© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

American Indian Composers Go Classical

I would really like to see native America find that fusion that would create its own genre.

A small but growing number of American Indian musicians are embracing classical music.

Drawing as much from European composers as traditional American Indian harvest songs, the music and the musicians are getting noticed in concert halls and on reservations.

Composer Timothy Archambault used to play his traditional American Indian wood flute in private, strictly as a way to stay connected with his Kichesipirini Algonquin ancestors.

Then three years ago, he was invited to perform at the first "Classical Native" series sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of the American Indian.

There, he met other native composers who wanted to write music for his flute. Composers like George Quincy, who wrote Choctaw Diaries and performed it with Archambault this year.

Archambault says he's been intrigued by what he's heard from other American Indian composers at the Smithsonian gatherings.

"The compositions are intellectually stimulating," Archambault says. "They're not dismal, one-dimensional works. They've studied the Western tradition; they've studied their own American Indian traditions, which are dying out. You hear that merging with Western tonality and harmony, and that is intriguing, that is something totally new."

Mixing Identities

That's how it was for Chickasaw composer Jerod Tate — until his mother, a professor of dance and a professional choreographer, asked him to write music for a ballet she created. He'd been studying European classical piano and composition.

"I didn't mix my identities of being a classically trained musician and being an American Indian," Tate says. "I never saw that there was even a possible relationship between those two until I started composing. And that's when they came together in a way that made me feel just wonderful."

Since 1992, Tate has been exploring his culture through classical music, and his work has been performed by orchestras in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, New Mexico and San Francisco.

Tate compares his work to that of contemporary Indian painters who abstract cultural icons, such as feathers and horses. In his work, Tate recasts American Indian musical icons such as flutes and drums. Like many classically trained American Indians, Tate's gone back to explore his cultures. The combination of the two musical worlds, he says, has an unexpected benefit for tradition.

"Not only are American Indians expressing contemporary expressions like this," Tate says. "But they're also going back and learning their traditions very well, along with dancing and language. So they're both kind of moving parallel with each other."

Mixing European classical with indigenous and folk music is nothing new. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries European composers such as Antonin Dvorak and Bela Bartok drew from European folk music. And in 1935, Mexican composer Carlos Chavez wrote his Sinfonia India, drawing on his country's indigenous music. But it would take another half-century before American Indians began to embrace classical music to express their cultural identity.

In the 1950s, composer Louis Ballard was inspired by Bartok to write chamber, orchestral and choral music as well as ballets that incorporated his own Quapaw and Cherokee background. Ballard's work gained acclaim, and he continued to compose until his death in 2007.

First Nations Initiative

But much of the work of other American Indians experimenting with the two styles remained below the radar until the first convention of American Indian composers was held in Boulder, Colo., in 1994.

Since then, composers have received commissions. The American Composers Forum has started a First Nations Initiative, and some tribes have even funded education programs for young composers. The music is getting noticed both on and off the reservation by Indians who prefer country, hip-hop or heavy metal.

Mohawk cellist and composer Dawn Avery studied with John Cage and has played classical, pop music and jazz. She says she's surprised by how many people like the mix of native and classical.

"One of the reasons is that there is not only a great appreciation of the sounds of the instruments, but also an interest in hearing our traditional music represented in this way. I think people understand there is an importance to that."

But as she's become more intimate with her culture, she's also felt what she calls an emotional tug-of-war by honoring her ancestors through a culture largely responsible for their subjugation.

"It is tricky because I often wonder if I'll be able to always play cello. I've gotten farther away from typical classical music. As much as it's beautiful music, it doesn't move me the same way. It's a little bittersweet, but it's also very exciting because I have all these other sounds that vibrate in my head now that just vibrate with me better."

Back at the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian concert hall, Mescalero Apache composer and musician Steven Alvarez hopes the classical native movement will offer American Indians a new musical voice in much the same way that reggae and hip-hop have for their cultures.

"I would really like to see native America find that fusion that would create its own genre," Alvarez says. "It's reflective of who we are, not rooted in our past, but it's like who are we right now. I'm hoping maybe before I die."

Alvarez and many other American Indian composers say the new music they're creating offers a tool to dispel more than 200 years of stereotypes.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.