Amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties were hardly top of mind in the late winter and spring of 2020. These were not halcyon days for America. A novel coronavirus outbreak turned global pandemic had knocked the breath out of us. One epidemic exposed and overlapped with another, laying bare the xenophobia, inequities, and racial brutality endemic in the United States.
“America was not a very beautiful place, I think we all agree about that,” said Min Kwon, a Korean-born American pianist and music professor at Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts. Kwon had previously put on a concert featuring some of the “Diabelli Variations,” written by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt and dozens of other composers based on a waltz by the Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli. And even before the pandemic hit, she’d begun imagining a 21st-century American offering in the same vein. Suddenly, “it became my pandemic project and it was a project that saved me,” she said. “We were all in isolation and it was my way of reaching out to my colleagues, other musicians, artists, to ask, ‘How are you doing? What can we do in this time of complete silence?’”
The immediate future wasn’t looking bright for composers, musicians and other performers whose upcoming engagements — and in many cases livelihoods — vanished overnight. So Kwon set about finding contemporary composers she felt were writing relevant and powerful music and convincing them to write variations on “America the Beautiful,” an iconic American tune that would prompt artists to plumb the complexities of the moment but still be so familiar and accessible that a broad audience might be willing to listen..
“I saw a lot of division and destruction and confusion in our world in America last year in particular,” she said. “I really wanted to get their impression, their feelings, and their reflection about the time that we were experiencing together as Americans.”
Early in the pandemic, Kwon filled her days with music by composers she might approach and continued building up a list of participants. In some cases, the gut reaction, she said, was, “I can’t write about ‘America the Beautiful’ because America is not beautiful.” But to her, that was part of the point. She wanted these artists to reflect on the times, make a statement, and, perhaps, create “new hope for a new beginning.”
Ultimately, dozens said yes, and the nonprofit Center for Musical Excellence, where Kwon is the founder and director, funded the commissions. “A lot of the pieces that came in had contrasting elements,” she said. “One that yes, America is beautiful, and the other, the very disruptive force or very dissonant and chaotic — that was also in the music, that dichotomy, which was really what we were going through,” she added, fascinated by how they “chose to combine the dark and light or the present and the future or the major with minor.”
Now, “America/Beautiful” is set to premiere in a series of virtual and live performances beginning on July 4 with variations by more than 70 composers. For an immigrant from a fairly homogenous society, Kwon said, having people of all different colors, cultures, histories and traditions is what’s so exhilarating about being in America — and it was essential that the participating composers reflect that diversity.
They range from 20 years old to 93. Some were born in the U.S. and others immigrated here. They draw on heritage from India,Iran,Germany,Mexico,Ghana,China,Estonia,Uzbekistan,Argentina and elsewhere around the world. They are Black, white, Latinx, Asian-American, and more. Their work, Kwon said, is influenced by ragtime, tango, jazz, and other styles. Among them are winners of Pulitzer Prizes,Grammys and MacArthur “genius” grants. And some, of course, have Jewish or Israeli roots.
Judith Lang Zaimont: Writing “in darkness veiled”
“My first thought was, ‘What in the world could I do?’” said Judith Lang Zaimont, a composer and pianist whose grandparents were immigrants to America and whose parents were founding members of the Bellerose Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Queens. Zaimont, who is now Reform and lives in rural Arizona, wasn’t immediately convinced “America the Beautiful” left room for an inventive statement of her own. “The whole question is where’s the opening? Where’s the little turned-up corner that you could get into to do something that would be worthwhile?”
But then came lockdown, and “because it was a private moment, I found that little corner to turn up,” she said, a way to make it hers. She composed her variation—which she titled “in darkness veiled” and calls a “mini nocturne”—in the early days of the pandemic, before the ramp-up of livestreams and virtual everything. And while she describes the source material as “optimistic,” “sturdy,” “structured” “declarative,” and “definite”—she wanted her piece to be none of those things at a time that was anything but.
“I wanted to write something that absolutely veiled all of those attributes,” she said. “I wound up writing something that was dark, because the pandemic shutdown was very very dark. People closed in on themselves and on their homes in order to stay safe, and that’s natural,” she said. “I wanted the music to express the moment and to express, ‘How do you deal with optimism and declaration, let alone structure, from a moment when everybody is on sequester?’”
She infused mystery into her variation—“that sense of twilight when shapes are not clear,” said Zaimont. “You know how when you sense something in the wind or you smell something that grabs you and your head lifts up? I wanted a little of that so your head would be up, your ears would be open and listening, really listening, so you would hear all these faint echoes or fragments of ‘America the Beautiful.’” In retrospect, she says she’s glad she went the mysterious route, even “before some of the horror of this last year had transpired.”
There’s also watching and waiting and hoping in her variation, but nothing is definite. “It evaporates up at the top of the keyboard and just sort of disappears,” she said. “So it invites in the next statement by another mind and another sensibility.”
Avner Dorman: Capturing “over-the-top-ness”
Kwon had a more specific request for Avner Dorman than for some of the other participants. She knew him as someone “who writes very exciting music — and so I asked him actually to write exactly that,” she explained. “I said, look, so many people are sending me very dark pieces that often end very soft and [with a] question mark, but we also need to have some energy here.” And that’s what he delivered: a virtuosic miniature that cuts and disassembles the original in unexpected ways and puts it back together to reveal its source of inspiration by the end.
“I never considered myself to be a composer that is particularly influenced by Middle Eastern or Jewish elements,” said Dorman, who was born and raised in Israel. That is, not until he moved to the U.S. “Here,” he said, “that was immediately the label,” and over time, he realized, it was true—it was in his subconscious and his training, the Arab musicians he’d worked with, the klezmer he’d dabbled in, and the hundreds of Israeli songs he’d arranged in the army. His first instinct is to say those influences didn’t play into this particular variation, but when he thinks of the pattern of rhythms he used, “then I’m like, well it is seven all the time and it’s like a Middle Eastern seven, like a two, three, two.”
Dorman also drew on both early and recent impressions of America. When he moved to New York two decades ago to get his doctorate at Juilliard, everything was so much bigger—especially compared to a country where you drive a few hours in either direction and that’s it, he joked. At first, it was overwhelming. “It was almost incomprehensible to wrap your head around what this country is,” he said. “The culture shock was much greater than I expected.”
There was another kind of culture shock years later when he found himself living in Pennsylvania and teaching at Gettysburg College, a liberal arts school located in the seat of the very red Adams County, which went for Trump by 34 points in 2020 and even more in 2016. Dorman wrote his variation in August, as Biden clinched the Democratic nomination and the election ramped up into its final phase. “It was such a charged political period,” he said. “I think that’s part of the over-the-top-ness of this country,” he said. “That’s kind of my concept for this variation, that it’s so over the top it has to be America.”
Dorman said he took a humorous and perhaps cynical view of America’s over-the-top everything — from Super Bowl half-time shows to the incumbent president — but it was a dark humor that was the only way he could deal musically with a situation he felt was “so so dire.” It may sound like a fun variation, he said, but below the surface are the lingering shock of Trump’s 2016 win in his county and state, streets full of Trump signs once again, the Black Lives Matter signs stolen from his own yard, and the heavily armed right-wing militia members and Confederate flags that had appeared in Gettysburg that 4th of July.
“It was really really tense where I live,” said Dorman, who was more politically active during this period than he ever had been before, donating more and volunteering and making calls ahead of the election. There was plenty of fear to try to cope with through music. “It’s one thing to live in California,” he said. It’s another thing entirely “being in such a center of the center of where the clashes were happening.”
Samuel Zyman: Reflecting diversity
“America the Beautiful” is the kind of piece that pops up everywhere, said Samuel Zyman, a Mexican-born Jewish composer and Juilliard professor of more than 30 years. “You don’t have to seek it out, it seeks you out,” said Zyman, who grew up steeped in the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Mexico City, attending a Jewish school, absorbing Yiddish and Hebrew, and visiting the synagogue where his uncle was a cantor. The song had sought him out once before, he recalled, remembering an inspirational video that was played when he became a U.S. citizen “to try to make you feel like you were becoming a part of a wonderful project which is this country.”
But in the fourth year of Trump’s presidency, that promise—and the words “America the Beautiful”—had never seemed more perplexing to a Mexican immigrant like Zyman. “It was horrible. To have this individual be the president,” he said. “The man is a white nationalist, he’s a racist, he’s antisemitic, he’s anti-immigrant, he’s anti everything decent, everything human,” he added. “So it was an odd time to be writing a piece that celebrates the beauty of this country. It was really odd.”
The “pernicious effects” of the Trump presidency were weighing on him and New York City was collapsing around him with staggering death tolls early in the pandemic, but Zyman explained that his variation doesn’t necessarily reflect that darkness, as some of his colleagues’ variations do. Instead, he approached his piece as an opportunity to express something about himself and his style, including intense rhythms, accents and syncopation. His music, he said, is tonal—or what lay audiences might call “normal”—and pretty immediately accessible. “My piece takes the basic ideas of ‘America the Beautiful’ and starts with a slow introspective intro and then all of a sudden it picks up with a tremendous amount of energy and excitement,” he said. “Once it takes off it doesn’t stop.”
Zyman patiently described his music and the concepts he was using to do so like the seasoned professor he is, lifting his score to the Zoom camera and gesturing at it, but he wasn’t quite satisfied. “I teach music and I teach music theory and I talk about music all the time,” he said. “The best way to convey what you want to show the students is to play it.” So he grabbed the score, pointed his laptop at his electric piano, and played.
“That’s my little contribution here,” he said. “I am a Jewish Mexican immigrant, I wrote this piece, and I’m one of many others who wrote pieces for this project.” You can have a motif like “America the Beautiful,” he added, “which embodies what this country wants to be, or wants to become, or sees itself as being, and to have it rendered in so many different styles by so many different people with so many different backgrounds,” highlights an astounding diversity that not everyone embraces. “There are still people in this country as you know who like to think that this country belongs to only a tiny group…and the rest don’t belong or are not true Americans,” Zyman said. In a way, this project is the perfect counterpoint that shows just how many ways there are to be American.
Kwon, too, wants that message to come across. “What makes America beautiful is the rich diversity that we have,” she said. She hopes audiences will hear it and celebrate it in the variations she plays this 4th of July and beyond. “The first step to learning about differences is to listen to each other,” she said. “Music teaches us a great lesson in that we listen first.”