Native Village Youth and Education News
February 1, 2009 Issue 194 Volume 4


American Indian Composers Go Classical

By Katherine Fogden
Condensed by Gina Boltz, Director, Native Village Publications

-A small but growing number of American Indian musicians are embracing classical music and getting noticed in concert halls and on reservations.

Composer Timothy Archambault used to play his traditional American Indian wood flute in private as a connection with his Kichesipirini Algonquin ancestors. Then three years ago, he performed at the first "Classical Native" series sponsored by the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian.  There, he met other native composers who wanted to write music for his flute. Now  Archambault is intrigued by what he's heard from other American Indian composers. "The compositions are intellectually stimulating," Archambault says. "They're not dismal, one-dimensional works. They've studied the Western tradition; they've studied their own American Indian traditions, which are dying out. You hear that merging with Western tonality and harmony, and that is intriguing, that is something totally new."

Chickasaw composer Jerod Tate's mother, a dance a professor and professional choreographer, asked him to write music for a ballet she created. He'd been studying European classical piano and composition.  "I didn't mix my identities of being a classically trained musician and being an American Indian," Tate says. "I never saw that there was even a possible relationship between those two until I started composing. And that's when they came together in a way that made me feel just wonderful." In his work, Tate recasts American Indian musical icons such as flutes and drums, and his music has been performed by orchestras across the nation.  "Not only are American Indians expressing contemporary expressions like this," Tate says. "But they're also going back and learning their traditions very well, along with dancing and language. So they're both kind of moving parallel with each other."

Mohawk cellist and composer Dawn Avery studied with John Cage and has played classical, pop music and jazz. Dawn is surprised by how many people like the mix of native and classical.  "One of the reasons is that there is not only a great appreciation of the sounds of the instruments, but also an interest in hearing our traditional music represented in this way. I think people understand there is an importance to that."  As Dawn has learned more about her culture, she's also felt an emotional tug-of-war by honoring her ancestors. "I've gotten farther away from typical classical music. As much as it's beautiful music, it doesn't move me the same way. It's a little bittersweet, but it's also very exciting because I have all these other sounds that vibrate in my head now that just vibrate with me better."

Composer and musician Steven Alvarez hopes the classical native movement will offer American Indians a new musical voice.  "I would really like to see native America find that fusion that would create its own genre," Alvarez says. "It's reflective of who we are, not rooted in our past, but it's like who are we right now. I'm hoping maybe before I die." Alvarez and many other American Indian composers say the new music can dispel more than 200 years of stereotypes.


Mixing European classical with indigenous and folk music is nothing new. Composers such as Antonin Dvorak and Bela Bartok drew from European folk music. In 1935, Mexican composer Carlos Chavez wrote his Sinfonia India, drawing on his country's indigenous music. In the 1950s, Louis Ballard wrote for several genres of mucic which  incorporated his own Quapaw and Cherokee background. Ballard's work gained acclaim, and he continued to compose until his death in 2007.
First Nations Initiative

The American Composers Forum has started a First Nations Initiative, and some tribes have even funded education programs for young composers. The music is getting noticed both on and off the reservation by Indians who prefer country, hip-hop or heavy metal.

Listen to the music and composers:


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