A musical story of immigrants: UMass composer debuts extended jazz-flavored piece inspired by “Dreamers”

  • UMass Amherst music professor Felipe Salles, a native of Brazil, has spent the past year creating an extended jazz-flavored composition that chronicles the experiences of young immigrants in the U.S. Photo by Jeff Schneider/courtesy UMass Amherst Department of Music and Dance 

  • Felipe Salles’ 18-member jazz group, the Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble, will perform his new composition, “The New Immigrant Experience,” at UMass Amherst on April 9. Image from Facebook

  • Pianist Tereza Lee, a friend of Felipe Salles, inspired the initial federal legislation to protect “Dreamers” — the children of undocumented immigrants.  Photo by Alejandro Ibarra/courtesy Tereza Lee

  • Salles, seen here in his UMass office, jokes that his wife warned him when he applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship so that he could create his new work, “Be careful what you wish for.” Gazette file photo

  • Salles, here conducting some of his jazz students at UMass, says his new composition reflects the “very complicated” questions  immigrants can have concerning  identity and cultural heritage.  

Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2019 4:29:44 PM

It was not a typical starting point for a composition: interviewing numerous immigrants to the U.S. about their experiences in their adopted country, and then translating those accounts into a musical mosaic, an hour-and-half-long piece arranged for an 18-piece jazz ensemble.

But with his own experience as an immigrant, as well as a family history of migration, Felipe Salles had a special interest in seeing how people’s personal stories and struggles with identity could be put to music — especially against a backdrop of a national debate over immigration that has turned increasingly ugly in some quarters during the last several years.

And when he won a Guggenheim Fellowship last spring, Salles, a composer and saxophonist who teaches music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had the means to explore his ideas. Now, after a hectic year of juggling writing, interviews, rehearsing, teaching and family responsibilities, Salles is about to see his effort bear fruit.

“The New Immigrant Experience,” a layered composition scored for his 18-member band, the Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble, will get its public premiere next Tuesday at the UMass Old Chapel. The performance will include selected video of the interviews Salles and a film crew did with young immigrants as part of the composition.

Salles, who came to the U.S. from Brazil in his early 20s — he’s now 45 — has based his new work specifically on the experiences of several “Dreamers”: young immigrants who have been granted legal status in the country after being brought to the United States and raised by undocumented parents.

 In fact, Salles is a friend of Tereza Lee, the original “Dreamer” whose story prompted the federal DREAM Act legislation authored by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin in 2001. (Lee, who today is an American by way of marriage, was born in Brazil to Korean parents and came to the U.S. when she was a very young child)

When that bill could not make it through Congress, former President Barack Obama used executive action to create DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to allow “Dreamers” to stay in the the country if they meet certain requirements, the idea being they had been raised as Americans and shouldn’t be penalized for something their parents had done.

In a recent interview at his UMass office, Salles said the past year has been “an incredibly emotional experience,” from hearing people’s immigration stories to furiously composing his music to trying to pull all the pieces together for live performances.

At a recent rehearsal, he said he talked to the band members afterward and suddenly felt overwhelmed. “I was thanking them for taking part in this, giving me their time, and I said, ‘You don’t know how much this means to me,’ and I just started crying…. The whole thing just kind of washed over me.” 

Part of that might have been a sort of delayed reaction to the logistical headaches, stress and work the project has involved. Salles and his wife, Laura Arpiainen, a freelance violinist and music teacher with her own busy schedule, have two young sons, ages 9 and 5, and putting together “The New Immigrant Experience” has meant “babysitters had to be deployed, friends had to be deployed, and a lot of careful scheduling had to happen,” Salles noted.

He remembers what his wife told him when he was applying for his Guggenheim a few years ago (only 173 were awarded last year out of 3,000 applications).

“She said ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ ” he said with a laugh.

From words to music

Salles conducted his interviews with a dozen “Dreamers” last summer, all in New York City, where his film crew was based and where his old friend Tereza Lee — the two met at the Manhattan School of Music when Salles was getting his doctorate there — now teaches and studies classical piano. Lee had given him the names of potential interviewees, and members of his film crew found others through student groups at Hunter College and City University of New York.

Eventually, Salles spoke to people from Brazil, Mexico, Portugal, Colombia and other countries, generally in their 20s and early 30s. Some, like him, had multicultural backgrounds that went beyond being new Americans who came here from somewhere else (Salles says his grandparents came from Eastern Europe, Italy and Brazil). But some common themes became apparent during the interviews.

 “There’s a struggle of identity [with immigrants],” he said. “It doesn’t matter how well adapted you are to where you live and how much you feel American, or not. You can struggle to find a piece of who you are in the context of where you are and what language you’re speaking.”

Those feelings, and people’s individual stories, all became part of the pool that Salles drew from in composing his music. So did his interviewees’ speech patterns, cadences, accents, and other vocal inflections, in English and sometimes other languages.

“I could hear their essence in whatever language they were speaking, and I could hear their personal rhythm,” he said.

“The New Immigrant Experience” has nine movements, each based on one of the people Salles interviewed. An intro and coda also have musical themes and motifs that, if one listens carefully, can be detected in the individual movements, Salles said.

He wanted from the start to compose the music for his large ensemble, though he plays with smaller groups, too. A larger band seemed important for capturing the emotional depth of the issue and his own musical voice, which he says “comes from more of a sort of orchestral interest in everything.” 

His background is in American jazz, Brazilian music, Latin American rhythms and what he calls a “back door” approach to classical music. “I come into classical composition from the service entrance,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t have degree in it, but I have an incredible appreciation for it.”

The Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble includes four trumpets, four trombones, five woodwind players (saxophone, clarinet and flute), and a rhythm section of piano, drums, guitar, bass, and vibraphone. Salles says that makeup gave him the flexibility and heft to write a long composition that includes multiple musical elements and the themes voiced by his interviewees.  

 “I want to write the music that I hear speaking to that person and at the same time will have elements of American music, jazz and folk, and world music,” he said. “That’s how immigrants feel. We’re not something you can just label as one thing…. You can feel like all of those things while at the same time you can feel you don’t belong to any of them. It’s a very complicated discussion.”

Next Tuesday’s performance of “The New Immigrant Experience” will be followed later in the week by another concert in New York City, after which the band goes into a recording studio in the Boston area to make a CD. Salles hopes he’ll also be able to include a DVD, of the film of the interviewees with background music, as part of the package.

He says he’s been careful not to let his own experiences — or the anger and frustration he can feel from harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric — factor into his new work, though his own musical journey is reflected in the composition. He also says he doesn’t want “The New Immigrant Experience” to be seen as a “political” work; rather, he hopes it can serve as an educational piece of sorts.

“When you hear people’s stories, don’t push them away even if you don’t agree with them,” he said. “It’s important to be open, to listen and learn. I learned so much even though I considered myself very aware of what immigrants go through. But honestly? I didn’t know the half of it.”  

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Felipe Salles’ “The New Immigrant Experience” will be performed Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the UMass Amherst Old Chapel. Tickets are $10 for the general public, $5 for students and seniors, free for UMass students with ID; they can be purchased at at fineartscenter.com/musicanddance or (413) 545-2511. There will also be a panel discussion at 6 p.m. in the Old Chapel with Felipe Salles, Tereza Lee, and three UMass faculty members whose research involves immigrant rights activism.

Felipe Salles’ website is sallesjazz.com.




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