Sergio Barer Tells the Stories of Twin Cities Immigrant Communities

Before he was born, Sergio Barer’s father and mother both individually made the voyage from Europe to Mexico, where they eventually met as immigrants. This journey, and Sergio’s own experience with immigration from Mexico to the United States, inspired one of his latest choral pieces, The Immigrants, created as part of his ACF McKnight Visiting Composer Residency with funds provided by the McKnight Foundation.

Coronavirus protocols have prevented Sergio from premiering the full piece in the Twin Cities. However, on March 8, 2021, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Every. Last. One. presented a virtual version of The Immigrants arranged for vocal quintet for an event to raise awareness of the separation of families at the Mexico-U.S.border.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Sergio’s mixed Jewish and Mexican heritage had a huge influence on his early musical experiences, as he was surrounded by a blend of songs from his Jewish education as well as Mexican children’s music. His music education continued when he moved to Los Angeles as a young adult, and his private piano instructor encouraged him to take classes in harmony, counterpoint, and ear training basics at LA Community College.

In 1988 while continuing his studies, Sergio injured his left hand practicing piano, and the long journey to recovery led him to begin composing in the mid-1990s. “I eventually got back to playing with two hands, and by that time, somehow my ability to compose opened up,” says Sergio. “I had tried before, and somehow it didn’t happen, and I said, ‘Ok,’ but then something happened, and then BOOM, there it was–the ability to compose. My mentor [Rene Leibowitz], who I had come to study with, was very excited because he liked my music. I had taken composition from him, too, because he had studied with Schoenberg in Europe, and he could teach me the basics.”

A pivotal moment in Sergio’s development as a music creator was when he met Stephen Paulus, one of the founders of American Composers Forum, at an ASCAP conference. “He encouraged me to do choral music,” Sergio recalls. “He said that there was a lot of demand for choral music and that I should try that.” Admittedly not a singer, Sergio remembers the learning curve with his first choral composition. “I have never been an atonal composer. My style is more chromatic. But the first piece I wrote for choir, I heard it sung by a group of people that do readings, and they couldn’t read it on first sight. Then I got together with this choir, San Fernando Valley Master Chorale in LA, and we started talking about doing pieces. I started going to rehearsals and learning the language of the choral instrument–because it is a different instrument.”

Sergio’s oratorio about the story of Moses premiered in 2017, by which point he had reached a better understanding of how to incorporate atonality into choral music. He explains, “There is one moment where Moses takes the Levites and tells them, ‘Go kill your brother, your neighbors, all the rebels.’ This was a powerful moment. Three thousand people died. I did a very atonal melody for that because it’s not melodic. It’s not beautiful. It’s awful. Right? I gave it to the soloist, and he said that the melody was weird and wanted to correct it. I told him not to dare touch that. Don’t move one note. The command lasts about 30 seconds, but it was composed that way for a very particular reason.”

Moses was a clear reflection of Sergio’s Jewish identity, but he says, “I have two aspects. There is the Mexican part of me, and there is the Jewish part of me. And now the Mexican part of me is coming through.” Sergio has mixed these two parts of himself in the past, including the second movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2, which uses both Mexican and Jewish themes. But his more recent works explicitly focus on his Mexican identity, such as his band piece Echos of Mexico and his McKnight Visiting Composer Residency work, The Immigrants.

Sergio composed The Immigrants to help us develop empathy for immigrants and show them as human beings. As part of his residency, he spent time in the Twin Cities meeting with immigrants who had crossed the border from Mexico. He interviewed 25 people by visiting senior centers, markets, and lots where day laborers wait to find work. Then, he transcribed the interviews and extracted phrases to create the libretto and the major themes for the four-movement piece: “I. Why Did I Come Here,” “II. The Crossing,” “III. Work,” and “IV. Should I Stay or Should I Leave?”

“The first time I heard our ex-President say that Mexico is sending rapists and criminals…I said I have to do something. This cannot stand,” says Sergio. “I am an immigrant. I didn’t come here to rob. I didn’t come here to steal…That’s why in The Immigrants there is a section called ‘Work,’ because that is what people come to do here. They come to work. And they work very hard. After I did the interviews, I found out the structures of the stories were very much the same. They had a reason to come (“Why Did I Come Here?”). They came across the border (“The Crossing”). Then there is the work they did (“Work”). The last section (“Should I Stay Or Should I Leave?”)…didn’t occur to me until I was interviewing a shop owner who is Mexican…I asked her, ‘How does it feel living here?’ She immediately teared up. She missed everything. She missed Mexico. So I thought, ‘Maybe not everyone wants to stay here.’”

Reflecting on the conflicting aspects of his compositional style, Sergio notes, “We as composers in the 21st century, we are battling between the influence of the avant-garde of the 20th century and the rules of the 19th century, and it’s always a give and take how tonal, how atonal. I use tonality and extended harmonies. The Immigrants is one of my most tonal pieces, but there is a section where the harmonies are built on fourths, not thirds. I wanted something different for trying to cross the desert to cross the border. And I thought this could do that. It is a little bit of a contrast to the rest of the piece, which is quite tonal.”

There are a lot of assumptions made about immigrants in this country. We have become very skilled at othering in America, and there has been no shortage of fuel for our xenophobic tendencies. But artists like Sergio Barer are helping us all make the journey from assumption to empathy by creating a place of belonging for everyone.


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