Gateway to America: Using its PBS Debut, Peter Boyer's "Ellis Island" Marks a Milestone


Most of composer Peter Boyer's life involves working with music, not words. But years ago, when he was a decade or so into his career, assembling a piece about Ellis Island, he took a full five months to dig into oral histories-pure language, without any notes or chords attached.

\”One from the women in my research described staying on the boat for six days, in New York harbor, with only bread and water,\” recalls Boyer, a Grammy-nominated orchestral composer who supports the Helen M. Smith Chair in Music at Claremont Graduate University. An Italian woman who reached Ellis Island as a child spoke about being reunited with a father whose voyage had preceded hers.

And he remembers a guy who described America because the only country where you're not a stranger, because we are all strangers here.

Some spoke of the grandeur of the Statue of Liberty they might see from their ship's deck, or the optimism they believed arriving in the United States, or their ambiguity about having left roots on a single continent to be transplanted, like a tree, on another.

The words of those immigrants from Europe inspired a piece that continued to a long life after its initial performance: After June, Ellis Island: The Imagine America, inside a performance with Orange County's Pacific Symphony, was broadcast on PBS as part of its Great Performances series, an honor given to not many pieces of contemporary music. The work-presented near the end of Immigrant Heritage Month-was seen on television by even more than the many who've experienced it in nearly 200 live performances round the United States over the past 16 years.

In a period a bit of music historians have described as post-classical, few composers establish themselves through conventional means. But Boyer's path is both many less conventional than most.

There was little classical music in Boyer's life becoming an adult in Providence, Rhode Island, in the '70s and early '80s. But his mother-a teacher who was active in theater-played Stephen Sondheim show tunes around the house. At 15, Boyer decided he wanted to learn to play piano and write music, without a firm sense of what either meant. His grandmother, with whom he was very close, bought him a musical instrument, and that he dedicated himself into it.

Two years later, while Boyer was studying music history in senior high school, his grandmother died. Though Boyer had didn't have formal lessons in composition, he decided to write a piece-inspired by Mozart's Requiem-for a woman who'd allowed him to blossom as a musician.

Over the next few years, which involved graduating early from senior high school and attending Rhode Island College, Boyer listened to every recording he may find of the requiem-the term refers to full of for the dead-at the general public library. He studied scores. He wrote a piece, orchestrated it, and raised $20,000 for its performance, making numerous connections and alliances along the way.

The ensuing piece-performed with nearly 200 singers and a 90-piece orchestra inside a sold-out concert-landed Boyer around the cover of a special section of USA Today while he was still being an undergraduate.

As successful because the requiem was, Boyer had only begun his journey as a composer. Master's and doctoral degrees in the University of Hartford's Hartt School, private study with renowned composer John Corigliano, along with a graduate certificate in film and television scoring from the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music awaited.

Boyer has composed a lot more than 20 orchestral works, many of which have been performed around the United States, and broadcast around the globe. His 2010 work, The Dream Endures: A Portrait from the Kennedy Brothers, enlisted Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Ed Harris in the tribute to John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy, respectively. Boyer's Silver Fanfare opened the Hollywood Bowl's seasons from 2021 to 2021. Prior to this, barely 30, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios.

But Ellis Island continues to be by far his defining work, a minimum of to date; it is the piece his audiences are most likely to hear about and see performed.

The piece, which has adopted a political resonance lately, emerged within an era when immigration was much less controversial. Boyer, just like a large amount of Americans, had a strong sense that Ellis Island was a fundamental part of the American story, however it was not clear to him that it had a direct reference to his own. This was not really a voyage of private discovery, but instead a burrowing into what he saw like a central a part of American mythology.

Boyer had been interested in a far more familiar kind of mythology-Greek and Roman-for quite a long time, composing pieces on that subject matter; and the other early piece of his was about the Titanic, some of whose passengers would have entered america at Ellis Island when they had made it.

\”I desired to tackle some American subject material of consequence,\” he states, partly because their own compositional instincts were drawing from a homegrown tradition that included the work of Aaron Copland.

At the time, the passenger records of Ellis Island immigrants had recently been released online. Ellis Island received 12 million immigrants, especially those from eastern and southern Europe, from 1892 to 1954. After Hartford's Bushnell Center for that Performing Arts commissioned the piece, Boyer dove into the Ellis Island Oral History Project-sitting inside a huge room on the island and digging into a lot more than 100 lives-and was surprised about the scale from it. \”It's incredible,\” he says now. \”In 1907 approximately there have been 6,000 [immigrants] a day getting processed-a staggering number of people.\”

And while Ellis Island opens and closes with orchestral music, the voices-spoken by actors like Eli Wallach and Bebe Neuwirth on the Grammy-nominated Naxos recording-were essential to the piece's structure. \”The task became how you can produce a script that was compelling, were built with a diversity of voices, and provided a general architecture for the piece.\”

It was only later, in the research, that Boyer found that his Italian ancestors had entered the country through this legendary portal.

All through his career-before and after Ellis Island-Boyer continues to be driven by a sense that classical music can speak to a broad audience, and that it can be American in its orientation. \”We're all products of our influences,\” he states. \”And if you're a composer, you're in this very long line. However i became a lover of a lot of American repertoire.\” Besides Copland, he considers Leonard Bernstein and John Williams among his key influences.

Something all three share is the capability to write genuinely popular orchestral music. \”Contemporary classical music has already established a reputation for being daunting, something to become endured.\” But his music not just engages with big topics, it reaches audiences emotionally. \”I believe in the communicative power of melody.\”

It's a spirit he tries to bring to his students at CGU, where he teaches composition as well as a 20th- and 21st-century music class, American film music, and a course on Bernstein and Copland, American Titans.

In a feeling, an American composer of classical music is definitely an analog towards the immigrants who found america through Ellis Island: His tradition was born elsewhere, however it is here on fresh ground. \”We live in a time once the subject of immigration is becoming especially controversial,\” he says. \”I see Ellis Island being an optimistic statement, a celebration of the very important period in our history-a gateway to America.\”

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