What Is American Indian Classical Music?
Frank J. Oteri: On your website you say that you’re dedicated to the development of American Indian classical composition. What does that mean?
Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: American Indian classical composition is a term that I probably couldn’t define verbally. So when I say that I’m dedicated to American Indian classical composition, I’m more or less trying to get people asking what that is. It gets the dialogue going.
FJO: You mentioned that native people in the 18th and 19th century were already interacting with Europeans and that their music was taught and Western music and Western instruments had become part of the native community. When most people talk about Native American composers, the earliest name that comes up is a composer who died just a few years ago, Louis Ballard. But I’m getting the sense from you there must have been earlier Native American composers who were composers in the Western classical sense.
JIT: I don’t know of a full-fledged American Indian composer before Louis Ballard. I do know that there were classically trained American Indians performing, that’s for sure. There were lots of Indians playing piano and violin, and also singing. There were some famous Indian singers in the earlier part of this century, working with different operas that some other American composers had done. But in terms of a full-fledged composer, as far I know, Louis Ballard’s the man; he was the first guy to do that, to be a nationalist composer like Rachmaninoff.
FJO: Before that there were some American composers who were not Native American but who incorporated Native American materials into their music, the so-called Indianist movement which was promulgated by composers like Arthur Farwell and Charles Wakefield Cadman.
JIT: I like to tread lightly around the issue of the Indianist composers. I never heard of an Indianist composer until I started composing myself, and somebody brought that up to me. I had played MacDowell, but I didn’t know of any of his actual Indianist pieces. I played the Dvorak New World Symphony, but it never registered to me as an Indian piece. They’re not Indian composers, and that’s just a racial thing. I don’t want that to sound harsh. It’s just a point of fact. It would be like saying that Zane Grey is an Indian author. They’re writing about Indians, but they’re not Indian composers themselves. I think that their importance in American Indian composition is nil. Again, I don’t mean that as an insult. I actually love some of their compositions, and I’ve played some of their music. But as an American Indian composer, they have absolutely no impact on what I do and have had no influence or inspiration or have given me no foundation out of which to grow. They had their own observational splurges in composing about Indians, but I’ve never seen that as an integral part of the history of American Indian composers.
My biggest inspiration is Béla Bartók. I love that man for what he did. He was the first ethnomusicologist in the world I know of that was aware of his own folk music, yet he was completely classically and conservatory trained on the piano. He couldn’t get enough of either one. He [led] a national movement to go out and record everything, do field recordings with that incredibly light wax roll recorder that they lugged around. I don’t know how they did that. He actually petitioned his government to be supported to do that kind of a thing. And then he transcribed it with what he called exactitude. He wanted to transcribe his own folk music incredibly accurately with classical notation. Being able to write it down changes how you live with it.
He had both support and criticism on both sides. Some people would say this doesn’t at all sound like traditional Hungarian music. And some people would also say this doesn’t at all sound like classical music. And yet some people would say, “Oh, that sounds incredibly Hungarian to me,” even though it’s obviously classical music. Anyway, Bartók to me is just such a wonderful model. He did it so naturally and so joyfully in the way I read it that I felt the same impulse to do the same thing from where I come from.
FJO: There’s certainly a ton of work from the late 19th century onwards studying Native American music. I’m thinking of all those volumes of transcriptions by Frances Densmore and others. Some music doesn’t survive any other way than through those transcriptions, but one wonders how accurate they are.
JIT: Whenever you’re transcribing anything, it’s difficult to express nuance all of the time. With any kind of a folk music or even in performance styles of classical music, you can’t read about it. You can’t look at just a transcription and really truly know what’s going on. I mean, we’re all still guessing about Bach. It’s a very good educated guess, but it can’t replace going back in time and sitting down to listen to him play his own music. That’s something I think that we would all really like to be able to do and that all historians fantasize about doing.
So there’s definitely a problem; you’ve got to listen to the music. When it comes to the transcribing, it’s nice that it’s there but we have to be able to [view] it with certain filters. If you know the style of the music and then see the transcription, you can put it together very easily. I think the work that Frances Densmore did is fantastic and what I really appreciate about it is that she transcribed off of the recordings that she made so that you can compare them. You can look at the transcription, listen to it, and then have a full understanding of what’s happening. I’ve noticed that with some transcriptions other people did, they’ll transcribe it but you don’t have the recording. And they’ve said in their liner notes, because of some variances and nuances, they’ve kind of rounded it up to this approximate rhythm. And I’m thinking, oh boy, you’re already losing a layer of it that’s very important. So if you can have those recordings to listen to at the same time, that’s the key. And then you can have a full understanding.
FJO: Sometimes the process of transcribing can lead to a really profound understanding of the music that you otherwise might not have. Ironically sometimes part of that understanding involves what can’t be transcribed, at least using the standard means of Western classical music notation, which was obviously designed for Western music and therefore is biased toward its norms. The ethnomusicologist David McAllester’s epiphany with Native American music is that it did not adhere to precise cyclical rhythms throughout—like, say, ¾ time—and that the pitch frequently rises during performance, in essence the tonal center keeps getting slightly sharper as the music progresses. So to put such music on a staff with bar lines sort of puts a straightjacket on it.
FJO: Of course, if you could figure out how to notate it precisely, you could have that kind of flexibility in pitch and rhythm with singers. But once you’re getting into the realm of writing for an orchestra, which is a medium you like to work in, you don’t really have that flexibility anymore.
JIT: Composers that are focused on their folk music will take music performed in its traditional style, with all the incredible inflections and irregular meters and key signatures that can’t quite be quite determined exactly on a keyboard, and abstract it. What happens when you [just] transcribe it is you’ve thrown it in a straightjacket. It’s all square now. It’s all very, very straight. That’s not going to cut it. So then the composer opens up that world of abstraction. I don’t know how else to say it. You’re abstracting your feelings of what the original music is like and it comes out to be something really quite different, but still there’s an ethos that you try to bring through, and then you have a brand new type of expression. Once you start to reinterpret it, it’s not the same music. But like I said, I think you try to, at least I do, keep this ethos of the traditional music in the final product.
FJO: The reason I brought up the Indianists before is that most people in the general public have no idea what traditional Native American music is. If they can make any association, it might be from a soundtrack—what some Hollywood composer interpreted it as. That might be the sound that some people have in their heads when they come to your music for the first time. So even if you’re not addressing it as a composer, in a way that is one of the contexts.
JIT: Right. Right. Yes, that’s true.
FJO: So, given that, how do you deal with the audience expectations about this music? Do such things even matter to you? How do you stay being you, as opposed to “the Native American guy who writes orchestral music.” Perhaps the rest of that program is Brahms and Tchaikovsky, who have specific cultural reference points, too, but few listeners think of them that way.
JIT: 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? My model of inspiration is the history of all those big composers who had no mistake in how they identified nationally and were amazing composers. So I live with the pressure that I put on myself when I’m writing and I’m thinking to myself, “You better deliver, because otherwise people are going to go, ‘Who cares? I don’t care if you’re Indian if you’re not any good.’ ” That’s the brutal truth. And I absolutely accept it because I believe that Beethoven was sitting down saying the same thing to himself. He had a lot of attitude, and he espoused a lot of things, and he had to live up to it. He had to live up to his own standards and his own philosophies. I believe that all of the composers in history and who are working hard now have that inner voice going on. There are all kinds of things that a lot of us are participating in that identify us in some way or another. But when we sit down at that table with our pencil, the truth has got to come out that we’re good. That’s the bottom line.
FJO: There’s a famous Virgil Thomson quote, “American music is any music written by Americans. You could take that one step further and say Native American music is any music written by Native Americans.
JIT: I’ve heard that statement several times, and I think it’s absolutely true. I’ve had this discussion with other Indian colleagues, who are in all kinds of genres of music, and that is what American Indian music is. It is the same thing with any country. If you’re from that country and you’re composing music, well then you’re that country’s composer—fill in the blank.
FJO: Clearly for you, however, the appellation of “Jerod Tate, Chickasaw composer” directly impacts on the sound of the music that you are writing, though curiously, a lot of your pieces reference things from other Native American tribes. Outsiders lump Native Americans all together as one people, but they’re all different peoples with different languages, different cultures, although in contemporary life, since each group is so small, there does seem to be a pan-Indian sensibility.
JIT: The difference in the music between the different tribes takes time to get to know. That issue of American Indian versus Chickasaw is definitely volatile and it’s always in progress. But I’m going to always identify with my specific tribe. There’s no doubt about that. That’s where I’m a registered citizen. That’s where my family comes from. And that is very different than all the other American Indian tribes.
A lot of the pan-Indianism comes in because our population is so small. At best, it’s a couple million or more. And so American Indians cling to each other for a little security. But at the same time, we’re also very respectful of each other’s individual tribes. It kind of breathes and goes back and forth very organically. I’m hoping people can be patient with that. It just takes time to get to know those nuances.