On & Between is a musical tribute to new immigrants to the United States under the current treacherous political circumstance. Immigrants shuttle between two states of being, physically and mentally, between the cultures of the home countries and the United States. And the process of immigration is a constant orientation of identities and social positioning. The prepositions “on” and “between” precisely capture the unstable status of the people in the immigrant community.


New immigrants may be caught in a quotidian clash between cultures and identities, but at the end of the day they want to achieve reconciliation. Coming from my own Chinese and Confucius culture background, I believe that cultural and ideological harmony carries a long way in constructing the American society, which is dubbed as a “melting pot.” It is through the process of hustling, bargaining, compromising and mutual recognition that different cultures are fused into the American society. With this philosophical proposition, I started the composition for this recording project.


The solo instrument in this album is pipa (Chinese Lute), a traditional musical instrument that boasts more than two thousands years of history. It is assigned as the protagonist of a musical story of an immigrant from China or other East Asia cultural heritages. The collaborative western instruments include violin, viola, cello, piano, horn, oboe, saxophone, and drum. They are used to contrast and support the pipa as the conceptualized conditions through which the immigrant lived in a new land. Although the music style of On and Between has a strong classical flare, it doesn't shy away from the elements of tango, blues, and jazz. The diverse cosmopolitan culture of New York City and the life stories of the people from around the world that I met here provide me inspiration and passion for this composition work. Every individual piece in the album is not only a stand-alone art song for musical instruments that focuses on telling an episode or expressing a certain emotion; but also is in tandem with other pieces to form a complete theatrical narrative of the life experience of a new immigrant.


In the first piece Arrival, I cite the “Going Home” theme from the second movement of the New World Symphony by Antonín Dvořák and choose horn to play it to depict a remote and stately image of the United States in the hearts of new immigrants. The rolling figures on the piano and the long phrases on the cello are combined to render a scene of the gradual landing of an airplane and an unfolding new life. The melody carried by pipa expresses a tempered feeling of excitement and fear caused by the anticipation of the future and nostalgia of the past. The tear brimming the eyes of the newcomer is metaphorized as the high pitch overtone of pipa that ends the music.


Good Morning, the City is a piece about hope and resolution. The bright tone of the oboe is assigned as the voice of hope here and in other pieces of the album. And the roundness of the cello’s sound stands for the warmth of the sunshine. The music describes a scene in which the protagonist wakes up basking in the sunshine and opens the window taking in the view of New York City. She hums a duet with the great expectations in the land of opportunities as she plucks up the courage to embrace a new life.


Dancing in the Rain takes advantage of the vivacious character of pipa’s timbre and plucking fingering to render a light-hearted passage. The western string quartet mostly plays pizzicato to create an atmosphere of the hustle and bustle of the big city, while the Chinese-folk-tone-alike melody on the pipa is floating above depicting the new immigrant dashing through the daily routine despite the inclement weather. Although the new life seems busy, the undertone is optimistic and orderly.


Family in the home country is the ultimate care of the diaspora. On the Roof depicts an intimate phone dialogue between the immigrant and her father at home thousands of miles away. The daughter comes on the rooftop and gazes into the home’s direction, while she listens to the family’s updates. The pipa’s melody airs the bitterness and homesickness that the daughter feels because of the pressure and setback in the new environment, while the violin sings a soothing tune as if the father is comforting the grieving daughter with words of care and wisdom. The conversation grows into an emotional catharsis that quiets down back at the opening sixteen notes, which is also inspired by Chinese folk dance music.


Lost in the Midtown uses the tension of tango music to depict the new immigrant’s fight against the social institution. The solemn and monotonous notes on the cello symbolize a mechanic and cold institution. The whimsical melody on the pipa’s part describes the new immigrant in panic after repetitive trial and error to work with the social institution and political bureaucracy in the United States. The intertwined melodies escalate into pipa’s strumming that imitates the bangs on the institution’s door. The music contracts into a vertigo-alike quiet section and then spreads out into a rapid glissando. The sharp contrast articulates a state of desperation and helplessness.


In the time of difficulty in a foreign land, newly acquainted friends and hometown fellows become the only small community that an immigrant can fall back on. In Lullaby, the tightness of the performance of the string quartet forms a solid foundation that supports the music progression and the performance of the pipa, in the same way that a group of friends backs the growth of a new immigrant. The calming harmony on the string quartet part contrasts with the bitter melody of the pipa and wraps the pipa in a warm humming. The quartet sings, “This is a home away from home,” as the pipa confides in them.


Encounter tells an episode of love at first sight. The cello stands for an affectionate man, and the pipa stands for the lady who becomes more mature after all that she has been through in the new country, and yet is still protective in the face of love. The cello and pipa sing somewhat similar melodies in a tentative way as two encounters try to make sense of the déjà vu in front of them. The melodies of the cello and pipa revolve into an expansive waltz, as the two people become more open to a love across cultures.


Cocktails depicts the relaxing and low profile nightlife in New York City. Pipa is seldom used to play Blues music; however, in this piece, the crispy timbres of the pipa works well to articulate the elegance of an Eastern character, while the blues chords on the piano render a backdrop of the lustrous city night. It indicts that the protagonist has become more at ease with the life in the metropolis.


Walk on the Fifth is an upbeat jazz that puts soprano saxophone, drum, piano and Chinese pipa in a rare and experimental combination. The saxophone’s improvising, jazz drumming, and piano chords create a modern Western atmosphere; the pipa follows the beat while humming a tone with a hint of Chinese folk festival music. There is cacophony that indicts the awkwardness in blending in a foreign culture; but as music comes to an end the jazz band and the pipa play along while absorbing each other’s features. The pipa acts the role of the protagonist striding down the Fifth Avenue confidently. The frantic strumming and rolling fingering of the pipa express the funky side of the usually refrained girl.


Harmony is the ending and summarizing piece of this album. The “Going Home” theme from the New World Symphony opens this piece, but it is played by the pipa. This indicates a form of reconciliation of the identities of the new immigrant. The theme is relayed to horn again, and this time two keys lower than in Arrival. It sounds warmer and more peaceful. This means that after years of stay, the previously remote image of the United States has become closer to the heart. And that mythical image has become a tangible new home. The pipa picks up the theme again and adds Chinese-folk-tone variations to it. Here the protagonist embraces her ethnicity proudly. The ups and downs flashback, as the motifs in Lost in the Midtown and triple notes in Lullaby are recapitulated and collaged to push the music forward. The rolling figures on the piano part and the firmness exuding from the string quartet’s performance describes the turbulent journey of immigration across the seas and the determination for a better future no matter what. The music ends on a triumphant climax indicating the harmony between cultures and identities.


On & Between is a call to strengthen the value of ethnic and cultural diversity in the United States. The music won’t be so touching and convincing without the valuable inputs and exceptional artistry of Pipa artist Lin Ma; violinists Cho-Liang Lin, Elmira Darvarova, Shenghua Hu; cellists David Geber and Yiduo Liu; violist Milan Milisavljević and Ao Peng; oboist Liang Wang; hornist Howard Wall and jazz musicians Braxton Cook and Curtis Nowosad. Their open-mindedness, generosity, life experience and musicianship not only bring this ambitious work to life but also vividly celebrate the theme of this album.


-Zhen Chen






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