What’s Next

The Emigrants

For Percussion and Cello
Commissioned by New Morse Code (Lawrence, Kansas)

Support for this project was provided by a PSC-CUNY Award, jointly funded by The Professional Staff Congress and The City University of New York.

Project Overview

The United States is often called “a nation of immigrants” and rightly so; our history has been defined by people from other places who have risked much to build a new life here.  Recent discussion of immigration highlights the experiences of foreign nationals who have decided to stay: how they can stay, if their stay is legal, and what the ramifications of their stay are.  Less common, however, is the discussion of immigrants’ departure from the home they left behind; few, in other words, speak of immigrants as emigrants.

The Emigrants is a documentary work for cello, percussion and digital playback.  The project begins with collecting oral history interviews with the emigrant musician community of New York City’s borough of Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the world.  The new work will include these individuals’ voices as part of the score itself, combining spoken word with instrumental music.  In The Emigrants, I explore how the experience of leaving home has shaped these individuals’ identity, the role music has played in their transition, how their former home continues to shape them, and why they have chosen to stay.  The goal is to create a work that, through a documentary process, invites a dialogue between the audience, the musicians (both live and recorded), and the stories.

I teach at York College, The City University of New York, where our student body includes emigrants from numerous countries and cultures.  I am an emigrant myself, having left Hong Kong and moved to Boston in 1992 when I was 11 years old.  As a new student at an American middle school, classical music became a lifeline that bridged the gap between my experiences in Hong Kong and the United states.  I started studying the violin in Hong Kong when I was six, and when I started sixth grade upon my arrival in Boston, I immediately joined the school band.  Classical music became my shelter from the foreign, and music eventually became my profession in my new homeland.  Through The Emigrants, I look to document similar stories from other individuals through music by focusing on why they left their homes and how they have coped with their departure.

The Concept

Take a listen to a conceptual recording for this work-in-progress.  Here’s an excerpt of an interview that cellist Hannah Collins recorded with her grandfather Dr. Robert C. Lam.  (This interview was done during an earlier iteration of the project, when we were collecting oral history recordings from various individuals who emigrated to the United States.)

And here is the same interview, with cellist (Hannah Collins) and percussionist (Michael Compitello) playing the transcribed speech rhythms.  This technique represents one of the ways that recorded speech will become part of the musical fabric of The Emigrants.

Interview Excerpts

Listen to an interview excerpt with percussionist Alvaro Rodas, who founded the Corona Youth Music Project, recorded in November, 2016:

Listen to an interview excerpt with Queens cellist Hikaru Tamaki of Duo Yumeno, recorded in March, 2017:

Listen to an interview excerpt with Queens composer Harold Gutierrez, recorded in February, 2017: