What Was Carried

By Nico Muhly on November 29, 2019
Nico Muhly
Commissioned by the Chamber Music Society, Stranger by Nico Muhly has its world premiere on our fourth Emerging Voices program, Our Voices: The Rise of the American Voice.
In his essay for the project, the New York-based composer reflects on the American immigrant experience and explains why he prefers to set prose than poetry.

National character as expressed through art and music is a particularly thorny subject. Within moments, it can veer wildly from a rational conversation about what defines the cultural borders of a nation to terrifying xenophobic and racist statements. (As when President Trump, in a 2017 speech in Warsaw seemingly designed to reinforce the idea of Western cultural superiority, used the statement “We write symphonies.” As if somehow that mode of cultural production is a powerful weapon against some imagined onslaught by the winnowing-song, the ghazal, or the cantor’s psalm.)

The sentiment that America is a “nation of immigrants,” and the metaphor of the melting-pot can be interpreted in many ways, and too often it only practically applies to people who are perceived as white, and relates only to whatever the definition of whiteness is at the time. When I think about my own ancestors (Belorussian Jews, French, Irish, German, most arriving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), their history over the last hundred years has mapped a kind of assimilation and clarification absolutely unavailable to people whose relatives arrived in the United States – no matter when – from China, Benin, Jamaica or the traditional Kwakiutl land in British Columbia. These others will always face some variation of the question, “No, but where do you really come from?" even if they were born in Dubuque, Providence, or Rancho Cucamonga.

For my piece Stranger, I’ve chosen four texts: an academic introduction to a project about the history of Chinese railroad workers; an interview with Rosa Breci, a Sicilian woman who arrived at Ellis Island in 1911; an extraordinary letter from a Chinese-American about the racism he experienced and how it was legally codified and reinforced; and finally, a letter from a woman to her husband, serving in the U.S. Army in 1945.

These texts are not meant to address some generic sense of the American immigrant experience, but rather serve an attempt to navigate different kinds of shared American stories, from the confrontational (forced assimilation) to the practical (eye exams at the border) and make the connection between oppressive 19th century immigration policies and those being advocated in the U.S. even now.

I almost always prefer to set prose than poetry. I find that poetry already contains its own music in such a way that I feel like I’m competing with the poet in trying to set it. Prose, for me, offers a more oblique entry-point into the text, particularly as the “voice” of the narrator -- the recipient of a letter, the writer, the interviewee, or the diarist -- can be divided between instruments and the singer.

When the tenor sings the line “How do we as scholars give voice to the voiceless?” is he the scholar or the voiceless? When he sings “I ask you, where is your golden rule, your Christian charity, and the fruits of your Bible teachings, when you talk about doing unto others as you would have them do to you?” is he the author or the reader of the Chinese immigrant's letter? Are we, as the audience, meant to hear this sentence in the current political climate, or are we to imagine ourselves back in 1879? What does the string quartet have to do with any of this? Are they witnesses, antagonists, observers, or some new character imagined by each listener?

While I've found that my writing for voice works best within the flexibility of prose, I find a similar ease setting translations. The wonderful thing about these texts is that they are all examples of a different kind of translation, one more related to the etymologically radical sense of the word, in which translation means to be carried across. The implications of translation are numerous and moving; one archaic usage is the idea of moving the bones of a saint from one place to another (such as the translation of St. Mark’s body from Alexandria to Venice).

In her interview 75 years after arriving in America from Sicily, Rosa Breci says: “Well, the food was the same because we always cooked the same no matter if we were there or even now. Food is the same. We do our own cooking. We know what we want.” Her experience has been translated and carried over, just as she was herself carried across the ocean from Sicily. She retains elements of her Old World self and her very assimilation is flavored by her original tongue.

Setting text to music can have the same effect, albeit with its own problems and complexities, wherein we hear the words simply, but we learn something new in the carrying-over from the singer to the audience.

Nico Muhly's Stranger will be performed by tenor Nicholas Phan, pianist Myra Huang, and Brooklyn Rider on Friday, January 24 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. For tickets and information, visit the event page or pcmsconcerts.org/emerging-voices.