[Ed. note: Kurt Rohde, Professor of Composition at the University of California at Davis, sent us this report on the recent Music and The Art of Migration Festival there. The weeklong series of events combined a number of approaches to the concept and practice of migration across the arts, with an emphasis on music.]

Sometimes it feels like new music has a way of finding places to collect, gather and pool. Not surprisingly, a number of important US cities (LA, NY, Chicago, etc.) have traditionally been the gravitational centers around which everything else orbits. In our current culture of immediacy and unimpeded online access, the reach of new music being produced in smaller communities is increasing at an astounding rate…or maybe it’s just that we are hearing about it more than ever before. Regardless, there is no question that that vibrant, inventive new music can now be found in more towns across the country. Enter the town of Davis.

Located in the Sacramento River Valley between the cities of Sacramento and San Francisco, Davis is a bucolic college community. It is the home to the University of California at Davis. UCD is home to the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2002. During the week of January 30th to February 3rd, a “flash flood” of new music took place. The UC Davis Department of Music hosted Worlds of Discovery & Loss: The Art of Migration and Music Festival, with support from the Mondavi Center and the Davis Humanities Institute. UCD faculty and composers Sam Nichols and Laurie San Martin organized the five-day festival with a depth of vision. By bringing together visiting ensembles like the Calder Quartet and Rootstock with UCD resident groups Empyrean Ensemble and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, Nichols and San Martin exquisitely executed a festival that explored the role of migration in music and how it intersects with visual art, cultural studies, and storytelling. In effect, the festival became a migratory “stop” for everyone involved, a way station in between points where ideas were exchanged and shared before moving onward.

I joined San Martin and Nichols as their assistant during the festival: It was a fantastic way to experience firsthand all the events. At the core of the festival was the presence of composer-in-residence Lei Liang and seven Festival Composition Fellows (Kari Besharse, David Coll, Elliot Cless, Annie Hsieh, Nicholas Omiccioli, Ryan Suleiman, Tina Tallon). Around this center were a series of concerts, public talks, and private colloquia. Since there were so many incredible events scheduled throughout the week, I thought it might be most useful to share what I though were the highlights.

Perhaps the most obvious example of how the festival showcased art’s intersection with the migration of people and culture came in the form of a panel discussion moderated by UCD sociologist David Kyle. Guest panelists Anthony Sheppard (musicologist and professor of music at Williams College), Maria Elena González (Cuban-American sculptor), Philip Kan Gotanda (playwright and filmmaker at UC Berkeley), Peter Kulchyski (Native Studies at University of Manitoba), and Chan Park (Korean P’ansori expert and professor of Korean language, literature, and performance studies at Ohio State University), took part in a lively discussion detailing how various cultural collisions impacted the full range of their work. What I took away from this conversation was the intriguing notion that nomadic culture, diaspora, and willful immigration all contribute to the formation of an identity in their work that was inseparable from their identity as people. There was a blurring of the conventional binary definitions (THIS vs. THAT, or GOOD vs. BAD) surrounding concepts about nomadic life, or the urge to immigrate, or the pull of being part of a diaspora. It felt reassuring to know that in our hyper-digital age, artists are ever more sensitive in identifying the thread that runs through their lives, connecting them and their work with their ancestors, predecessors, to those that will come after them. It was complicated. It was heartening.

If any live performance was emblematic of the festival’s theme, it was that of Korean P’ansori performer Chan Park. She entranced her audience with a contemporary telling of a Korean family’s story of immigrating to Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century. Dr. Park’s fluid performing style included her seamlessly moving between storytelling and singing in both English and Korean. She instructed the audience in traditional participatory practice, and managed to transform an hour of Korean P’ansori from a protected cultural tradition into a living, breathing experience filled with relevance and connectivity. It was brilliant, and her delivery was without restraint or inhibition.

The Calder Quartet gave three superb public performances comprised of works by Lei Liang, four Festival Composition Fellows, Mendelssohn and Ravel. When they were not rehearsing or giving chamber music master classes to UCD undergraduate performers, they played two extensive reading sessions of new works by UCD Graduate Composers. It was breathtaking to witness the inclusive and inviting approach that this exceptional quartet exhibited during their week in Davis. Their supple and generous performance of Ravel’s String Quartet felt like a metaphor for the way they operate: They are eager, supportive, curious musicians who maintain the same passion for detail in everything they do. Theirs is an approach that proves that the distinctions between “old” and “new” is one that falls away when respect for the music and the listener comes first.

The Empyrean Ensemble, UCD’s new music ensemble-in-residence, contributed an evening of new works by Lei Liang and two Festival Fellows. The concert culminated with a performance of Liang’s evocative and spacious Aural Hypothesis. In many ways, this is a piece that exemplifies Liang’s expert synthesis of numerous musical influences with non-musical conceits. It is clear to the listener that Liang is importing musical materials from “outside” and placing them “inside” his piece after carefully filtering out the most obvious identifiers. What one hears is neither Asian nor European. It is music that billows with open, airy, hovering musical objects that suddenly slip into a dense, claustrophobic space in a heavy fall, from which they try to break free.

Throughout the festival, the Mondavi Center lobby was filled with an extensive art installation expertly curated by UCD Art Department faculty Robin Hill. Featuring large works on paper and small objects, the installation managed to capture the essence of how migration can manifest itself materially in a works of art. The appropriation of themes from various cultural traditions was rendered with remarkable skill in all the works by the selected artists. Whereas all the other events involved some type sound production (a concert, a talk, a lecture, a rehearsal), it was an unexpected and refreshing delight to just stand quietly in a space, without having to rush off, and ponder the works of art one was looking at. It was a welcome contemplative respite from all of the sonic activity of the week.

A fantastic performance by the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Christian Baldini closed the festival. In addition to a powerful orchestral piece (Icy Disintegration) by Composition Fellow Annie Hsieh, soloists Chris Froh and Mayumi Hama premiered a fantastic new double marimba concerto (layover/overlay) by Laurie San Martin. San Martin’s new single-movement work is one of rich precision and concise drama. Many works display their life-spark at the beginning in alluring ways; few manage to keep that spark glowing and growing throughout as San Martin did with her double marimba concerto. The concert’s first half concluded with one of the most liberating performances of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, sung with spectacular abandon by soprano Nikki Einfeld. It was hard to catch one’s breath once it ended, and this was only the first half of the concert!

Lastly, there were a number of colloquia given by composer Lei Liang with the seven Festival Composers and the UCD Graduate Composers. This was a fine group of gifted people to be in a room with for two and a half hours each morning. During these colloquia, we listened to and commented on each other’s work. The comments were truly inspired all around and I was impressed by the openness these listeners brought to each hearing.

This is just the surface of what happened during The Art of Migration and Music Festival; I have no doubt many others had different highlights and reactions to the events. As quickly as it began, the festival ended after the UCDSO concert on Sunday night. On Monday morning, all those who participated flew off, heading back to their various migratory destinations, carrying with them a little bit of their experience in Davis. Out, beyond, and perhaps to return – someday.

Kurt Rohde