Researcher: Dr. George Lam
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 chamber music work for cello, percussion and digital playback. The project began by 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 includes these individuals’ voices as part of the score itself, combining spoken word with instrumental music. 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 taught for seven years at York College, The City University of New York, whose 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. I had already learned to play the violin for a few years, and when I moved to Boston to start sixth grade, I immediately joined the school band (first as a percussionist). As a new student at an American middle school, music not only bridged the gap between my experiences in Hong Kong and the U.S., it also provided a much needed opportunity to build my self-esteem. As I continued my studies as an adult, music and music teaching became my profession in my new adopted homeland. In The Emigrants, I documented similar stories from other individuals in New York City through the lens of documentary music.
The Emigrants was commissioned by New Morse Code, who performed the world premiere of the work in December 2018. A studio recording was released on August 1, 2020 on all major streaming platforms, and is available for sale on Bandcamp.