Three Immigrant Songs

I. Wandering Exile (from Greek)
II. Angel Island (from Chinese)
III. Song from Home (from Estonian)

mezzo, horn, cello and piano

duration: 16 minutes

Three Immigrant Songs was premiered by Laura Mercado-Wright, mezzo-soprano, Alma Liebrecht, horn, Karen Ouzounian, cello, and Lembit Beecher, piano, at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, NYC on January 20, 2012.

Live recording from the premiere:

Program Notes:

At the age of seven, my mother immigrated to the United States from Estonia (after spending several years in displaced person camps in post World War II Germany. Her stories and the stories of my grandmother were a central part of my childhood, and in this country full of immigrants from so many different places, I often think about how my understanding of the immigrant experience relates to the experiences of others. Three Immigrant Songs explores this search for understanding through the use of translation as an expressive tool.

The seeds of Three Immigrant Songs were planted when I was first introduced to Greek rebetika music many years ago by a classmate of mine in graduate school. I found the songs immediately and intensely moving, even though I had no understanding of what the words meant. When I looked up the translation for one of my favoite songs, San Apokliros Gyrizo, I discovered extensive message board debates about its translation. The debates all seemed to end with the conclusion that translating the text is futile. It seemed to me that there was something poetically appropriate about the struggle to understand this text, when the text itself was about struggling in an unfamiliar world with its foreign customs and language. The first song, Wandering Exile, uses the initial two stanzas of San Apokliros Gyrizo. I used Google Translate to generate translations, passing the translations through different languages before arriving at English. I found that the clumsiness of these electronic translations added poignancy to the texts and preserved the raw expression that I heard in the music. And the alternative word choices suggested different emphases that joined with the other translations to create an emotional whole.

Angel Island, the second song in the cycle, takes its text from a poem scrawled on the walls of the Angel Island detention center in the early part of the 20th Century. Angel Island was used as a processing and detention center for thousands of very poor Chinese immigrants, who were often detained for months or even years before being allowed entry into the United States or being sent home. Many of the detainees wrote poems on the walls of the center, some bleak, some angry, some grittily cheerful, and some resolute. I took a slightly different tack in the translation of this poem. I asked Dale Johnson, Professor Emeritus of Chinese Literature at UCSC, to translate the short four-line poem three times: character by character, literally but with English grammar, and poetically. I think this manner of translation, perhaps the way an American student would go about reading the poems, reflects the sense of slow, cyclical passage of time that imbues many of the Angel Island poems.

The final song uses an excerpt of the poem Võõrsil (In a Foreign Land) by Marie Under. Born in Tallinn, Estonia, in 1883, Marie Under fled the country during World War II (at the same time as my grandmother and mother) and ended up settling in Sweden, where she lived until her death in 1980. Widely hailed as one of Estonia’s greatest poets, her lyrical and sparse poems are difficult to translate. To capture her sense of separation from her homeland, I set the song in both the original Estonian and in English translation. Under’s longing for Estonia never waned, and I end the song in Estonian, not translating the final stanza.