Seligmann and Yepmou

The contemporary musical work Bagatelle du Bayam Sellam de Nkololoun, composed by Archippe Yepmou, creates a narrative for Kurt Seligmann’s 1955 surrealist painting Migrants. When looking at Migrants and listening to this piece of music, a story begins to form in one’s mind. This story is full of intense emotions, footsteps, and daydreams, all of which are reflected in the music.

In the recording of Bagatelle du Bayam Sellam de Nkololoun the notes of the piano, which is played by the composer Archippe Yepmou, bring to mind the sound of footsteps. The piece begins with the sound of these footsteps in unison, as if in a march. Then, the sound turns into a rumbling motion in the low range of the piano, now resembling a stampede of people fleeing rather than an organized march. These are the steps taken by the tired feet of people who are emigrating during the Second World War, fleeing from their old lives full of death and uncertainty in search of a new world that promises hope and security.

Each footstep plays a different role, and is represented by different notes on the keyboard. The lowest notes with the most robust and deep timbre might be thought of as the steps of the largest figure in Migrants. This figure, who is in the foreground of the image, appears to be leading the group. We get a glimpse of one of his tired feet, and hear the notes in the low range of the piano as he takes yet another step forward. The drone of the lowest notes in the music represents his footsteps, which, along with the dull colors of his clothing, set a sad tone. These footstep-like notes are constant throughout the music, reiterating the idea that he is the leader. The fact that he is the only figure without any color other than grey coincides with the tone of his steps and shows just how tired he must be from being leader throughout the group’s hard travels. Although this leading figure may be associated with the monotonous tone in both the music and the painting, there is another figure that balances this dullness.

The figure at the far left of Migrants, meant to be a child, appears playful, with his musical instrument and happy footsteps. Perhaps the notes in the highest range of the Bagatelle represent these lighter steps; their bright sound resembles a happy, energetic skip. These notes create a melody that jumps up and down the scale, in the same manner as the child might jump from one stepping-stone to the next. The lighthearted tones of the child’s footsteps give the impression that this figure is excited to be leaving his old life behind, almost as if it is his next big adventure. However, the adult figures with their heavier footsteps seem not as willing to accept their new fate.

The child stands out from the rest of the group due to the fact that he is the only one without any type of headdress. There is nothing weighing this figure down, allowing him to happily skip towards their new destination. Although the cheerful notes of the piano, representing the child’s footsteps, give off a sense happiness and enthusiasm, the combination of his melody in the high range and the minor aspect of the leader’s steps in the lower range creates a feeling of dissonance and uneasiness. This feeling of apprehension is intensified when the enthusiastic melody of the child’s steps begins to hesitate, and are then transformed completely.

The lighthearted steps appear to have led the child, and the rest of the group, into a dream-like world. Instead of skipping from one note to the next, the melody uses notes from the whole-tone scale giving both the music and Migrants a mystical feeling. The figures appear to be daydreaming; they have entered a world of their own imaginations, escaping their past and the barren landscape that surrounds them. The painting, during the daydream sequence in the music, becomes overtly surreal and its dreamlike qualities become even more evident. The reoccurring progression up and down the scale in the Bagatelle’s daydream section brings attention to the swirling and writhing mass of clothing and abstracted body parts in the center of Migrants. The happy skips of the child and tired steps of the adults turn violent as the texture of the music intensifies and the daydream, which has now turned into a nightmare, continues. The thick mass of fabric in the center convulses, appearing to engulf the figures entirely; suffocating them, changing them from people into a walking group of clothing.

This daydream turned nightmare is short-lived, and the footsteps continue on with their march in a much more urgent manner. The tempo of the music has increased significantly, suggesting the group’s footsteps have progressed into a run. The music also grows slightly louder, reminding us once again of the urgency this group is now feeling. Moreover, the harmony of this section moves beyond the home key, perhaps suggesting the migrants’ distance from home. The notes, representing the footsteps of the adults, have moved higher in range, but their tone clashes even more with that of the child’s, intensifying the prior feeling of dissonance. This dissonance paired with both the increased tempo and loudness conveys a feeling of uneasiness.
This apprehension is reflected in the chord progression towards the end of Bagatelle du Bayam Sellam de Nkololoun; it is not as consistent as before. It appears as though there is more hesitation and pauses between the notes played on the piano, making it seem as if the figures are becoming more reluctant to take their next steps. Perhaps they are starting to doubt themselves. Where are they going? What is waiting for them on the other side? The lack of stability in the end of the music is mirrored by the emptiness surrounding the figures in Migrants. They are completely alone, with no end in sight, and are uncertain of what their future holds.

Bagatelle du Bayam Sellam de Nkololoun has created a narrative that complements Migrants in many different ways. Both pieces have subtly dissonant undertones, which do not become noticeable until the two are paired together. These hints at a darker meaning allow the viewer to understand the despair the figures in Migrants are feeling, and they help the listener catch on to the urgent and almost frightening undertones in Bagatelle du Bayam Sellam de Nkololoun.

Alyson Walbridge

For more information on this composer see https://musopen.org/music/composer/archippe-yepmou/

To return to the home page for Migrants, click here.

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