In a moment in which our world is witnessing the biggest migratory crisis of the 21st century and presidential candidates speak about building a wall at the Mexican border, it seems relevant to ponder about what immigration means.
Last Spring I received a commission from The New School for Jazz (where I have been a faculty member for seven years) to compose a score for the 1917 Charlie Chaplin silent film The Immigrant. The piece would be played as part of a concert to celebrate the merger of our Jazz School with the Mannes and Drama departments into what now is The New School College of Performing Arts. I had only five weeks to write about 25 minutes of music to be performed live accompanying the film. A rather challenging task, especially because I didn't—couldn’t—just take it as “another” job.
Before writing a note I researched Chaplin quite a lot; his story, concepts, work ethic, what this film particularly meant to him, and how the film would relate to my own experience as an immigrant.
It is clear that regardless of what time period we focus on, immigrants are often received with a certain degree of hostility. As the son and grandson of immigrants and a parent of children who are also sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of immigrants, I am very proud of our mixed heritage, and I acknowledge that most members of my family—myself included—have gone through a seriously rough time at some point during their migratory experiences. We are all immigrants, and we cannot be held accountable in any way for it.
Accountability seems like the right term here, as politically and historically it has always been so easy to blame “the immigrants” for what's wrong—they are the cause of our troubles, take our jobs, are rapists and criminals... ring a bell? It’s been said that in the 1950’s Chaplin was denied re-entry into the US on account of being anti-American. The proof offered? A scene from "The Immigrant" where Chaplin is seen delivering a surreptitious kick to an immigration officer’s ass.
Chaplin was able to communicate with his audiences through pathos, managing to reach the emotions of his spectators with his films AND music (he was a wonderful composer, always able to hit at our deepest feelings with his deceivingly simple tunes). In the case of "The Immigrant" I was lucky that the film had no music, giving me a blank slate to connect with Chaplin's pathos. I thrive on reflecting emotion in music, I simply need to connect with my own deep emotions when I write music. One of my favorite concepts is from Werner Herzog, who speaks of the “Ecstatic Truth”— an image or piece of music or art, that hits you emotionally just... does!
Additionally, the score allowed me to reflect the diversity that we experience in New York City and at The New School in particular, connecting with the idea that we’re all immigrants. Duke Ellington said that music sounds better when the music is written with specific performers in mind. At The New School for Jazz we are part of an amazing community of musicians that is as diverse as it gets across gender, origin, age and ideology. However we are all united by our love of music, and quoting Ellington again we all love “good music.” I was privileged to be able to put together a wonderful ensemble of 10 musicians that included current students, alumni and faculty featuring Yosvany Terry (Alto & Soprano Sax), Levon Henry (Tenor Sax & Bass Clarinet), Linda Briceño (Trumpet & Flugelhorn), Chris Stover (Trombone), Nathan Kamal (Violin), Zen Groom (Vibraphone), Martha Kato (Piano), Joe Vilardi (Guitar), Aron Caceres (Bass) and Chris Copland (Drums).
Lastly, I had to honor the fact that this had to be a jazz score, representing our jazz school and reflecting our rich and multicultural jazz heritage. I’m not very dogmatic about jazz—what it is, and what it isn’t. For me, it's simple: jazz is diverse, jazz is improvisation, jazz is an art of the moment (literally THIS very moment, and our historical moment in time), jazz is the result of mixing and matching, of melting and risking, of adventure and diversity. In my own practice I've managed to sidestep the boundaries of what jazz is supposed to be, and just depart from a deep love of the music and its history. My music has a lot of influences that include anything that excites me—polyrhythms, flamenco, multi-tonality, serialism, be-bop. To me it all falls into the same category, the one that Ellington calls “good.”
In The Immigrant, I came to think of jazz as the music of immigrants, the music that belongs to all of us because we all are immigrants.