(Global Heart | Esther Haasnoot) Coming to America Concerto: a homage to Lisa Swerdlow’s Jewish ancestors, who fled the Russian pogroms. An Interview with Lisa Swerdlow about her new album. She hopes the music offers solace for anyone trying to build a better life.
“I believe music can be a vehicle to healing our hearts as well as healing the planet. I hope that my music enters people’s hearts and souls and lifts up their spirit.” – Lisa Swerdlow
New music album shares the brave journey of her ancestors
Swerdlow’s America is a concept of refuge as well as a land of new opportunities. America can be the first choice for a new start, but sometimes it was also the last resort after losing everything. Her concerto tells a story of loss and disaster, which resolves into a positive message of inspiration, survival, and spiritual endurance.
“Last year, I started researching my grandparents’ immigration to the United States from Russia (and what is now Ukraine) in the years 1907-1910 due to persecution of the Jewish people. I reflected on the courage it must have taken for them to leave their homeland of many centuries, their family and friends, to sail to a foreign country they had barely heard of called ‘America.’ The music came to me, and I started writing.” – Lisa Swerdlow
In her own words: “I want people to find an emotional and perhaps spiritual connection when they listen to my music. I hope my music serves as a vehicle for healing the heart.”
An Interview with Lisa Swerdlow about her new album: “Coming to America Concerto”, by Esther Haasnoot
Esther Haasnoot: Between 1880 and 1910, more than two million hopeful Russians sailed to the United States. These immigrants, among them your ancestors, came from many places and for many reasons. The Coming to America Concerto — is your most ambitious and personal work yet! This new album is representative of your family as well as people everywhere who dream of a better life in a safer place. Can share with us the story that led up to the composing of this album?
Lisa Swerdlow: During the Covid-19 quarantine I found myself reflecting on my ancestors whom I barely knew. I actually have three sets of grandparents because my mother was adopted. I knew my mother’s adopted mother and I knew my grandfather on my father’s side, however, my father’s mother and my mother’s adopted father passed away when I was three and I don’t have any memory of them. I started trying to find out about my mother’s biological parents (who were also Russian immigrants) and that sent me down the rabbit hole of imagining what it must have been like to leave one’s homeland to come to a completely foreign country and start a new life.
First Movement: “Home of My Ancestors”
“The first movement – the Russian klezmer-themed “Home of My Ancestors” – tells the tale of life in the Jewish ghettos and villages of late 19th and early 20th century Russia in a global music style. Listeners will hear a hint of the cadences and ornamentation of Ashkenazi heritage. Life had its joys and celebrations as well as its fears, especially of the Czar’s army showing up to desecrate what the villagers most loved and valued: their traditions, their homes, their temples.”
Esther Haasnoot: Charlie Chaplin was one of the most famous movie stars in the world at the time. The immigrant experience was also something close to Charlie Chaplin’s heart. He drew upon his own background as an immigrant to America to give his characters a conceivable backstory. The silent movie “The Immigrant” was perhaps the most serious or most poignant role he ever played. How important do you think are the concepts of lineage and belonging in forming an identity?
Lisa Swerdlow: The concept of belonging to a ‘tribe’ of people that pass down to you their generational values uniquely inscribes in us, from an early age, our world view. Whether our lineage is a shared ethnic background, the bonding of a common religion, race, or nationality, I think it’s a place where we find comfort in our shared experience. My identity as a member of the Jewish tribe has certainly influenced my worldview. Even though my family was not religious, the cultural values, sense of humor, and belief in working for social justice are very much part of my essential self.
Second Movement: “The Crossing”
“The Concerto progresses to the second movement – “The Crossing” – evoking the transition and anticipation of what lies ahead. The ocean’s horizon is infinite, the future is unknown, and the past is already far behind them. I imagined my Grandparents carrying what possessions they could, living in cramped steerage quarters far below deck on a huge ocean liner such as the Mauritania, Swerdlow reflects. Wonder and optimism are stirred from the darkness. The music captures the journey: feeling seasick, longing for their homeland, and all the challenges of crossing an endless ocean bound for America.”
Esther Haasnoot: About three years before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor, poet and social activist Emma Lazarus was asked to write a poem as part of an arts festival to raise money for the statue’s pedestal. At the time she wrote the poem “The new colossus”, she was closely involved in charity work for refugees, helping Russian Jews who were trying to flee to the United States. One of the lines out of the poem is: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” To what extent do you think should an understanding of history shape our immigration view today?
Lisa Swerdlow: America was and still is to many a place of refuge. Not everyone came to our shores to escape persecution. Some were forced to come here and it was here in America that they faced, and still face to some degree, persecution. There are also those among us whose ancestors lived here long before the Europeans arrived. So are we a nation of ‘Immigrants’? Most of our ancestors did come from somewhere else wanting to start a life that promised them endless opportunities, and that is still the underlying belief of what America is. My Grandparents were not wealthy people, but they had heard that America was a place where if you worked hard you could succeed in life. Did America welcome them to its shores? Yes and no. Many Jews escaping persecution were turned away for various reasons. I am no expert on how to handle immigration in this country at present, but we are a far richer and diverse country for having welcomed people from all over the world to settle here.
Third and Last Movement: “The Arrival”
“In the final movement – “Arrival” – reality dawns. A new life awaits them, in a country where they don’t speak the language, don’t understand its culture, and don’t have any friends or relatives waiting for them. Still, as their ship passes the Statue of Liberty, they understand her welcoming message and feel grateful for their new homeland. “Arrival” weaves calm melodies of sorrow and builds into an exhilarating message of hope.”
Esther Haasnoot: No longer at home in Russia but not yet fully integrated into American society, the daily lives of Russian immigrants were driven by a delicate mix of success and alienation. Did you feel you have expressed these mixed feelings into your music?
Lisa Swerdlow: I believe these feelings do come through in my concerto. It took a whole generation before Jews started to assimilate into the greater society. They still lived for the most part in ghettos where they felt safe and at ‘home’ with other countrymen and women. Alienation has always been a theme running through the struggles of Jewish people wherever they settled. That was until the nation of Israel was established as a Jewish homeland. The Concerto was something that I believed I was channeling from my Grandparents’ experience, but that sense of alienation was not solely the experience of the Jews. Many other immigrant groups have felt that and many still feel that.
Esther Haasnoot: It is often not easy to make a new life in a strange world, the risks involved in finding companionship, and the worries of making ends meet in the face of a sometimes hostile world. To what extent do you think should an understanding of history shape our immigration view today? Do we have an ethical responsibility to provide a safe environment for those seeking refuge from violence?
Lisa Swerdlow: These are complicated questions that as a country we are continuing to grapple with, and there is no easy answer to solving this dilemma. The greater question is why are people willing to risk their lives to come here? What responsibility do we, as Americans, have as to how the conditions in these fleeing immigrants’ homeland have become so unmanageable, violent, and corrupt that coming to America is their last hope for their families to survive? Is there something we can do to help improve the living situations where these people came from so that they don’t have to flee? Many women are fleeing absolute terror in their homeland, and I believe there is a place for them to safely start over here. I don’t have the answers but I believe indiscriminately sending people back to a violent situation is not the moral thing to do.
“All Is Not Lost”
Esther Haasnoot: Your recently released track, “All Is Not Lost” touches on 2020 when you faced a cancer diagnosis; COVID-19 isolation; and Northern California wildfires near your home in the Sierra foothills. How are you feeling now and how did overcome your own challenges? What helped you get through this difficult period?
Lisa Swerdlow: It certainly was a challenging year for many people. I’ve been dealing with metastatic stage 4 breast cancer for 8 ½ years, so it’s something I’ve learned to live with, and in many ways, cancer has given me an outlook on life I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
Music is what has given me a path to follow through hard times and good times. I am forever grateful that my family imbued the passion for music in my soul from a very early age, and I draw on that passion when faced with life-threatening challenges. Last year shortly after it was discovered I had a new tumor (it had been 7 ½ years since the last metastatic tumor), I had to have back surgery to relieve sciatic pain I had been dealing with for several years. Five days after surgery my wife came down with Covid. I thought I was probably going to get it also and die, but I didn’t! My wife recovered after two weeks, the tumor was gone (thanks to targeted radiation), and my back surgery was successful! But in the darkest part of last Fall is when I wrote “All Is Not Lost,” because I needed to believe in survival.
Esther Haasnoot: Like so many others around the world, we have become more attuned to our values and priorities during the unprecedented and uncertain times we have faced in recent years. How do you experience this?
Lisa Swerdlow: I experience a lot of my own anxieties when faced with a planet out of balance. How do we bring our lives back into balance when it feels like time is running out in saving ourselves and the planet? Music has always been my vehicle for connecting with what has heart and meaning, and there are many wonderful musicians who are creating music that is very healing, and they are working hard to get their music out to the world. My priorities have not really changed that much, but I have deepened my commitment to live my life by what is truly important to me. I’m not sure that these are ‘unprecedented’ times in human history. But we are being challenged to move beyond our rigid beliefs and open ourselves up to a deeper connection with ourselves and others.
Esther Haasnoot: What is your hope and wisdom for this world we live in?
Lisa Swerdlow: I hope that the ‘feminine’ energy will bring us back into balance, as the ‘patriarchy’ is dying. We need to start practicing more compassion for each other, ourselves, and the planet. That is where I believe we are heading, though it may not seem that way. Ultimately, the power dynamics that have existed for thousands of years will be eliminated or else our survival hangs in the balance.
Esther Haasnoot: What are your plans for the near future?
Lisa Swerdlow: Right now I’m working hard on rebuilding my ranch after a wildfire destroyed parts of it this summer. I am excited about a concert I have coming up in November where I will premiere the solo piano version of the Concerto. I am still composing and hopefully will have a new CD out by the end of 2021 or early 2022. I plan on living my best life!
Lisa Swerdlow is a pianist and composer of classical crossover, neo-classical, and new age music. Born and raised in Los Angeles, her childhood home was full of music thanks to her father’s piano, accordion, mandolin playing, and his beloved RCA record player. Lisa began studying classical piano at the age of six, and by age 16, she was writing and performing songs on piano and guitar. She went on to study music theory and composition at Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods. Lisa’s early musical influences range from Laura Nyro and Carole King to Harry Belafonte and Burt Bacharach. Later in life, she was drawn to the piano music of Keith Jarrett, David Lanz, Eddy Palmieri, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Barbara Higbie and Mary Watkins. In the 1970s, Lisa performed in coffee houses on Fairfax Avenue in L.A. and went on to play piano in a rock ‘n’ roll band in San Francisco.
In the 1980s she performed at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival, and soon after toured Northern California with a ten-piece all women salsa band called Las Malandras. These genres have influenced her unique composing style, and Lisa has moved into more complex orchestration and arrangements in recent years. Lisa’s solo piano compositions are featured on her debut CD Equus Rising (2017), and Voyager (2018).
She followed up with Lasting Impressions (2019) and a series of singles: “Dawn Contemplation” (2020), “Carousel of Life” (2020), “Still Here” (2019), and the latest “All Is Not Lost” which released August 13, 2021; the latter two works pay tribute to her triumph over cancer. Lisa’s music has also been featured on “Falling Back to Earth” (2019), and the Mindful Music Association’s compilations A Better Life (2019) and Focus Zone (2021). Her new EP project, the fully-orchestrated Coming to America Concerto, was released on September 17, 2021. Lisa lives in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California with her wife, Lucie, their horses, and Tuxedo the cat. Lisa balances her time at the piano with beekeeping and organic gardening, which she has enjoyed doing for over 40 years. For more information or to connect with Lisa Swerdlow: Website, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify.
Source: Global Heart
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