Borders | John Muehleisen

The Great Bend Chorale and Youth Chorale will resume in-person rehearsals in Spring 2022 to prepare for a revival of Borders this summer. We’re recruiting singers! All are encouraged to join regardless of skill level or training.

Borders, the American Prize-winning commission by Seattle composer John Muehleisen, explores the question, “How should we treat the stranger—the foreigner—amongst us?”

Borders draws from many of the constituent cultures that make up the American tapestry. Scored for soprano solo, adult choir, children’s chorus, strings, piano, and percussion, Muehleisen weaves together European, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American folk songs with his own settings of the poetry of Emma Lazarus, Brian Bilston, and Alberto Ríos in a powerful and moving musical journey that explores the historical roots of immigration and the modern relevance of America’s identity as the great melting pot.

The work was inspired by, and begins with, a Salish Song of Welcome.

The Salish people—the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America—understand that making music is inherently an act of community, and as a result, their culture has great reverence for the power of song. So great is their respect for this power that there are rich cultural traditions (and taboos) about how and when and by whom (and with whom) individual songs may be performed.

Imagine, then, being visited by an entirely different race of people whom you had never before encountered, who look and dress very differently from your own people, wielding completely alien technology and an unrecognizable language—and choosing to sing a song of welcome to them! This was the response of several tribal communities from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state upon first contact with European explorers. The Salish knew that making music meant making community; that singing illuminates all that we have in common.

The recording below from our June 1, 2019 Shelton performance features soprano Tess Altiveros. This recording also won an American Prize for the 2019 performance season.

 

What is The American Prize?

In the classical music world, we have our own version of the Oscars. The American Prize (TAP) panel of judges is composed entirely of professional classical musicians at the top of their game. Our peers. While TAP may not be a common topic for general dinner party conversation, winning one can pave the wave for performance invitations at outstanding venues, recording contracts, access to national grant funding, and more.

So we were thrilled when our June 1, 2019 Shelton performance of Borders by John Muehleisen (the work we commissioned for our Carnegie Hall premiere) won second place in the community ensemble division of TAP’s Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of American Music. 

Of all of the TAP award categories, the finale prize, their version of Best Picture, is the Ernst Bacon. Taking silver in that category marked our performance as one of the two most significant performances of American music that season by community ensembles worldwide. And we thinking winning the award not for our Carnegie Hall performance but for our Shelton performance makes it even better. 

Read the libretto

1. Welcome Song

SATB choir, Children’s choir, Instrumental ensemble

Sopranos + Children’s choir

Oh ho, Oh ho

Oh ho, Oh ho

Oh ho, Oh ho

Oh…

– Traditional Salish Nation Welcome Song

Tenors

As a beam o’er the face of the waters may glow,

While the tide runs in darkness and coldness below,

So the cheek may be ting’d with a warm sunny smile,

Tho’ the cold heart to ruin runs darkly the while.

 As a beam o’er the face of the waters may glow – Traditional Irish Folksong

Basses

Fanga alafia,

Ashay, ashay.

Fanga alafia,

Ashay, ashay.

Welcome, blessings

Amen, amen,

Welcome, blessings,

Amen, Amen

Ikabo alafia,

Ashay, ashay.

Ikabo alafia,

Ashay, ashay.

Welcome, peace

Amen, amen,

Welcome, peace,

Amen, Amen

 Fanga Alafia– Traditional African Welcome Song

Altos

Arirang  arirang arariyo…

Arirang gogyero nomoganda

Narul borigo gashnun nimun

Shimnido mogasaw balbyungnanda.

Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo…
You are going over Arirang hill

My love, you are leaving me

Your feet will be sore before you go 3 miles.

 Arirang – Traditional Korean Folksong

2. Mothers of Exiles

a. An Irish Mother’s Prayer (1850)

Soprano solo, Instrumental ensemble

Soprano solo

Dear Patt,

I received your letter [from America] with the thirty shillings in our greatest of want. I hope God will reward you for it. The day it come, I was without one bite to eat. Dickey’s 8 weeks in bed, without a stitch on him, and my petticoat and coat’s all pawned.

Dear Patt, we’ve no place to lay our heads. We were lodging under James Street arch, but were put out of it. Then a few nights up in the Sconce, still without a bite. We’d be dead long ago, only for two neighbors that often gives me a bite, for God’s sake. Little ever I thought it’d come my turn to beg. No more would I beg, only for your father’s death. But thanks bit of God, whatever me or his child here is suffering, your father died and was buried the way he lived: respectable and decent.

Dear Patt, I’ve had not a penny. The blankets, bed and boots of my feet was pawned. You can’t know how we’re suffering unless you were in starvation and want, without friend or fellow to give you a shilling, then you’d know. But on my two bended knees, Patt, fresh and fasting, I pray to God that you nor none of yours may ever know, nor ever suffer, what we are suffering now.

Oh Patt, hurry and take us out of this. It’s the poorest prospect of a winter that ever I had, without house or homefire, friend nor fellow nor bit of food to eat. That’s my prospects. For the love of God, dear Patt, bring me and little Dickey out of this, as quick as you can. I pray that God’s Holy Spirit be with you all. You promised to take us out.

Your loving mother until death.

– Letter from Mrs. Nolan, County Kilkenny, Ireland, to her son Patrick,

 October 8, 1850 during the Irish Potato Famine

[T]here at [their] sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.

– from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883)

….attacca

b. The Mother of Exiles (1883)

SATB choir, Instrumental ensemble

SATB choir

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates [there stands]

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883)

….attacca

3. Refugees

a. Refugees

SATB choir, Instrumental ensemble

SATB choir

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way


(NOTE: At this point in the original poem, the poet instructs the reader to “now read from bottom to top.” For convenience, I have arranged the lines below per the poet’s instructions.)

The world can be looked at another wayDo not be so stupid to think that
A place should only belong to those who are born there
These are people just like us
It is not okay to say
Build a wall to keep them out
Instead let us
Share our countries
Share our homes
Share our food
They cannot
Go back to where they came from
We should make them
Welcome here
They are not
Cut-throats and thieves
With bombs up their sleeves
Layabouts and loungers
Chancers and scroungers
We need to see them for who they really are
Should life have dealt a different hand
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
So do not tell me
They have no need of our help

                                    – Refugees by Brian Bilston

….attacca

b. The Mother of Exiles – Reprise (Chorale)

SATB choir, Instrumental ensemble

SATB choir

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Give me your tired, your poor,

Give me your tired, your poor.”

                                                            – from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883)

….attacca

c. Welcome Song – Reprise

SATB choir, Children’s choir, Instrumental ensemble

Choir Sopranos

Give me your tired, your poor, (repeat)

– from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883)

Children’s choir

Oh ho, Oh ho… (repeat)

– from Traditional Salish Nation Welcome Song

Choir Tenors

As a beam o’er the face of the waters may glow (repeat)

– from Irish folksong of the same name

Choir Basses

Fanga Alafia,

Ashay, ashay!

Ikabo Alafia,

Ashay, ashay! (repeat)

Welcome, Blessings

Amen, amen.

Welcome, Peace,

Amen, amen.

 Fanga Alafia– Traditional African Welcome Song

Choir Altos

Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo (repeat)

– from Arirang – Traditional Korean Folksong

4. Border Lines

Children’s choir, SATB choir, Readers, Instrumental ensemble

SATB choir + Children’s choir

My country, ’tis of Thee,
Sweet Land of Liberty
Of thee I sing;

­– from America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee) by Samuel Francis Smith (1831)

Adult Reader(s)

The border is mighty, but even the parting of the seas created a path, not a barrier.

The border is a big, neat, clean, clear black line on a map that does not exist.

– from Borders: A Double Sonnetby Alberto Rios

SATB choir

We seem to live in a world of maps:

But in truth we live in a world made
Not of paper and ink but of people.

Which way we look at the drawing
Makes all the difference.

Those lines are our lives.

Together,
Let us turn the map until we see clearly:
The border is what joins us,
Not what separates us.

Spoken by two young children from the Children’s choir

A weight carried by two
Weighs only half as much.

 from Border Lines by Alberto Ríos

….attacca

5. Song of the Stranger

TUTTI: Soprano solo, SATB choir, Children’s choir, Instrumental ensemble

SATB choir

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,…

– Isaiah 11:6

Children’s choir

…and a little child will lead them all.

– Isaiah 11:6

Children’s choir, SATB choir, + Soprano solo

I was hungry, and you gave me food; [and you fed me];

I was thirsty, and you gave me drink:

I was a stranger, and you welcomed me;

I was naked, and you clothed me;

I was ill and you cared for me;

I was in prison, and you visited me.”

– Matthew 25:35–36, Romans 12:16

Live in harmony with one another

– Romans 12:16

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