Over an informal lunch in early 2017, Sergio Assad and I began discussing the tumultuous political events of the recent past, and the increasing drumbeats of tribalism and nationalism echoing across the world. Both of us, feeling rather helpless to do anything to stem the rising tides of fear and hatred, wondered what we as humble musicians could do in the face of such powerful forces. We decided that, as artists, our only positive act must be a creative one, and I asked Sergio to write a piece for me that would express our shared sentiments. We spoke about how music can be particularly well-suited to represent different cultural influences, and we wanted the work to somehow reflect the migrant/refugee experience. Our discussion ultimately gave birth not only to this piece, but to a whole series of new compositions for guitar in “The Diaspora Project”. It was Sergio’s brilliant wife Angela who suggested the idea of “The Walls”, conjuring up images of infamous historical barriers to migration and cultural assimilation. The work that finally emerged, scored for Solo Guitar and Guitar Orchestra, presents musical representations of four of the most recognizable walls in human history: The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall, and the West Bank Wall in Jerusalem. And an epilogue, “No More Walls”, comments on the current debate about the existential need for such physical barriers.
The piece opens with a portrait of one of mankind’s most monumental construction projects, the Great Wall of China. Beginning with an insistent percussion rhythm over a pentatonic ostinato, it is punctuated by repeated dissonant accents that represent the toil of the multitudes of workers who perished during its construction. The solo guitar enters with cadenza-like passages meant to invoke the sound of the pipa, building to a dialogue between orchestra and soloist. This gives way to a gentle passage in 5/4 with bell-like harmonics, and the movement finishes in an atmospheric tremolando section portraying the mists on the ruins of the ancient wall, with the solo guitar imitating the plaintive song of the erhu.
Hadrian’s Wall was built by the 2nd century Emperor Hadrian, in an attempt to keep the Scots “barbarians” from attacking Roman settlements in current-day Northern England. The movement presents an evocation of the Roman Empire by beginning with a “Ben-Hur”-esque solo introduction (marked “Epic”) that gives way to brass-like fanfares above a churning 12/8 pulsating groove. This leads to the entrance of a Scottish jig, with remarkably effective imitations of bagpipes and Celtic drums.
The Berlin Wall was one of the cruelest walls from the 20th century, a physical representation of the physical and psychological constraints of the Iron Curtain. It begins with a haunting 12-tone row, an homage to the dodecaphonic style pioneered in pre-WWII Germany by Jewish composers of the Schoenberg school. A brutal explosion of foot-stomps and cries harkens to the suffering of the East Berliners who dared to cross the forbidden wall, which then opens into a languid, ballad-like treatment of the 12-tone theme. Representing the muted sadness of this repressive period, tonality gradually returns with a disguised appearance of the “Ode to Joy” melody from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, finally blossoming into a full-throated statement of the glorious theme. The use of “Ode to Joy” is especially poignant here, as it was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein when the wall fell, with the words changed to “Ode to Freedom”.
The West Bank Wall is the only of the four walls portrayed that still functions to this day, and its strategic placement separating the Israeli and Palestinian populaces of Jerusalem makes it a flashpoint of contention and controversy today. Setting the stage with an Arabic-inspired rhythm and exotic scales, the movement begins the orchestra imitating a raucous Middle-Eastern band and the soloist bending and sliding pitches in the style of oudplayers. Hebraic counter-melodies enter, at first hidden in the thick texture, but then emerging to aggressively jockey for dominance. A chaotic section in triple meter alternates with the Arabic groove, each battling to take control, until a crescendo and modulation explodes into a jaunty horah; with energetic off-beat accents and the soloist imitating a virtuoso klezmer clarinetist, the victorious Israeli theme drives to a frenetic conclusion.
The final movement is an epilogue, with the idealistic title of “No More Walls”. Beginning with a ruminative yet tuneful solo, the piece settles into an optimistic triple-meter dance, exploring traditional hemiola traits of Mexican folk music. An ominous sustained tone in the orchestra begins to drown out the tune, as members of the orchestra form a human wall between the audience and the soloist. Building into a dark crescendo, military trumpet fanfares ring out and reinforce the oppressive mood. Finally, the soloist stands and plays snippets of “La Cucaracha”, which succeeds in breaksing the wall between him and the audience. Able to play his tune again, he invites the whole orchestra to join in and they finish together with an uplifting show of unity and hope.