Lee: “Amer’ican” Premieres

On October 29, 2021, the Detroit Symphony presents the world premiere of James Lee III’s orchestral work Amer’ican, conducted by Eric Jacobsen. Commissioned by the orchestra, Amer’ican was originally scheduled to premiere in April 2020; but due to the Covid pandemic it was postponed until this season. The 13-minute work was inspired by Dvorak’s celebrated “New World Symphony” and artwork featuring American indigenous peoples. The concert program continues on October 30 and 31.

Eric Jacobsen

Lee shares his thoughts about his new work. “Amer’ican is my response to Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony and partially inspired by various representative paintings of indigenous Americans from the eighteenth century. The work opens with imaginary, evocative scenes of Pre-Colombian America. This music evokes imagery of a couple of definitions of the Anishinaabeg/Anishinaabe Native American Indians from [my home state of] Michigan. The definition of the name [can be translated as] ‘Beings made out of nothing,’ ‘People created by divine breath,’ and ‘People from whence lowered.’ From this last definition, I drew inspiration from the indigenous tribes particularly on the East coast and Southern United States, especially the Shinnecock, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Wampanoag, and Yamasee Indians.”

He continues. “The orchestral texture continues to become denser and grow in energy until ‘The good humans’ (another definition) are created to full form and stature. Throughout the initial part of the work, the ‘Swing down, swing low’ theme from Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony can be heard quoted. This appears in various forms throughout the composition. The most prominent element of this work is a four-note motive A-MER-I-CAN that personifies the aforementioned 18th-century paintings of indigenous Americans. As the music progresses, there is a digression to Mesoamerica where the ancient ballgame Ulama was played in Mexico [in an area] in what would now be known as the state of Arizona. The music depicts the simple fun of the game, but also conveys the brutal aspects of a game with a hard rubber ball that many times provoked injury and unfortunately, for the losing team, would also be killed in a ritual sacrifice. The music that conveys the ritualistic human sacrifice grows more frantic as if to suggest a presentiment of a foreboding imminent future. Crashing dissonant chords follow, which represent 1492 and an American continent that would forever be changed. The softly subdued strings serve as a background for the mournful and soulful solo double reed woodwind instruments of bassoon and oboe. In 1893, a newspaper interview quoted Dvořák as saying ‘I found that the music of the Negroes and of the Indians was practically identical,’ and that ‘the music of the two races bore a remarkable similarity to the music of Scotland.’ It is for this reason that I’ve also quoted the Negro Spiritual ‘Here’s One,’ whose melody is heard in the flute with a particular ‘Indian/Indigenous’ coloring of sorrow. Soon after this, the opening material returns, followed by reminiscences of the Ulama ballgame in which music representing memories of unbridled freedom and exhilaration continues to grow into an explosive end.” Subsequent performances of Ameri’can follow in March 2022, when Rossen Milanov conducts the work at the Princeton Symphony.

Upcoming: next month, November brings two Lee world premieres – the Calyx Piano Trio’s world premiere of Piano Trio No. 3, “Tones of Clay,” at Tanglewood’s Linde Center for Music, and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski’s performance of Sonata for Solo Cello in Baltimore, MD.