Native American classical composers charting new musical territor

February 25, 2010

Native American classical composers charting new musical territor

By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

NOTE: The National Museum of the American Indian is a Tanka retail partner and offers Tanka products in all of its gift shops and cafes.

Washington, D.C. -- In the hush of his Navajo grandfather singing alone in the desert, Raven Chacon finds the subtlety of a single note. In the story of the Chickasaw Trail of Tears, Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate hears a crescendo. From a Mohawk clan mother's ceremony, Dawn Avery creates a string quartet.

These Native American composers and others are infusing classical music with their distinctive cultural perspectives.

While interpretations of Native Americans in classical music are nothing new, as can be heard in Antonin Dvorak's 1893 "New World" Symphony, a growing number of classical composers from Native nations are charting new musical territory, said Howard Bass of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

"It's clear that now there is forming a critical mass of people from within the Native communities," said Bass, who has organized the museum's Classical Native concert series in Washington, D.C., for three years. "Even some people like R. Carlos Nakai and Joanne Shenandoah have composed music that is symphonic. Clearly, we are witnessing an expansion of the definition of Native music."

Great diversity in Native composers

Native peoples from North and South America have performed classical music almost since first contact with Europeans. By the mid-20th century, the works of Quapaw-Cherokee composer Louis Ballard (1931-2007), such as "Incident at Wounded Knee," contained the complicated rhythms of Native vocal music. It was so complex, it sometimes challenged symphony orchestras.

"If someone really loves classical music and wants to play Beethoven, more power to him," said classical composer Dawn Avery, who is Mohawk and lives in Maryland. "But what we are doing is expressing ourselves as Indians."

She said there is great diversity in how Native composers express their identity. In some music, the motifs are easily identified. In others, a listener would be hard pressed to identify the composer as Native American.

"I try to break the colonial boundaries of stage and audience," Avery said of her Three Sides Taagi Classical Native Trio, which performed at the museum in November. In one of her recordings, Avery accompanies her cello with vocals, in which her voice represents birds or the wind. "In our last piece, some audience members were asked to come do a stomp dance. We are blending audience, ceremony and the artist."

Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate, who is Chickasaw, often weaves songs from his tribe and others into his compositions.

"There are sounds in our songs, rhythms, in our traditional musicianship, that I draw from and abstract in my music," said Tate, 40, of Norman, Okla. "Classical music strives for all input from every possible nationality. That's actually how classical music evolved, through nationalistic input."

Regional symphonies have performed and recorded many of Tate's works. R. Carlos Nakai, the prominent Native American flutist, commissioned Tate to compose a work for woodwind quintet, which debuted in August 2009, at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Nakai, who is Navajo and Ute, studied classical trumpet when he was young, until injuries from a car accident prompted him to change his musical course. He turned to the traditional cedar flute, and made it famous. Classical music, even though he calls it ambiguous and Eurocentric, has remained close to Nakai's heart.

"The classical Native movement," Nakai said "is an attempt by Native Americans to revitalize what remains of the old culture, to distinguish the [existing] cultural voice of ancestral traditions and influences of contemporary music within the purview of the Native composer."

Indigenous influences bind Native composers

Navajo composer Raven Chacon, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., believes that indigenous influences bind Native classical composers, though different composers will interpret that tradition into their music in different ways.

"I am not really interested in classical music, necessarily," said Chacon, 30. "What I do have is a huge respect for the classical instruments like the oboe and cello. I am completely interested in the way they work."

On his own, he sets up his electronics in the desert and plays noise concerts. In his classical compositions, Chacon prefers to work with single instruments, then distort their sound via electronics. In a recent piece, he placed one of his homemade microphones inside a piano so that vibration of the strings was amplified. Howard Bass of the NMAI explains that Chacon's compositions, often light on notes and lacking in harmony, are frequently described by classical musicians as some of the hardest works they've ever performed.

"At the end of the day, the pieces are still a melody and that melody is inspired by Navajo music," Chacon said. "Primarily, with indigenous American music, we are just dealing with the voice. The voice is almost everything.

"Even the flute music, that's maybe where Native people decided they wanted to mimic the voice. That's what I think I'm trying to do with these [pieces], is mimic the voice. The drum may be secondary, maybe it's more for pulse."

The barriers that keep Native Americans from becoming more prominent in classical music usually occur early -- a lack of access to music lessons, generally resulting from poverty.

'Now it's the Native Americans' turn'

Most Native composers working today had families who launched them into music lessons when they were very young, and they were encouraged through college and graduate school. Avery and Tate had parents who performed jazz and classical music. Chacon's grandfather, the only other musician in his family, is a singer of Navajo traditional music.

"I would say 20 years ago, there were hardly any blacks in orchestras," said Avery, who is a professor at Montgomery College in Maryland. "First blacks were targeted in educational outreaches, then Latinos. Now it's the Native Americans' turn."

Tate, Avery and Chacon travel to Native communities across North America to teach youth how to compose music. Chamber pieces by several of Tate's students were featured at last year's Classical Native concert series at the NMAI. But not all of the kids' compositions are classical.

"We are trying to teach this to our youth," Avery said. "They are so talented and they don't realize it. The kids will write anything, from heavy metal to string quartets."

The questions facing classical Native composers today, such as how to represent Native motifs while staying true to a musical vision, will likely be with them for a long time. As R. Carlos Nakai said, the composers will set the course.

"In an ever-changing world with the influence of others through... intercultural communication and education," Nakai said, "a Native composer will learn to integrate himself or herself into the world as it exists."

For more information: National Museum of the American Indian

Posted with permission from the National Museum of the American Indian.

Leave a comment

Also in BLOG

Tanka fans take a Scenic view
Tanka fans take a Scenic view

April 29, 2021 182 Comments

View full article →

From the farm to food security, Sacramento Co-op nurtures community
From the farm to food security, Sacramento Co-op nurtures community

March 17, 2021 72 Comments

View full article →

Happy International Women's Day!
Happy International Women's Day!

March 08, 2021 98 Comments

View full article →