Issues around immigration have been particularly prominent and polarizing over the last year. And ALIAS cofounder and former artistic director Zeneba Bowers says that the decision to stage a concert series celebrating the music of American immigrants was the direct result of the current political climate.
“I was hearing the kind of things being said about immigrants, the increased violence committed against them, and in general the word ‘immigrant’ starting to take on a negative connotation,” Bowers explains. As a response, ALIAS put together “Unbounded Creativity,” a series meant to “honor the promise of America, made manifest in the creative expression of these artists who now call this country their home,” according to the ensemble’s website.
She says that immigrants have affected America’s collective culture in countless ways, including the arts. “Every art form wouldn’t be what it is today without American immigrants. Our music has been vastly improved by their diversity of experience and culture.”
The “Unbounded Creativity” program features a wide range of composers, both in terms of geography and history. Contemporary composers include Chinese-born Bright Sheng and Norwegian-born Ola Gjielo, as well as Mohammad Fairouz, a U.S. resident born in the United Arab Emirates. The composer says he’s felt targeted in today’s climate, even as an American citizen.
Fairouz told the Washington Post last year that he was detained at a New York airport after returning from a recording session in Britain. He says his belongings were confiscated with no explanation given other than his "super common" Muslim name. Fairouz’s detention came in the months following President Trump’s highly contested executive order temporarily banning citizens from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Bowers says the program also features music from composers from earlier eras, like Béla Bartók, who moved to the United States from Hungary during WWII. “I’m annoyed by any kind of revisionist history,” she explains, “and I wanted to show that American immigrants have been around for a long time writing music for us — that’s something people can forget.”
Tuesday’s concert will end with a new arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Bowers points out that Berlin was an immigrant from Russia, and that Gabriela Lena Frank, whose Chinese, Peruvian and Lithuanian Jewish heritage prompt Bowers to call her the “ultimate American,” penned the new arrangement for counter tenor and string quartet.
After several successful concerts in the fall, ALIAS decided to expand the performances to include more than just music. Poetry by immigrants and about immigration will be read between musical pieces, and the night will conclude with a reception featuring food from a variety of cultural traditions.
Even though the idea for “Unbounded Creativity” was conceived as a response to political discourse, Bowers is sure to point out that ALIAS has made a distinct choice to make sure their concerts are not overtly political or religious. “We don’t have a political objective,” she explains, saying that the ensemble’s goal has always been to create a space that is welcoming and open for audiences.
And for Bowers, a concert celebrating the music of immigrants is exactly in line with the welcoming spirit by which ALIAS abides.