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October 9, 2021
 

Where Western Classical Meets Native American Musical Culture

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: Bartok’s work collecting and transcribing folk-melodies had a transformative effect on his own musical style

 

Checking in With Composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate

By Robert Hugill

 

A citizen of both the United States and of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s music reflects his dual heritage, combining the Western classical tradition with that of Native American cultures. His work, Lowak Shoppala’ (Fire and Light), expresses Chickasaw identity through classical music theatre. Lowak Shoppala’ premiered in 2009 and the premiere recording was released in June 2021 on Azica Records, featuring Jerod conducting Chickasaw Nation Children’s Chorus and Nashville String Machine with baritone Stephen Clark, sopranos Chelsea Owen and Meghan Vera Starling and narrators Richard Ray Whitman, Lynn Moroney, and Wes Studi. I recently chatted to Jerod by Zoom to find out more about the work.

The Chickasaw Nation is a federally recognized Native American nation, with headquarters at Ada, Oklahoma. They are indigenous people of the Southeastern Woodlands and the Chickasaw language, Chikashshanompa’, is primarily an oral language. Today the Chickasaw Nation is the thirteenth largest federally recognized tribe in the United States with a population of 38,000, the majority residing in Oklahoma.

Jerod’s father is a Chickasaw lawyer and tribal judge as well as being a classically trained pianist and baritone, whilst his mother is of Manx descent and was a professional choreographer and dancer. This resulted in the young Jerod growing up on a diet of theatre, from classic to modern to ethnically diverse. He loves Irish musical culture and fell in love with Riverdance, and the way the work modernized traditional Irish music resonated with Jerod. He liked what they were doing and felt that similar things were happening with Native American culture.

A conversation with Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Posted at YouTube by New Music USA.

It was at this point that the American Composers Forum approached him with a commission for a new work. Their Continental Harmony Program was pairing composers with communities to create new works but using non-obvious pairings such as a Black composer with a Jewish community. In Jerod’s case, they suggested his own tribe, so a classically trained Native American writing music for his own people.

And just as Riverdance expressed Irish culture in a series of independent scenes, Jerod envisaged his new piece doing the same for the Chickasaw Nation. It just so happened that the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan had just composed a poem, “Fire and Light,” which encompassed the history of the Chickasaw Nation, and this formed the basis for the new work along with new poetry written especially by Hogan.

Luckily for Jerod, the Chickasaw Nation is prosperous and was supportive of the enterprise, and the first performance of Lowak Shoppala’ brought together choirs and a dance troupe from the tribe, and the designers were Chickasaw too, whilst the orchestra was the local Oklahoma Youth Orchestra. To a certain extent, this was all serendipitous, but the premiere at the Chickasaw tribal headquarters pulled the community together. The work is finally on disc, 12 years later, but Jerod has left the work unchanged (save for a handful of notes). He comments that whereas he accepts that some things can use revision, he largely tries to avoid it and quotes Shostakovich opining that if you feel you need to revise a work, then write a new piece. Jerod has a piece being performed at Carnegie Hall in June 2022 of a work premiered in 2005. When the 2022 performance was being planned, Jerod considered whether he needed to revise the piece and decided to leave it alone.

Lowak Shoppala’, Act I: I. Fire and Light–Richard Ray Whitman; Choir: Chickasaw Nation Children’s Chorus; Orchestra: The Nashville String Machine. Composed and conducted by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate.

Lowak Shoppala’, Act I: X. Shawi–Richard Ray Whitman; Orchestra: The Nashville String Machine. Composed and conducted by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate

Although the combination of the Western classical tradition with Native American musical culture might, at first blush, seem something new, Jerod is at pains to put it in the wider context and point out that composers as diverse as Debussy, Bartok, Tchaikovsky and Takemitsu were combining their own musical culture with the wider classical tradition. And that the combination of ethnic and national identities is something that has been widespread in the performing arts for centuries.

For the more ethnomusicological aspect of this combination, Jerod was very much inspired by Bartok, pointing out that Bartok’s music started out like that of Liszt, but Bartok’s work collecting and transcribing folk-melodies had a transformative effect on his own musical style. And Bartok’s processes inspired Jerod’s own as he transcribed Native American music. The process involves finding musicians who are comfortable with the process as Jerod has worked with not just Chickasaw but that of other tribes. He explains that the diverse tribes are comfortable thinking on multiple levels when it comes to mixing their cultures.

Lowak Shoppala’, Act I: IV. Minko–Richard Ray Whitman; Ensemble: Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe; Orchestra: The Nashville String Machine. Composed and conducted by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate

And the mixing of Western influence and Native American is, of course, not restricted to music. Native American visual art is more than 150 years old, with Native American artists working with the work of Western cultural icons and abstracting them; and of course, the materials contemporary Native American artists work with are usually not aboriginal but from the wider world. The same is true in dance, which in the 1940s and 1950s featured Native American ballerinas, including Georges Balanchine’s wife. Jerod comments that everyone affects everyone and that Native American culture is very robust. And not just culture, but other professions as well–there is a Chickasaw astronaut, after all (John Bennett Herrington, retired). For Jerod, there is so much inspiration to be found for the combining of the two cultures, and he adds that people are born beautiful and creative as well.

His work is aimed at both Native Americans and others. Every artist desires an audience, and he has enjoyed the variety of responses to his work, positive responses from what he calls Indian country, very focused on the Native American aspects, and diverse responses from outside. Jerod cites as an example a performance of one of his works, which was in the Chickasaw language, where a young Lithuanian woman was in the audience. It was her first visit to the U.S., and Jerod found her response to his music refreshing. He returns to the point that an artist desires a relationship with the audience, and this anticipation brings energy when creating the work in isolation.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate with Margaret Wheeler (costume & set design), & Linda Hogan (poetry) at the premiere of Lowak Shoppala’ in 2009

Jerod is a classically trained pianist (he studied at Northwestern University) with, as I have mentioned, a wide influence of musical theatre and dance from his parents. Initially his classical and his Chickasaw identities were separate. But he started to compose when he was 23, and his mother commissioned a work from him for a new ballet on Native American themes. To a certain extent her decision was practical: he understood her practice and method and was well placed to write music inspired by Native American culture. But in effect she was asking Jerod to be all of himself, to combine the classical and Chickasaw sides, something for which he had been unconsciously training.

The response was positive from Native Americans, but Jerod did not initially plunge in. Though feeling a responsibility artistically, he resumed his studies and added composition to his course load. From then on his music would focus on Chickasaw culture. Jerod started learning the piano at the age of eight, and three months later he announced that he was going to be a concert pianist. This focus of purpose was what he brought to his studies as a composer. But years later, he still loves what he does.

Shell Shaker: A Chickasaw Opera: Shell Shaker is the first chapter of the Native Opera Trilogy and this introductory video demonstrates its artistic direction. Shell Shaker is the epic Chickasaw legend of how we received turtle rattles as our primary percussion instrument in our music. This music excerpt is sung in the Chickasaw language and is a fully orchestrated version of one of our traditional melodies. I am submitting this in video form with the intent of giving the full visual impact that accompanies the beautiful drama expressed in opera. Posted at YouTube by Jerod Tate.

His current project is a new opera, Shell Shaker: A Chickasaw Opera, which is based on a Chickasaw legend about how they received the shell shaker as their main percussion instrument. But Jerod sees it as a classic hero story, a journey into an unknown place to discover themselves, so his opera will express Chickasaw culture in classical archetypes. The work was commissioned by Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra and premiering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst College on 4 March 2022. For the libretto, Jerod is working with Lokosh (Joshua D Hinson) as interpreter/translator for the original Chickasaw, but Jerod explains that traditionally Native American languages did not have poetry, so that they are creating something new. He has scored just over five percent of the opera and is currently “working like a mad man.”

Although Jerod has written large scale works with words, oratorios and cantatas, Shell Shaker will be his first full-blown opera. It is in fact part of a planned trilogy, with the second one dealing with a Cherokee legend. Also coming up he has an enviably large order book, including a new work for the Turtle Island Quartet, a new Violin Concerto, a work for the Verdigris Ensemble in Dallas and much else. He is also planning a musical theatre work based on the true story of Pocahontas.

He tells me about a Chickasaw song that he sings with his son when getting him ready for school, a traditional one where you go through the names of parents, grandparents and so on, and now this has found its way into the opera, creating one of the happy moments in the new work. Jerod enjoys the synergy of such moments–cool stuff like that makes his life grand.

‘Hymn’ by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate

One unique artistic result of European contact is the American Indian church hymn. As missionaries fanned out across Indian Country they became the first to document our Native languages and create translations of The Bible and other Christian texts, including church hymns. This lead to a new series of a hybrid music, composed by tribal citizens. For Southeast American Indians (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole) this hybrid style of music is now over 200 years old and contains a vast repertoire. The music is unmistakably Native and created a third category of traditional music alongside stomp dancing music and our old folk songs.

This work, entitled Hymn, is a reflection of my Grandmother Foshi’s story of our tribal members gathering for the last time, before the mass Removal, at the old Monroe Mission in Mississippi. The work depicts an ancestor singing the song in a traditional style, followed by the bass and soprano soloists, representing the minister and his wife, giving a final message of hope to the Chickasaw congregation. –by Jerod Tate at YouTube

From my understanding, this very hymn was composed during our removal to Indian Territory, now the State of Oklahoma.

Performers: Stephen Clark, Chelsea Owen, Jerod Tate

Narrator: Richard Ray Whitman

Conductor: Jerod Tate

Orchestra: Nashville String Machine

 

Choctaw Hymn 138 Verses:

Aiokchaya anumpa hosh

(The Word of eternal life)

Aya ka, ho haklo;

(Moving through, listen to it;)

Yoshobvt ilbvsha puta

(All mankind is lost and desolate)

Isht kostini yoke.

(Will be revealed to you.)

 

Ayo- shoba a kvnivt

(Lost in depravity)

Aiokhlilika yo

(And in darkness)

Il itvnowa hoh kia

(Though we may walk in life)

Isht pi kuchi yoke.

(You shall deliver us from it.)

 

Ai okchaya yoke yakni

(It is a place of eternal life)

Moma fullo- ta kvt

(Let the whole world proclaim it)

Ik chi; vba ai okla’t

(Those in heaven)

Achi mak inlashke.

(Shall proclaim it too.)

 

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Reprinted from Planet Hugill with permission of Robert Hugill. This piece was originally published in Planet Hugill on 18 September 2021. To receiver Robert’s lively monthly newsletter “This Month on Planet Hugill,” sign up for his mailing list.