The Writing of “The Way North” by Reinaldo Moya

By Barry Kempton

Reinaldo Moya is Schubert Clubs Composer in Residence.  The Way North is included in a new recording by Matthew McCright, piano called What is Left Behind.  The recording and Moyas new work is featured in a recent article in the Star Tribune here.

In 2016, I was approached by pianist Matthew McCright to write a substantial piece for solo piano. I knew that I wanted to write a kind of narrative work; a cycle that would cover a story in a series of short interconnected sections. Matthew and I had initially discussed the idea of writing about immigration in this cycle. It is a topic that I keep coming back to as a composer. As an immigrant myself, I am inspired by the stories of those who have had to find a new home away from their country and culture of birth. I also suspect that through my musical works, I am working out some of the conflicting emotions I have about being an immigrant: how after a certain period of time, no place truly feels like home anymore. This feeling of emotional “homelessness” has fueled a lot of my compositional work in the recent years.

When I started composing The Way North in earnest, I wanted to tell the story of Latin American migration to Minnesota, especially through the I-35 Corridor. I did some research, and I kept reading that in some ways, the most difficult part of these migrants’ journeys happens before they arrive in the United States. My gaze shifted southward and I decided to tell the story of an unnamed migrant from Central America, through Mexico, and finally arriving in the United States.

The journey is flanked by two crossings, the first one is into Mexico, on its Southern border. The second is into the United States, near Laredo, Texas. The first crossing is easier, simpler as though unaware of the perils to come. The second crossing is treacherous, as the migrant makes their way across the dangerously strong waters of the Rio Grande.

Shortly after getting to Mexico, our migrant boards La Bestia (The Beast) one of the trains that migrants take to make the journey across Mexico. Many people fall off, are pushed off, or get dismembered trying to climb on or off the train. Our fictional migrant rides this train, falls asleep (which is when we hear the Nocturne) and is then awoken and has to run to avoid getting caught by immigration officials.

Fuga is a kind of play on words, in Latin fuga means to flee, which is what our migrant does in this whole piece. Also, Fugue is of course one of the main musical metaphors for struggle and conflict, so I liked playing with that idea. However, the fugue keeps getting interrupted. My thinking here is that the fugue metaphor breaks, because the reality of this situation is darker and grimmer than what an “academic” fugue can portray, hence why the fugue eventually runs out of steam and kind of evaporates. Metaphors (even musical ones) can’t properly grasp this reality.

Other movements along the way refer to a quiet stop at a sanctuary church. Las Chepas: Ghost Town refers to one of many such towns along the US/Mexico boarder that have become deserted because the migrants no longer choose to cross into the US at those points, usually because the US or the drug cartels have closed off that spot. This movement quotes from the song José Pérez León by a Mexican norteño group Los Tigres del Norte. This song is a ballad about the story of a migrant making his way across Mexico. He dies aboard La Bestia as he runs out of oxygen inside one of the containers on the train. I had a vision of our migrant walking around the deserted town, and hearing this song echoing on an old distant radio. As he gets closer, the song comes into view before it disappears again. An interesting aspect of the José Pérez León song is that it shares a motive from the opening song of  Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrender Gesellen. Mahler’s elegiac song cycle also refers to a wanderer seeking meaning amid a convoluted world. The movement brings together three converging stories of journeymen, and the pathos associated with their difficult travels.

The Elegy for the Nameless refers to a passage from one of the books that I read in my research, “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail” by Óscar Martínez; which describes the tracks along the Beast train as a “cemetery for the nameless” because of all the people who have perished along the way whose names we will never know. I thought that honoring these nameless victims would be a suitable ending for the cycle. Dreams of Flight, finds the elegy aloft. I wanted the ending to provide a ray of hope. To be able to fly away like a bird and be free and not have to worry about borders.


Listen to the piece on Spotify here:

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