Saturday 18 September 2021

Combining Western classical with Native American musical culture: I chat to composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate

Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate: Lowak Shoppala' - premiere in 2009
Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate: Lowak Shoppala' - premiere in 2009 

The composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate is both a citizen of the USA and the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and his music reflects this 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 StudiI 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 modernised traditional Irish music resonated with Jerod. He liked what they were doing and felt that similar things were happening with Native American culture.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate at the recording sessions for Lowak Shoppala'
Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate at the recording sessions for Lowak Shoppala'

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 (bar a handful of notes). He comments that whilst he accepts that some things can use revision, he largely tries to avoid it and quotes Shostakovich who said 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 and the 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.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate: Lowak Shoppala' - recording session
Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate: Lowak Shoppala' - recording session

Whilst the combination of the Western classical tradition with Native American musical culture might, at first sight, 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, and he explains that the diverse tribes are comfortable thinking on multiple levels when it comes to mixing their cultures.

And the mixing of Western influence and Native American is, of course, not restricted to music. Native American visual art is over 150 years old, with Native American artists working with the work of Western cultural icons and abstracting them, and of course, the materials that contemporary Native American artists work with are usually not aboriginal but from the wider world. The same is true in dance, where choreographer Martha Graham was a big influence, whilst in the 1940s and 1950s, there were 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, other professions, there is a Chickasaw astronaut. 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, after all, 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 USA, 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 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 that he had been unconsciously training for.

The response was positive from Native Americans, but Jerod did not initially plunge in, he felt he had a responsibility artistically, but then he resumed his studies and added composition to his study. 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, and it was this focus of purpose that he brought to his studies as a composer. But years later, he still loves what he does.

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 (John 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 50% of the work and is currently 'working like a mad man'.

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 make his life grand.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate
Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate

Whilst 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 music theatre work based on the accurate story of Pocahontas. He feels both lucky and grateful to have so much new work, but he has to concentrate on one work at a time.

Another exciting venture ahead is his time as composer in residence at the Alba Music Festival which is North of Milan in Italy, something he describes as exciting and amazing.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate: Lowak Shoppala'  -  Chickasaw Nation Children's Chorus, Nashville String Machine, Stephen Clark, Chelsea Owen, Meghan Vera Starling, Richard Ray Whitman, Lynn Moroney, Wes Studi, conductor Jerod Tate - Azica Records [available from Amazon, Spotify]

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