ORCHESTRA - Migration Series Program Notes:

(ACO/Music Alive Commission)

I. Landscapes
interlude I
II. After a Lynching
interlude II
III. A Rumor
IV. Riots and Moon's Shine
interlude III
V. Still Arriving

'The Migration Series' is a concerto for jazz band and orchestra,influenced by many of my compositional heroes, including Charlie Parker, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughan, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, John Zorn, and the rappers Rakim and Mos Def. I kept in mind the individual voices of the members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The piece is in five movements, with three connecting interludes, and is dedicated to Wynton Marsalis, whose music-making has been a great inspiration to me.

It was as a child in New York that I first encountered the 'Migration Series', a set of 60 paintings by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) depicting the Great Migration of African-Americans from South to North during the early decades of the 20th Century. The paintings have remained etched in my consciousness ever since, and as I began work on this piece, many of the sounds in my head evoked memories of the series. Because Lawrence didn't regard the paintings as separate entities, but instead as components of a larger cycle, it felt natural for me to focus on the shapes, colors, moods, and atmospheres evoked by groups of scenes within the series, rather than individual paintings. In this grand American story, I gravitated toward the larger themes, those of determination, mystery, despair, and hope; Lawrence's unique sense of perspective and distance - his generosity and universality of narrative - allowed the space for me to add music.

The first movement is inspired by the wide open Southern landscapes and the theme of the railroad depicted in Lawrence's paintings. The music builds on a relentless four-note ostinato in the strings which combine with a short funk riff in the trumpet. The movement builds as a slowly expanding series of diatonic chord changes evolves and the texture becomes layered in polytonality.

A short solo piano interlude leads to the more lyrical second movement; this section reflects Lawrence's depictions of the emotional pulse prior to migration, the overwhelming disbelief and despair stemming from the prejudices and hardships endured by the former slaves and their families. The music begins as a Gospel ballad, transformed by a trio of rapping trombones which anticipate the vocalizations of the third movement.

Another interlude, this time for solo clarinet and bass, leads to the third movement; This section takes as its point of departure the conversational "call and response", the excitement of rumors in the air and impending change captured by Lawrence in several of the paintings. This vitality is expressed rhythmically by swinging chromatic tone clusters heard in the three trombones (presaged in mvt. II), then later by four bass clarinets, four trumpets, and finally by the whole jazz band. With development of contour, rather than melody, the movement emphasizes gestures of rhythm and syncopation over pitch- i.e. the central interplay is the conversational banter (characteristic of dub or hip-hop music), rather than on the melody-chord relations typical of 'song' forms. Partway through the movement, echoes of the first 'landscape' ostinato reappear in the strings, as the chatter leads to the migratory journey.

The fourth movement follows immediately without pause. Lawrence illustrates the migrants' arrival in the Northern cities, accompanied by joy and expectation, but also by violence, rejection, and new incarnations of poverty. The new urban energy manifests itself in the manic bebop lines of the saxophones - with the cooler serenity - in the strings and harp - recalling the depictions of a simpler, rural life in the South. A trumpet interlude leads out of the fourth movement, picks up steam as a conversation runs throughout the ensemble, into the fifth and final section, a musical and visual summation based on material presented in the earlier movements; this last section evokes the text accompanying Lawrences final painting:
"And the migrants kept coming."

Derek Bermel

<< Back to Orchestra - Migration Series

<< Back to Music