplines its LGBTQ students; the U.S. Department of Education dismissed the complaint in January.
Allen, who is working on his doctorate in performance and composition at New York University, said his friend’s suicide “saved my life” and that for him, music will always be healing. He is quick to make clear that this album did not “come from a place of hatred.”
“It’s just a story,” he said. His story. But also a story that can resonate with others.
“I hope,” Allen said, “that there are people who listen to this album who are queer or who are not queer, who feel it and feel loved and feel that their stories are valid and their life is valid.”