Gramophone blog: thousands of miles, music in exile

If you’ve ever travelled abroad, you’ll know what it is to be an 'alien'

I’ve never really labelled myself as one during my life on the road as a performing artist, but believe me, I’ve felt like an alien more times than I can count. Scratching my head about the food, the transport, the unique national customs bound up in a foreign language (or one I struggle with having not spoken it since school…). For brief periods of a few weeks or even a couple months, it’s manageable, even novel to start a home from scratch out of a hotel room or rented apartment. But I struggle to imagine what it would feel like to completely relocate one’s entire life to another country, a foreign town, to live truly as an alien away from friends, family or any kind of familiarity, without much hope of return. For me, that would be a private torture.

That said, I must admit that I am in some way an immigrant, albeit a ‘soft’ one. After my divorce in 2012, I moved from the US to the UK - at least here I don’t have to struggle with the alienation of a foreign tongue. Back then I knew I needed change and challenge, but deep down I also knew that a part of me was going into a self-imposed exile. Anyone who’s been through divorce may recognize this. At that time, a part of me wanted to banish myself from my pre-marriage world, forcing myself to confront and own the loss of it all. And while I never once regretted my decision to move, the following months brought me precisely into the exile I had sought for myself.

Years passed, and a catharsis of sorts came in a curious way, during the recording of 'Thousands of Miles'. I’ve always been enchanted by the music written at the turn of the 20th century, melodies and texts filled with a yearning and a longing, and often a deep sensuality. Pianist Baptiste Trotignon and I selected songs from this period and added more from the following decades, hearing the progression of Weill’s own compositional style shift and change as he fled from Germany to France and then to the US. The theme of alienation came out of the shadows of the music to sit squarely at the forefront.

I see this compositional evolution on three levels. Firstly, in the early 20th century, we hear in the music of Alma Mahler, Zemlinsky, Korngold and others, harmonies and musical structures filled with a mounting unrest, a constant search for meaning within the music and poetry. In essence, it’s a sense of alienation from an absolute structure, an articulation and reflection of the unrest that was simmering in Europe in the run up to the First World War.

Then, in the Weimar period in 1920s Berlin, the effects of WWI were ricocheting throughout Germany, with hyperinflation and a deflating currency leaving a population in poverty, a people alienated by their government’s capitalist promises. Weill’s themes reflect this: an embittered society desperate for survival, poignantly illuminated through female characters who were forced to sell their bodies to live, women who are mistreated, used and bruised, but who somehow show hope and determination through the cynicism of their time.

Finally comes Europe’s darkest hour, when these composers with their Jewish blood (through birth or marriage) are forced out of their homelands, eventually making their way to the US. This was their new promised land, filled with hope and opportunity, but layered with a pervasive sense of profound alienation.

Zemlinsky was never able to overcome the transition, having been known and revered in his home city of Vienna. He died quite soon after moving to the suburbs of New York. Alma Mahler was no stranger to the US, having been in New York City with her former husband Gustav. She eventually lived her last years in Los Angeles, apparently unwilling to give up her native German tongue in this new land. Former Viennese child prodigy Erich Korngold found tremendous success in Hollywood as a film composer. And Kurt Weill arrived in the US with a deep resolve to absorb American culture and live within it as a ‘native’. He learned the language quickly, would seldom speak German, and was fascinated by the possibilities of the new sound on the block, a new thing called ‘jazz’. He worked passionately on project after project, always with the hope of being accepted as an equal among his established, American contemporaries.

I struggle to imagine what life was like for these and many other artists who left their belongings, homes and families behind. Worse, I think, would be the uncertainty over whether they would ever visit their cities and homelands again, and if they did, whether they would recognize them any longer as their own. What desperation, what courage must it require for someone to abandon everything they know in order to find refuge from the threat of harm? And what impact would this have on their own sense of identity, as an individual, a citizen and an artist?

Yet at the same time, it’s incredible to consider what so many of our countries have gained from the creative and industrious contributions of these aliens and immigrants. Our music, our architecture, our visual arts, even our economies would never have benefited from the work and ideas of brave individuals who had the courage to start new lives on foreign soil. And I see this album as a tribute to them, and the extraordinary journeys they took.

Kate Lindsey's album 'Thousands of Miles', recorded with pianist Baptiste Trotignon, is out now. To listen, buy, and for more information, visit: