Writing For Posterity
Frank J. Oteri: Might it be reasonable to infer that not very many of the people playing your music are Native Americans? Is the goal ultimately to write music that incorporates Native American material for non-Native Americans to play?
Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: The goal to me is to write for posterity. You know, it’s for the future for any performers in the classical fine arts. And of course, that does include more and more American Indians. R. C. knows American Indian flute so well, and he knows how to manipulate it beautifully. It’s organic to him. And so that’s great. But we’re notating for the future so anybody who wants to present this can present it well.
FJO: A lot of the people who might play this music at some point—let’s say some chamber ensemble in Poland or Venezuela or Japan in the 22nd century—might have had no contact at all with what the sources are of this music. How much does someone have to know to play it? And how does their knowledge of that music affect how they play?
JIT: Our knowledge of the origin of the music is a constant issue for all of us. Of course, as a living composer that’s using my folk music as a foundation for what I’m writing, I’ve thought about what happens 50 to 100 years from now when people pick up this music. I’m hoping that I’m notating smart enough that somebody could actually at least imitate and be, you know, a good 85, 90 percent there. I think that all composers have had to think about that a little bit.
The beauty of notation is that you can notate something abstract, but the downfall is that you can’t tell somebody something the same way I can tell you face to face. You can’t demonstrate on the page. It’s missing that. And it always has. Hopefully, when we’re writing it down, we’re notating in a way that an ensemble in Japan that’s never heard Chickasaw music can pick it up and at least go, “O.K. we know enough, and now we’re playing it and now we sat with it enough that, oh, there’s an essence here. I’m starting to feel this and I’m starting to feel that.” I do that with Prokofiev. If you’ve ever played any of the piano sonatas, I mean, come on. There are so many ways that a person could interpret that, and we’re all looking for that essence. How did he play it? I don’t know. And of course, then there’s that issue of some people not wanting to know. There’s that whole performer thing of wanting to take it and feel it the way they do, which is another beautiful world in itself. As a composer I could be all like, “I don’t want you to play it like this or that.” But I think it’s so cool when there are different interpretations, and I have to be open to the fact that 100 years from now, somebody may pick up my piece and play it incredibly different than how I intended it, but hopefully it’s still a very good performance.
FJO: But to zero in on what you’ve been saying about notating accurately, what are some of those things that you put in your scores that would get people to do the kinds of sounds you want? I’m thinking of your extraordinary solo timpani piece, Taloa’ Hiloha, which sounds so unlike timpani. There’s also a piece you wrote for chorus and piano where you had the pianist play inside the piano and it sounded like a big drum. What do you do to get those precise sounds on the page?
JIT: I have to be honest with you. I’m an incredibly uninventive contemporary composer in terms of notation. I’m using techniques that have been around for 50 years. In terms of any kind of extended piano techniques, Henry Cowell and George Crumb are absolutely the idols. They showed the sounds that are possible. I will use things like that, but rather conservatively compared to those guys. And so the notations are generally pretty clear. I still use time signatures. I don’t use key signatures, so wow, that makes me super radical, I guess. But even though I’m using very standard time signatures, I shape those time signatures according to the phrasing that I feel is going to express the traditional music. It’s important for people to look and go, “Oh, I see, he’s got three-four, four-four, two and then a five.” O.K., it could have been notated as a four, you know, two, three. You could do it different ways. But I chose that because I feel there’s a flow to that particular combination that gives the right feel. So again, it’s not radical, and it’s not very inventive. I use some pretty conservative ways of actually trying to get the right feeling of that phrase out, because the phrasing in American Indian music is generally very different from Western music, so I like trying to help that ensemble get that kind of flow out.
The way that I generally get across what I consider to be the ethos of what I feel in my own traditional music is basic orchestration colors. Even in a small ensemble, I’m thinking of color. There’s one orchestration that I like to use that reminds me of a very old traditional cane flute. I’ll pitch different woodwinds together where it gets a composite sound. The last thing I would say is that I focus on rhythms that I feel are getting it across. I don’t think I need to get really, really crazy. When I start doing that, I lose what I’m actually trying to express.
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. There’s so much going on [nowadays] and I have no idea how I fit [in]. And I think that what we all need to be doing is continuing to do all of this. But the one thing that I think is really, really important in general, that both composers and listeners alike need to apply, is the word quality. I personally don’t judge what anybody does in terms of a genre or a style. I just want it to be good. And I think that’s a standard that we can all try to live up to. As that standard’s going on, then all of that is great. And I think it lends to the philosophy that there is room for everybody. Why shouldn’t there be?
FJO: So how do you determine what’s good?
JIT: Well, there you go. I can’t define that. It’s something that I can just state emotionally and spiritually about what should happen. That’s as far as I can take it. That’s the age-old question. What is fine art? What is good art? What is bad art? I really believe that we all have intrinsic knowledge of that, and I think we just all need to always be looking to tap into that. There can be interpretations to that. It doesn’t just fall on numbers. What’s being a good parent? You can’t put it in a dictionary, but we can talk about it, and we can reiterate the need for good parenting. I think this is kind of the same thing; it’s an ongoing dialogue. But I think as long as we’re reiterating over and over, we need to be good at what we do. We need quality. Those words exist for a reason.