Where does a new piece of music come from?
In this case, there was a grant, a social connection and the spark of an idea inspired by news along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Reinaldo Moya's "The Way North" is the main work on a new album by Minneapolis pianist Matthew McCright. A composition professor at Augsburg University, Moya is a graduate of Venezuela's famous El Sistema music education program (the same program that produced superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel). With 12 movements lasting 40 minutes, "The Way North" is a substantial piece that tells the story of a Central American migrant making the perilous journey to the United States through Mexico, leaving behind everything he knows.
McCright premiered the work a year ago in Minneapolis and made it the centerpiece of his newly released "What Is Left Behind" album. A senior lecturer at Carleton College, McCright maintains a successful solo career, performing throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. "What Is Left Behind" is his sixth solo album. A previous recording featuring piano works by French composer Olivier Messiaen (released in 2015) was hailed by Fanfare magazine for its "superb musicality and feeling."
McCright and Moya shared their thoughts on "The Way North" in a September interview, weeks before controversy surfaced concerning the caravan of Central American migrants currently trekking across Mexico. The conversation has been lightly edited.
How McCright and Moya met
"I'd been touring with Reinaldo's wife [violinist Francesca Anderegg] for several years," McCright recalled via conference call. "So I met Reinaldo socially. He's very warm and friendly. I've worked with composers most of my career — we had a lot to talk about."
"Matt had been mentioned to me by Justin Merritt, a composition professor at St. Olaf College," Moya remembered. "Justin said 'He's one of us' — meaning a pianist who's interested in the music of our time, who's not going to program your pieces alongside Liszt, Brahms and Chopin."
How 'The Way North' got started
McCright: "I got a grant from the State Arts Board. Reinaldo and I had been talking about what we might do for the project. We came up with the idea of immigration — a very rough idea in the beginning, of a migrant journey to the United States."
Why Moya initially struggled with the project
Moya came to the U.S. with his family in 1999, later studying music at New York City's Juilliard School. His personal immigration involved no hardship, he said, so he wrestled with telling the stories of others.
"Is this my story to tell?" he remembered thinking. "Do I have a right to use the suffering?
"But I did leave my home," he continued. "I have that experience of feeling detached, lonely, out of touch with my culture and language."
Crucially, friends rallied around the project, giving Moya the reassurance he needed.
"They said, 'You have the voice and the ability to tell this story through your music. That is not something most of those who have experienced this journey can do.' "
How the story crystallized
The original idea was more geographically limited, Moya said. "Initially we were going to track the migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border up to Minnesota through the I-35 corridor. But the more I read about migrants, the more I started to see that there were so many things happening to these people before they even got to the U.S. And that was a story I wanted to tell."
On the joys and (occasional) pitfalls of collaboration
Moya isn't a pianist. He grew up playing violin. So he leaned heavily on McCright for advice about what was technically possible on the piano.
Mostly that process went smoothly. But not always.
Moya: "There were a few conversations we had. ... We didn't exactly butt heads, but there were times I said, 'Look, I really want you to do this thing.' And he said, 'Well, I don't have three hands.' "
Can you even tell a story with the piano?
"The Way North" has 12 interlocking movements, with titles including "In Transit," "Nocturne Atop a Train" and "Elegy for the Nameless." Was it difficult telling a complicated migration story with just two hands and 88 keys?
McCright: "I think it can be. But as a pianist your playing needs to be communicative and have a narrative anyway. If the composer already has a narrative in mind — as Reinaldo does in 'The Way North' — it actually makes my job a lot easier."
Moya: "There's a church the migrant stops at in the middle of the piece. I can't communicate on the piano that it has brown brick walls. And it smells like trees inside. But I can get at underlying emotions, so that the audience can begin to empathize with what this character experienced on this journey."
Does 'The Way North' double as political statement?
Moya: "In Latin America there is a tradition of what is called the engaged artist — an artist who is socially and politically connected. I proudly align myself with that tradition.
"The goal in writing 'The Way North' was to try to humanize migrating people, to present a more complex, complete and human portrait of who they are. To me that's the biggest obstacle to being able to do anything about the situation. We're very good at not looking at these people as fully human."
McCright: " 'The Way North' comes at a time when the immigration debate globally has reached a tipping point. My own hope is that the humanity of the piece is what comes across, as opposed to any particular thoughts, views or policies."
Is it possible for a composer to get too political?
Moya: "I hesitate to speak for all classical composers. But for me, politics is important. I think we need to reflect who we are and the world we live in."
McCright: "The sad part is that classical musicians — and other musicians, too — often fear that going too far in one direction will alienate audiences and turn them off the genre completely. But there are times when we all have to make a stand, and this might be one of them."
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.