Melisa Tien’s “Swell” is Where Immigrant Journeys Meet

Words have always come easy to playwright, lyricist, and librettist Melisa Tien, creator and producer of the song cycle project Swell. When she was in kindergarten, her teachers pulled her out of recess and gave her books to read. “They would sit and make me read for whatever the time was–maybe 15 minutes, but for me, it seemed like an eternity,” Melisa remembers. Initially, Melisa thought it was some type of punishment, but she realized later that they were trying to see how much she could comprehend.

Swell is a collaborative song cycle project that invites artists with immigrant backgrounds to compose a song that helps tell the story of their relationship with immigration in America. Leyna Marika Papach, a 2019 Minnesota Music Creator Award winner (formerly Minnesota Emerging Composer Awards), participated in the first incarnation of the cycle and introduced us to this project. And this Friday, March 12, at 12PM CST, Melisa and three of her collaborators–Justine F. Chen, Or Matias, and Izzi Ramkissoon–will join us in conversation about the project (Register Here).

Melisa’s parents moved to the United States from Taiwan in the ’70s to pursue advanced degrees. Her mother moved out first to get her Masters at Boston University, and her father followed to study Political Science at Columbia University, though he had to leave the program because of a lack of funding for immigrant students. Her mother, however, was eventually able to receive her Ph.D. after moving to California, where Melisa was born.

Melisa Tien and her family at Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day) in Taiwan--Photo courtesy of the artist

Melisa Tien and her family at Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day) in Taiwan–Photo courtesy of the artist

Her family then made their way to Los Angeles, where her mom taught nursing at UCLA during the day, and her father worked at the post office at night. Melisa’s grandmother, Chou Chi Lee, became her primary caretaker during this time. “When I was about 1 or 2, apparently I went to Taiwan to go live with my grandmother because it was too much to handle, with my mom and my dad’s work schedule, to have two kids,” she recalled, and added, “This whole period of time that I spent in Taiwan with my grandmother, I think I must have bonded with her because she and I came back from Taiwan and I think I always remained close with her. I don’t have a memory of growing up without my grandmother. In my life history, I think of her as the most influential person.”

Melisa and her grandmother had a very close relationship until she passed just about a year ago. And although she has written about her family in abstract ways, she hasn’t yet told that story.

One of the earliest plays that Melisa wrote was about a Taiwanese family. That experience, and the reaction to the piece, led her to explore other stories. “My feeling around that time was that I wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted and was a little fearful early on that if I kept writing about Taiwanese-Americans that I would only be allowed to write about Taiwanese-Americans going forward. It wasn’t as important for me to do that. It might be important for someone who grew up in an area where they were the only Taiwanese American family,” she explained. Melisa grew up in Southern California on the Pacific Rim, where there were immigrants from everywhere, and it was very typical to be around people from different countries. Her experience felt normalized in that environment, and she had many Taiwanese-American friends who validated her experience.

Melisa Tien with her grandmother, Chou Chi Lee--Photo courtesy of the artist

Melisa Tien with her grandmother, Chou Chi Lee–Photo courtesy of the artist

When Melisa moved to New York, she found a different world than the one she grew up in on the West Coast. “When you are in a big city on the West Coast, there is the feeling of more of an Asian American community because you are on the Pacific Rim. But in New York, there is a lot here that just isn’t in people’s consciousness, and I want to raise these things in people’s consciousness…I didn’t realize how much it meant to me to be an immigrant.”

A few years ago, a friend invited Melisa to attend the Resonant Bodies festival at Roulette one evening where Haitian-American artist Nathalie Joachim was performing. “She was playing this piece and I was so taken with it. It was bringing me so many thoughts and memories from Taiwan,” she recalls. “Haiti, you know, is an island nation, and Taiwan is an island nation. There is something about that, maybe, connective tissue…” The piece was about Nathalie’s memories of Haiti and the women on the island. She talked about the experience of visiting the village where her parents grew up, and so much of this reminded Melisa of her grandmother. “It was such a sudden and quick connection that I was compelled to see whether there were other composers of new music that composed like that because it seemed so different from what others were doing in that realm.”

Melisa’s search was pretty tricky. Eventually, she thought it would be great to have a festival for people who identified as immigrants or who grew in an immigrant household. Melisa applied to do a project with HERE in New York to shepherd artists through a 1-2 year development process. They denied her application for the program, but told her they would provide her with the space to put on this festival herself. But there was no funding attached.

I didn’t realize how much it meant to me to be an immigrant.

Melisa was hesitant. “I had produced my work as a playwright, but I had never produced anything on the scale that I had wished it to be.” Melisa decided that the best way to manage this project was to do an initial two-day Swell Workshop. She emptied her savings, and a small stipend to the composers was complemented with a good recording and video documentation of their work. Additionally, Melisa would be able to use this documentation to get funding for a full production of Swell.


Now with funds from the City of New York, Melisa is bringing Swell back with a virtual program featuring works from 25 composers with backgrounds from Taiwan, Israel, Trinidad, and many other places worldwide, sharing their immigrant stories as part of this unique song cycle project.  From March 17-21, these artists will present this timely piece featuring many musical approaches demonstrating the vast diversity of the American immigrant experience. Swell is the space where all of these journeys meet.