This Land/Our Land: Q & A with Christopher O’Riley

We asked the host of NPR’s From the Top, Christopher O’Riley, to give us some background about his This Land/Our Land music video project, which brings together six From the Top alumni, all with immigrant backgrounds, to perform a new musical composition/arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” O’Riley and the musicians gathered in New York City, where in addition to recording and filming together, they visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

I envisioned a group of our immigrant From the Top alums, playing a contrapuntal (many-voiced) mashup of each their own National Anthems, culminating in a performance of This Land Is Your Land.

six young musicians and Christopher O'Riley with the statue of liberty in the background

Why this project, at this moment?

From the Top has been expanding its media reach enthusiastically into YouTube territory in recent years. (For this video), I imagine folks thought I would arrange some Radiohead for the kids. But two things conspired to make me want to do something positive and musical in the present socio-political environment: the Muslim Ban, and Lady GaGa’s subsequent performance at the Super Bowl: her insidiously brilliant incorporation of a populist patriotic song, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. It’s widely acknowledged that attention was intended to be focused on the later, exclusionary verses. (See the full lyrics here.)

I envisioned a group of our immigrant From the Top alums, playing a contrapuntal (many-voiced) mashup of each their own National Anthems, culminating in a performance of This Land Is Your Land. I felt this would be, with the incredibly high level of performance among our alums, a clear vision of what immigrant culture is contributing to our American lives, culturally, emotionally, moment-to-moment.

Take us a little deeper into the musical concept…

I drew, in my initial harmonic inspiration, from Guthrie’s own recorded performance, but Bruce Springsteen has also included, for pointedly political reasons, This Land in his own concerts. His harmonic treatment, the personal voicing of the chords, was a little closer to my own; inspiring, but in the end I took a completely unexpected path.

Anthems, by virtue of their primarily ceremonial nature, are meant to be easy to assimilate, remember, and perform, even as a non-musician. So there is a sameness to the four-square musical phrasing that is similar across a wide swath of cultural boundaries.

I hit upon certain duet-juxtapositions which I felt were musically aligned: Bella introduces on solo violin the opening of the rather sombre Bulgarian National Anthem, and I tried to set it in a kind of Bluegrass funereal, Ken-Burns kind of feel. That was most elegantly and eloquently played against the sinuous cello iteration of the introduction to the (pre-Revolutionary) Iranian National Anthem. There are, in this section, many subtle references to This Land, and other anthemic motives appear.

For the following section I was inspired to pair the spirit of strength, fortitude, and nobility common to the anthems of Ukraine and South Korea. It’s amazing, when you pick into favorite pieces – these anthems – how many different characters are revealed. There is a majesty in the Ukrainian and South Korean anthems apparent when sung in chorus, when split between upper ranges of the piano and tremolo guitar, a childlike playfulness is unveiled. This naturally effervesces into the giddy contours of the Bolivian Anthem, the sheer dance engendered by its twining with the Mexican Anthem.

All this time, I’ve concentrated on making the piano parts by turns soloistic, but intrinsically the vamp –the flying carpet – on which all else soars. It is the natural outgrowth of accompanying all the preceding passages/scrapbooks/musical quilts that informs the final piano accompaniment – a harmonic underpinning grown wholly from the interaction of the preceding sections and ethnic voices – that makes the final entrance of This Land so personal and particular to this work.

All the motives swirl throughout, culminating in a Coda, part Guthrie, part anthemic reminiscence, part new culminating colloquy.

Something special happened while you were all in New York together…

I don’t think any of us were aware, when we took the ferry, that this was the first time the kids had visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. To hear more from them, I recommend to you the solo interviews with Bella, Oscar, Amir, Mariya, Javier, and Jiji, all of which were filmed at the sites.

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