When thinking about the big political issues of the day, it’s easy and sometimes necessary to focus on abstract ideas—to the point that real, individual people affected by these issues disappear from view entirely. On the topic of immigration, SWELL – a new experimental song cycle that had a workshop run at HERE on July 13 and 14 – serves as a welcome corrective to this tendency, zooming in on deeply personal stories of immigrants and their descendants.
With five composers, three lyricists, and five composer-lyricists all writing material for the show, SWELL emphatically rejects the idea that there is one monolithic immigrant experience. The writers, or their parents, hail from places as diverse as Russia, China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, and their artistic styles are similarly varied. Some lyricists used direct, narrative storytelling, while others used elusive poetic fragments; some of the music was acerbic, and some embraced the influence of Broadway pop. The overall impression was of a convivial assembly of many voices, each speaking in turn and none worried about contradicting another.
Many of the songs focus on moments of connection, either with the new home or the old one. An early song in the cycle, with lyrics by Melisa Tien (who conceived SWELL as a whole) set to alternately bustling and soaring music by Jorge Sosa, tells of a newcomer to NYC who doesn’t mind being ripped off by the guy who gave him a lift from the airport, because he’s so overjoyed the driver is also from Oaxaca. (I’ve omitted the title of this song as it uses a dated term that many consider derogatory to the Romani people.) “Sangre de mi sangre/blood of my blood!” he rhapsodizes, daydreaming of the beaches of his home.
Later, in “Sleep, Sleep Nations” (music: Tamar Muskal, words: Stavit Allweis), a different character thinks of the cooking in his home country (“the sweet smell/of greens cooking/a type/that here/cannot be found”), and concludes, “Home is a poem now/a childhood museum/kept sacred/in fairy tale land.”
Deepali Gupta’s offering, “What is tea, what is water,” shows a man trying to reconnect with his past, learning Hindi on Duolingo and moving from nonsensical sentences (“this peacock/drinks tea”) to more profound questions (“What is tea?/What is water?/Who am I?”). Looking in the other direction along a family tree in “Don’t Start Walking,” Or Matias conjures a man on a video call with his infant child: “Don’t start walking without me yet/I’m on my way, way, way back home.”
The moments of connection feel balanced against moments of alienation. “I cannot relate to [other] Filipinos,” declares the narrator of “Walking in Circles: A Diary” (music: Joshua Cerdenia; lyrics: Cerdenia and Tien), that thought coming only a few lines after “‘Pinoy pride’ boggles me.” Kamala Sankaram provided lilting, whimsical music with a queasy edge to a lyric by Tien (based on an interview with Dr. R. Sankaram) in “A Friend and a Zorro,” about a kidney doctor who dreamed of being an actor as a kid (“I believed in make-believe./…/It did not believe in me.”), and then visits Hollywood as an adult, only to find the people there “all artificial.”
Other songs take this alienation further, presenting people mid-journey, suspended between origin and destination. “Homebound,” a haunting number by Polina Nazaykinskaya (music) and Konstantin Soukhovetski (words), finds the singer “searching alone/for a home of my own”; “Speaking of Water,” an expansive duet by Carolyn Chen (music) and Tien (words), features the singers contemplating “an unfinished sea,” confessing first that “I know nothing/of where I’m from,” and then “I know nothing/of where I’ll be.” The plainspoken final number, “to belong” by Justine F. Chen, deconstructs the idea of belonging on a linguistic level, presenting a bare list of infinitives (“To be/To belong/To have/To long”) in a spare but assured musical setting.
In the middle of this is the most cryptic and evocative of all the songs: “Copper Rings” for voice, cello, and electronics by Izzi Ramkissoon (music and lyrics) and Tien (lyrics). On a musical level it starts simply enough, the singer singing about “Copper rings staining the soul/from brown to green/metallic surface of/too thin Liberty” over simple cello loops. But the layers slowly accumulate distortion, and the language of the text breaks down until the grinding climax, where the singer intones a list of con- nouns (“Con-struction/Con-cession/Con-nection/Con-servation”) over a roaring wall of noise.
An indefatigable team of six performers brought these heterogeneous songs to life. Jasmine Muhammad’s lively soprano ranged from welcoming to starkly dispassionate. Jonathan May’s crisp countertenor blended seamlessly from Baroque asceticism to pop immediacy, though in a few places his diction slipped, making it hard to follow the text. Kannan Vasudevan brought a deep, homespun warmth to all his characters with his clear, friendly tenor.
Naomi Florin (violin) and Jennifer Shaw (cello) handled the string parts with aplomb, and Mila Henry’s music directing and piano playing were eloquently direct. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew provided tasteful projections to enliven the stage, and Elena Araoz directed the whole affair. The production was, without apology, a workshop on the road to a fuller version down the line. The singers sang at music stands, and there was a mic check for Ramkissoon to make sure his electronics were working. A more polished version doubtless will sand down these rough edges.
But there were moments of magic created by the spontaneity of the workshop atmosphere that I hope make their way into the final version. I am thinking especially of Vasudevan’s performance of Matias’s “Don’t start walking” number, where the ad-hoc space made it feel, delightfully, like Vasudevan was discovering the song in real time, hearing it fresh along with all of us in the audience. It was utterly enchanting, in a way that a full-on proscenium might hinder. Like many of the people whose stories it tells, SWELL is a piece on a journey, and there are many places it could go.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.