From Sonata Form To A Chickasaw Chorus
Frank J. Oteri: You mentioned classical music basically being about notation, but it’s more than that in terms of what you have been doing as a composer. You’ve written for orchestra, and have even used fugues and sonata form upon occasion. You’ve written concertos. Of course, you’re bringing new ideas into these forms by incorporating Native American musical elements, but it begs the question of why you’ve chosen to frame this material in these trappings.
Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: I would say that it is very, very personal. My ultimate goal in what I’m writing is to express how I feel about being a Chickasaw Indian person. That means that you’re going to find entirely different treatments by other Indian composers, because we’re all expressing our own perspective. But honestly, my personal goal is just to tell you how I feel about being Indian. So with that in mind, all the beautiful color at my disposal of all these wonderfully developed incredible European instruments just gives me so much ability to express all of that. There are so many ways that you can do that. You can keep things very, very simple and transcription-like in moments, and then you can also make things incredibly abstracted and complex. I just love being able to do that, to be able to express simplicity and/or complexity at any time.
FJO: So why fugues and sonata forms?
JIT: Oh, well, because they’re just cool. I have to be honest with you. Actually the piece that I’m writing right now is the first time that I’ve actually attempted a full-on sonata form, because now I feel like I’m getting comfortable to the point to try that. It’s this simple. Classical sonata form has two distinct tunes, or melodies or themes in the opening, the exposition. Then you develop that, which is all the abstracting fun-ness. And then you come back to the recapitulation which is a kind of reinstatement of those tunes or you can re-abstract them again. Codas are great. I think the expression of sonata form is fantastic. I’ve played enough Beethoven to just thoroughly be able to enjoy sonata form and what it achieves.
In the particular piece that I happen to be writing now, which is for R. Carlos Nakai, I’m using themes from the two tribes that he comes from as the first and second themes. The first theme is a Ute theme. And the second—actually I’m throwing in a third, some kind of break in the form a little bit. There’s two Ute themes, and then there’s a Navajo theme in there. It’s a personal challenge to use the form, but the melodies will be American Indian melodies. And I’ll just see what I can do with a classical sonata form by mixing that. So what I’m literally doing is mixing two very strong traditions of music making. One is the straight-up old tunage of the Utes and Navajos, and one is the old usage of sonata form from Europe. So I feel very traditional in all kinds of ways by doing that. But it’s just a personal thing that I wanted to do—an experiment to take a traditional way of making music in Europe with traditional music of American Indians and mix that and find this real focus.
FJO: The piece for R. Carlos Nakai mixes things up on another level because it’s a wind quintet, but it’s not your standard combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon. You’ve previously written works with Native American percussion, but this is the first time that you’re actually dealing with a Native American melodic instrument in a composition.
JIT: When R.C. and I were talking about it, the idea of chamber music was really appealing. Then I started to think about the woodwind quintet idea, but horn doesn’t really work. So I basically just reconfigured it to where there is a flutist that’s doubling piccolo and alto. Then there’s the American Indian flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and bassoon. Actually I usually make the bass clarinet the floor of the sound. I wanted the ensemble to be an ensemble that complemented the timbre of the American Indian flute, which is known for being very rich and smooth. So I feel that having a nice woodwind quintet is a beautiful complement of colors for that.
It’s also difficult to do because the American Indian flute only has basically a minor ninth that’s able to be used well, so it’s got a very small range. [Nakai]’s doubling on a lot of different flutes so we can get into different ranges, and so there’s some logistical things involved with that. But I’m personally fascinated to hear how this piece turns out, because I am trying some specific things and, again, it’s another experiment. It’s like “Wow, O.K., I want to try this. Does this really work?” I love getting into that critical dialogue with myself. I wanted it to feel like a good, strong, classical piece of repertoire. I’m very excited to try adding an American Indian flute into this repertoire.
FJO: It’s very interesting to hear you use this word repertoire in terms of referencing the canon. For something to enter the canon, it has to be played by lots of people. But how many people are there out there who can both play Native American flute and read western classical notation?
JIT: That’s a good question. This is another one of those things where it’s happening right now. I will say that there is an enormous amount of non-Indians who play the American Indian flute, and so I’m just guessing that a lot of them do actually read music. There are a few American Indians that play the flute that read music that I know of. I can count about five that I personally know. So the players are there, there’s no doubt about it. I see this as basically just the beginning and so we’re all just giving it a shot together. There are always people that collaborate to make a new thing happen. This is what we’re doing. But I do foresee actually quite a few more American Indian flutists coming that do read music and play the traditional flute at the same time. I kind of see this as a no brainer; it’s just going to happen.
FJO: Are there other native instruments that you’d write for in the future?
JIT: I don’t know. I personally put a lot of pressure on myself for it, because I want to be very careful that when I do it, it doesn’t come out to be just slapped together. What I mean is that I want to make sure that when I do use American Indian instruments, it’s done exceptionally well. I don’t want to settle for anything that comes off as simple-minded. We can be simple in our music, but I don’t want to be simple-minded about it. I don’t want to just slap the instrument in with a group and say “Ta-dum, here’s the instrument with a group.” I want it to feel integral to the process, like it’s supposed to be there and that it makes sense at the end. And quite honestly, I want that repertoire to live beyond my lifetime, so I’m very serious when I take something like that on. So in terms of using other instruments, I don’t know. To use the America Indian flute is a really big step for me. And so after I do this, then I’ll sit back and kind of evaluate myself. If I feel good about that, what would be the next step? What would be an instrument to use? I don’t know. If you think about basic percussion, there’s not a lot you can do with that. So, I imagine that maybe something vocal might be the next logical step to use.
FJO: Well, one thing that you have already done vocally is that you’ve used the Chickasaw language in music done by a chorus of non-Chickasaws. In fact, it was the first time ever that Chickasaw or any Native American language was sung by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, so already you’re dealing with this issue of people who are outside of this tradition.
JIT: One thing about language that’s very nice is that you can pretty much give a codec for the language to the singers and they’re fine with it. Most singers are so good at singing any language in the world: Chinese, English, Russian, African languages. As long as you have a pronunciation guide, things come out pretty nicely.
And it’s really exciting to get the language out there, because I notice that when any audience hears a language, they respond very deeply to that, even when they don’t understand what’s going on. The fact that you’re listening to that language presented in a dramatic fashion is really powerful. And so I love the fact that I was able to do that with the Chickasaw language and bring that into a full chorus and orchestra. It’s really powerful, and when we were working with the chorus, they were so interested and responsive. A lot of people were like, “Oh wow, weren’t they scared to sing an Indian language that they had never sung before?” And it wasn’t like that at all. I mean, chorus people, they love diving into languages, and so when we were in rehearsal, they just had all these great questions. It was really cool to be in rehearsal with them and see how they worked with the language. They were so excited to do it.