Finding My Migrant Voice

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Bärli Nugent, Assistant Dean at the Juilliard School, New York, reflects on the journey that led to her curating a musical selection for a unique concert presented by the United Nations Migration Agency at the UN Vienna Headquarters on June 28

As a first-generation American on my Austrian mother’s side, I was a deeply shy child who grew up aware that my household was not like those of my all-American friends. We sometimes ate food that no one else did; my friends found my mother’s accent hard to understand, and yes, her English could be awkward.

But she could also be fearless and always principled. When we encountered segregated facilities on a trip to the American South, she defiantly marched our white feet into the spaces marked “colored.”

I was quiet child; hiding, watching.

Music was where I found my voice – with a flute in my hands, I discovered I could bring beauty and engage with just about anyone. Later, as a professional performer touring internationally for 20 years, my goal was always to share stories and change lives through music. And in my work as a dean and faculty member at the Juilliard School since then, that goal remains.

I attended an International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance lecture a year ago in New York given by Argentina Szabados of IOM. She spoke passionately about the modern scourge of international trafficking in human beings.

She quoted an African proverb, “Until lions start writing their own stories, the hunters will always be the heroes.”

Humanity seems increasingly estranged in a never-ending generational cycle. I am an artist-citizen seeking to make a contribution towards understanding and fellowship amongst peoples.

So this concert on June 28th in Vienna is my first effort to let the lions of music from countries affected by migration tell their own stories. Stories from Afghanistan, Austria, China, Germany, Iran and Turkey shared through the efforts of performers from Austria, Hungary, Japan, Kenya and the United States.


The composers

I first encountered the music of the late composer LIU ZHUANG when the American Brass Quintet, the first brass group invited to the People’s Republic of China in 1982, returned with some. A former faculty member at both the Shanghai Conservatory and Beijing Central Conservatory and member of the Chinese collective that composed 1969’s Yellow River Piano Concerto, she later migrated to the US to teach at Syracuse University and became my friend (her music a subject of my doctoral research). I perform her Soliloquy on a handmade raku pottery flute.

The distinguished late Austrian composer RICHARD STÖHR was forced out of Austria after the Anschluss of 1938, immigrating to the US, teaching Leonard Bernstein (among others) at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. While still teaching at the Akademie in Vienna, his youngest student was pianist Irene Schneidmann: my mother. She rarely spoke about the war years, but often about her beloved teacher Stöhr. I performed part of his Flute Sonata in December at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien as part of their 200-year Jubilee, and present another portion in this concert.

As administrator of the SYLFF* fellows at Juilliard (a group of exceptional students given scholarships by the Tokyo Foundation) and co-coordinator of the SYLFF Chamber Music Seminar between Juilliard, the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien and the Paris Conservatoire, I reached out to the Tokyo Foundation for recommendations of exceptional SYLFF fellows living in Vienna. The result was introductions to Iranian composer SHAYAN MOKHTARANI and Kenyan actress MERCY OTIENO. It was a stroke of luck that Shayan was about to begin work on a piece for soprano, flute and piano that will receive its world premiere at this concert; Mercy will present a dramatic reading of the poem Hour by American poet Carol Ann Duffy upon which Shayan’s piece is based.

Composer CEM GÜVEN is a first-year undergraduate student from Turkey studying at Juilliard. When I reached out to him, he too was in the middle of writing a short piece for flute and piano. When I told him about the concert, he altered the emphasis of the piece and named it after the three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after his family’s failed attempt to reach Greece, documented in a wrenching 2013 photograph seen around the world. This piece will also receive its world premiere on the programme.

In a recent casual conversation with Juilliard faculty member Philip Lasser where I mentioned that I was working on the programming for this concert, Afghani composer MILAD YOUSUFI’s name came up. Currently studying composition at the Mannes School of Music, his music has already been performed by members of the New York Philharmonic.

When we met in person just a few weeks ago, we discovered that as a student at Kabul’s Afghanistan National Institute of Music, he participated in a 2013 tour to the US in which I was instrumental in arranging a performance for the group at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center; I was also in attendance at the group’s Carnegie Hall concert in Isaac Stern Auditorium. He is also a poet and visual artist. He is unable to be in Vienna for this concert and will be represented in a piece for violin and piano. But he promises to write something for flute soon.


The future

I will present some of these pieces on a programme in September 2018 as part of the year-long observance of the Centennial of Juilliard’s preparatory education programs. I am in the early stages of researching more composers from countries affected by migration and will produce additional concerts of their music in the future. There are so many stories to tell; this is just the beginning.

* Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund




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