A conversation with
Frank J. Oteri
at the American Indian Community House Art Gallery (New York, NY)
October 17, 2008—11:00 a.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Videotaped by Randy Nordschow
Photos by Alana Rothstein
Video presentation by
To Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, it seems perfectly natural to compose orchestral works which combine traditional musical material from the Chickasaw and other Native American tribes with such old-fashioned formal devices as fugues and sonata form. The Native American part comes from being taken to pow-wows and other Native American gatherings by his Chickasaw father. But his father is also a concert pianist, and hearing his father play the classical literature while growing up also explains Tate’s affinity for the machinations of the standard repertoire: “By all standards, I am conservative in what I do. I am influenced by a lot of composers from the past, and I love being in that particular flow of tradition. It’s just a personal preference, no more than that.”
Even the idea of such a synthesis is hardly radical, for as Tate is quick to point out, non-indigenous materials have been used by Native Americans for centuries and over time those materials have become a fundamental part of their own culture:
Two things that Indians are known for the most are beadwork and horses, neither of which is originally from here. It was a huge boon for Indian country to have a horse, so we became incredible horsemen right away. And beads replaced traditional quill work. Indians are now world famous for beadwork. We have very famous contemporary Indian painters, and they are using the classic Western materials that are not aboriginal to this country at all. And you won’t read any American Indian literature in our native languages; it’s all in English.
In fact, Tate is not even the first composer to attempt a synthesis of Native American and Western classical musical conventions. The acknowledged father of such music is the Cherokee and Quapaw composer Louis Ballard (1931-2007). And long before Ballard, a group of non-Native composers, who called themselves Indianists, attempted such fusions with varying degrees of success, although Tate believes that “their importance in American Indian composition is nil.” Tate’s biggest hero is the Hungarian-American Béla Bartók—”the first ethnomusicologist that was aware of his own folk music; he did it so naturally and so joyfully that I felt the same impulse to do the same thing from where I come from.”
Nowadays there are active Native American composers across the United States, and the American Composers Forum even has a program, First Nations Composer Initiative, to specifically nurture such work in all genres. Tate is thrilled to see all this activity, “One thing that is really cool is that Indians are involved in all those genres of music. For the last 30 years, Indians have been involved in all kinds of different rock forms and also different multi-cultural collaborations.”
Ultimately, despite Tate’s self-description as a “Chickasaw Composer”, he admits that such an appellation connotes his ethnic origin and not the sound of his music: “If you’re from that country and you’re composing music, well then you’re that country’s composer—fill in the blank. Honestly I think that by billing myself as ‘Jerod Tate, Chickasaw composer,’ I’m treading very dangerous territory. I do want people to be interested in the fact that I’m Indian, but I also want them to be interested in the fact that they think I’m good. That’s what I’m hoping. At the end of the day, I want people to come out and to just simply say, ‘I think he’s a terrific composer.’ I mean, who doesn’t want that?”