Two guitarists sit on a bench in the center of a sunlit room with tiled floors and high ceilings, Ellis Island’s Great Hall. Aside from the musicians, the room — which was once full of immigrants entering the U.S. — is empty. As the guitarists’ notes multiply, a woman sings the words “yearning to breathe free” — text from Emma Lazarus’s poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
This scene marks the beginning of a film called “Scenes from Ellis Island and Stories in the Margins.” This film is part of an exhibit at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media of the same name. The exhibit combines music composed by School of Music guitar professor Benjamin Verdery and film created by Center for Collaborative Arts and Media film advisor Aaron Peirano Garrison ’19.
The exhibit’s opening event will occur on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 6 p.m. as part of the CCAM’s Wednesday Wisdom series. Yale Divinity School professor Yii-Jan Lin and New Haven artist Kwadwo Adae will join Verdery and Peirano Garrison to discuss how art relates to the history and current status of American immigration. Lin specializes in race, religion and American immigration history, and several of Adae’s works are on view in the exhibit. His mural — which depicts 14 women of various backgrounds holding lamps like the Statue of Liberty — is central to Peirano Garrison’s film.
Verdery originally wrote “Scenes on Ellis Island” in 1992, upon a commission for Lou Manarino’s Staten Island-local high school guitar ensemble. The piece is inspired by Ellis Island’s reputation as the “Island of Hope, Island of Tears.”
“I was particularly moved by various photographs of people in whose eyes I saw such hardship,” Verdery said. “So many were hoping and dreaming of a better future life here in America.”
In 2019, Verdery decided to rerecord the piece. The new recording reflected an understanding that the Statue of Liberty was not all-welcoming, as Verdery had previously believed. Current events led Verdery to question the idealistic notion of the American “melting pot.” He wanted his piece to reflect the current ideological status of American immigration.
The original piece was written for guitar orchestra. This new incarnation features only two guitarists: Verdery and Simon Powis MUS ’08 ’10 ’14, along with cellist Guilherme Nardelli Monegatto MUS ‘20 and Malian singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté.
While the original incorporated spoken word poetry, parts of the piece include collages of voices. These are the voices of Yale students and New Haven locals — the voices speak in different languages, all at the same time.
The music itself, although primarily classical, blends multiple genres, incorporating Baroque harmonies and East Indian rhythms.
Peirano Garrison, who specializes in documentary filmmaking, created a 16-minute film to visually supplement the composition’s meaning.
When Verdery and School of Music lead sound engineer Matt LeFevre approached Peirano Garrison about bringing the project to the CCAM, Peirano Garrison immediately agreed.
“I was in tears listening to the piece, it was so moving,” Peirano Garrison said.
He and Verdery wanted to place their work in conversation with current events, and contrast the welcoming rhetoric surrounding histories of Ellis Island and the not-so-welcoming nature of modern immigration politics.
“Was Ellis Island actually representative of a welcoming United States, or just a welcoming border to a sea of white faces?” Peirano Garrison asked.
Peirano Garrison filmed some scenes on Ellis Island and others in New Haven. The New Haven segment features Adae’s mural, called “Mothers, Daughters and Sisters of the Firelight,” which sits on the Hamden–New Haven border. Adae finished the work, which spans 18 by 108 feet, in 2018. It took six months and the help of over 140 community members. Adae said that “Anytime someone walked by, I handed them a brush.”
Adae hopes that the mural and the project help “people see the value of working together and maintaining collaborations between artists and communities,” he said.
At the end of the film, Diabaté’s voice returns. This time, she improvises in Bamana, her native language. At first, Verdery and Peirano Garrison did not understand what she was singing.
“[Her singing] is really arresting and so emotional,” Verdery said. “When we found out what she was singing, the lyrics were astoundingly powerful.”
The lyrics’ translation begins with “Oh, my family / Africans are exhausted” and ends with “if you are poor, you can never achieve your dreams.”
This sentiment, which provides a counternarrative to established perceptions of the Statue of Liberty, represents some of the multimedia project’s themes.
“It’s a hesitancy to celebrate but willingness to hope,” Peirano Garrison said. “She raises a banner for those who can’t raise a banner to themselves. How can you welcome people who come to have zero mobility?”
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org