New Voices Project Winner: James Tecuatl-Lee

Mar 11, 2016

Oakland-based James Tecuatl-Lee is San Francisco Choral Artists’ under 30 New Voices Project competition winner for 2016. Composer Jason Carl Rosenberg discusses Tecuatl-Lee’s “An American Midrash”, which SFCA will premiere in their concert series Prayers from the Ark: Songs of Lamentation & Jubilation.

Jason Carl Rosenberg: Congratulations on submitting the selected work for SFCA’s under 30 New Voices Project. The composition that you wrote for the choir is titled “An American Midrash”. It’s a provocative title that references the Midrash, the rabbinic literature of interpreting the Torah. Can you talk for a bit about the title and the text that you used?

James Tecuatl-Lee: Yes, I chose the title for a few reasons. As you said, Midrash is concerned with interpretation of and commentary on the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. Within this tradition there are 4 approaches, peshat (direct meaning), remez (allegorical interpretation), derash (comparative analysis), and sod (esoteric meaning). The texts that I chose to pair together in this piece, and the order in which I wove them together, represent a derash-like effort to use passages from Isaiah to provide commentary on Emma Lazarus’s poem. At the same time, I think Emma Lazarus’s poem itself can be compared to sod, the esoteric revelation of meaning. In 1883, when she wrote the poem, the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty was different from what it is today. It was a monument to the ideals of republicanism, and a symbol of friendship between France and the United States. It was only through Emma Lazarus’s poetic inspiration that the new meaning of the statue as “Mother of Exiles” was introduced to the American mythos—and this at a time similar to our own, when “nativist” racist and anti-immigrant sentiments were on the rise, one year after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. And that brings me to the final reason for the title, that I hoped the prophetic texts of Isaiah and Emma Lazarus’s poem would serve as a remez-style allegory for the present time.

JCR: Your bio claims that your musical language is “unabashedly melodic, and rooted in the extended tonalities of American jazz.” I wonder if you might try to describe your melodic and harmonic approach in this piece in particular and how it was influenced by the lyrical content.

JTL: For the two distinct texts, I used two distinct approaches. The setting of the Hebrew text was written in the style of the tropes used for chanting the haftarah (readings from the prophets). Here the melody is primary. There is some harmony between the two soloists singing this text, but there is no harmony part, they are both melodic parts, singing simultaneous melodies bitonally.

The setting of “The New Colossus” on the other hand is all about the harmony, especially two essential harmonies–one based on a 13th chord in certain inversions that I felt best portrayed the hope in Lazarus’s poem; the other based on a rich and dreamlike quartal harmony that has a sense of arrival. I think it would be a fun challenge to see if listeners can guess when each of these appear during the piece. It’s my hope that even a listener without knowledge of the theory will feel the intentions and understand the meaning at an intuitive level.

JCR: In addition to composition studies at Dartmouth, you also have training in piano and voice. This makes me wonder about your compositional approach–that is, how you build your materials and structure the work. Given that “An American Midrash” is a work for a cappella choir, what was your approach when writing the piece?

JTL: You are correct to assume that I used my instruments in my writing process. While I do hear voices in my head (which may qualify me as slightly unhinged), I often turn to improvisation on the piano and voice for the seed of inspiration. When setting texts, I study the history of the text, analyze the internal relationships between different parts of the text, research any musical history that might accompany the text, and then just let it stew for a while. Usually at this point I’ll have a broad vision of what I want the form of the piece to look like—the narrative structure of the piece. For this particular piece, the musical seed started at the piano while I was contemplating the halting rhythm and bold proclamations of lines 1, 3, 9, and 14 of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet. From there, one idea led to another, and the piece wrote itself over the next 24 hours.

JCR: Speaking of compositional decisions, much of the piece pits a soloist or soloists against the rest of the choir; the individual versus the collective. Given the subject matter of the text, I can’t help but see this relationship as metaphorical. Can you talk about this important characteristic of the piece?

JTL: This contrast is certainly a fundamental characteristic of the piece and is essential to the form, but I personally did not see it in terms of individual versus collective. In my mind the two complement each other much as the texts complement each other. I might frame it more as ancient tradition and modern rearticulation. On the other hand, the Isaiah text and the Lazarus text do come from the narrative vantage points of the individual and the collective respectively, and this was carried over into the music in terms of soloist vs. choral singing, but I don’t think of them as having an adversarial relationship.