APPLETON, WIS. — Fred Sturm’s latest composition, “Migrations,” is about to receive a high-profile, international premiere.
The commissioned work, which showcases 23 indigenous songs from 21 countries worldwide, will be performed for the first time Thursday, Aug. 30 by 10-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist Bobby McFerrin and the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) Big Band at the 22nd annual Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in Hamburg, Germany.
Sturm, director of jazz and improvisational music at Lawrence University as well as guest composer/conductor for numerous professional ensembles in the United States and Europe, has served as McFerrin’s arranger and conductor on three previous occasions.
“It’s the realization of a dream for me,” Sturm said. “Bobby is the most diversely talented artist I’ve met during my career and I’m honored to be collaborating with him.”
Sturm will spend a week rehearsing with HDR Big Band in Hamburg and then conduct the first performance of “Migrations” with McFerrin at Salzau Castle Konzertscheune. The 13th-century castle is the regional cultural center in Salzau.
The 18-piece NDR Big Band serves public radio for Northern Germany and is regarded as one of the world’s finest professional jazz ensembles. The group has performed and recorded the music of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, among others.
Sturm had been compiling ideas for a world music project for several years. Collaborating with a former student of his, 1986 Lawrence graduate Brian Pertl, an ethnomusicologist and manager of Microsoft’s Media Acquisitions Group, Sturm researched recordings from around the globe.
“We knew we had some great raw material to work with and we were simply waiting for the ideal opportunity to develop and showcase it,” Sturm explained.
That opportunity presented itself last fall when McFerrin’s management engaged Sturm as the composer for the Hamburg performance with the NDR Big Band.
“When we discussed repertoire for the program, I suggested the ‘Migrations’ concept, never expecting them to bite on it. They bit — enthusiastically,” said Sturm.
“When I hung up the phone, I blocked out November to August on my calendar and wrote ‘No social life for you!,'” he added with a laugh.
Sturm and Pertl eventually winnowed more than 2,000 indigenous recordings down to the final list of 23 source recordings. Sturm then transcribed, arranged, orchestrated and “re-composed” the material to create a two-hour concert showcase for McFerrin.
“The music we selected for ‘Migrations’ is typically centuries old,” Sturm said. “It’s pure, innocent, beautiful and powerful. Though the character and styles are as varied as the world’s people who created this music, there is a prevalent common linkage between the selections. Bobby’s improvisations and interpretations of the material I’ve scored are intended to illustrate the musical unity of the world’s people.”
Among the pieces in the work is an aboriginal chant from Australia, a Mbuti Pygmy tribal song from the Ituri rain forest region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and an Inuit chant from Greenland.
During the creation of “Migrations,” Sturm would send McFerrin a score and a computer realization as he finished each segment. After receiving the 23rd and final score, McFerrin told Sturm the work was “absolutely brilliant.”
“Bobby has two hours of new music to prepare for this premiere concert and he’s studying this new material all the while he’s continuing to perform complete programs of music with symphony orchestras, choirs and jazz artists around the world,” said Sturm. “He’s incredible!”
Perhaps best known for his infectious 1989 Grammy Award-winning hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” the first a capella song ever to reach no. 1 on the U.S. pop singles chart, McFerrin has appeared around the world as a jazz vocalist, composer and orchestral conductor. He has collaborated on recordings with musical legends Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and cellist Yo-Yo Ma and has served as conductor/creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra since 1994. He has scored several films and is the recipient of numerous vocal jazz performance awards.
Sturm’s conservatory of music colleague, Professor of Music Dane Richeson, served as ethnic percussion consultant for the project and will appear as drummer/percussionist at the premiere.