American Indian Composers Go Classical Bolstered by gatherings such as the Smithsonian Institution's "Classical Native" series, American Indian composers are searching for a sound. The result is music in the spirit of their ancestors mixed with techniques from Western classical music.

American Indian Composers Go Classical

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GUY RAZ, host.

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Guy Raz. As we begin the New Year, we're looking back at some of the developments of last year in music. It wasn't a great year for CD sales, and several small symphony orchestras had to close down. But there was growth in one corner of the musical universe, American Indian musicians who are embracing classical music. They're drawing as much from the music of Claude Debussy as from traditional American Indian harvest songs. And as NPR's Felix Contreras reports, the music and the musicians are getting noticed.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Composer Timothy Archambault used to play his traditional American wood flute in private, strictly as a way to stay connected with his Kichesipirini Algonquin ancestors.

(Soundbite of wood flute)

CONTRERAS: Then three years ago, he was invited to perform at the first "Classical Native" series sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of the American Indian. There he met other native composers who wanted to write music for his flute, like George Quincy, who wrote "Choctaw Diaries" and performed it with Archambault this year.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Timothy Archambault says he's been intrigued by what he's heard from other American Indian composers at the Smithsonian gatherings.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. TIMOTHY ARCHAMBAULT (Composer; Flautist): The compositions are intellectually stimulating. They're not dismal, kind of one-dimensional works. They have studied the Western tradition, and they've studied their own American Indian traditions, which are dying out. You hear them merging with Western tonality and harmony, and that is intriguing, and that is something that's totally new.

CONTRERAS: And that's how it was for Chickasaw composer Jerod Tate until his mother, a professor of dance and professional choreographer, asked him to write music for a ballet she created. He'd been studying European classical piano and composition.

Mr. JEROD TATE (Composer): I didn't mix my identity of being a very classically trained musician with being an American Indian. I never saw that there was even a possible relationship with those two until I started composing. And that's when those two came together in a way that really made me feel just wonderful.

CONTRERAS: Since 1992, Tate has been exploring his culture through classical music, and his work has been performed by orchestras in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, New Mexico, and San Francisco.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Tate compares his work to that of contemporary Indian painters who abstract cultural icons, like feathers and horses. He recasts American Indian musical icons such as flutes and drums. Like many classically trained American Indians, Tate's gone back to explore his culture. And he says the combination of the two musical worlds has an unexpected benefit for tradition.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TATE: Not only are American Indians accessing contemporary expressions like this, but they're also going back and learning their traditions very, very well, you know, along with singing and dancing and language. So they're actually both kind of moving parallel with each other.

CONTRERAS: Mixing European classical with indigenous and folk music is not new. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European composers such as Antonin Dvorak and Bela Bartok drew from European folk music. In 1935, Mexican composer Carlos Chavez wrote "Sinfonia India," drawing on his country's indigenous music. In the U.S., white classical composer Theodore Baker was one of the first to seriously study American Indian music in the late 1800s. But it would take another half century before American Indians began to embrace classical music to express their cultural identity.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: In the 1950s, composer Louis Ballard was inspired by Bartok to write chamber, orchestral, and choral music as well as ballets that incorporated Ballard's Quapaw and Cherokee background.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Ballard's work gained acclaim, and he continued to compose until his death two years ago. But much of the work of others experimenting with the two styles remained below the radar until 1994 when the first convention of American Indian composers was held in Boulder, Colorado. Since then, composers have received commissions, the American Composers Forum has started a First Nations Initiative, and some tribes have even funded education programs for young composers.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: And the music is getting noticed both on and off the reservation by Indians who prefer country, hip-hop, or heavy metal.

Ms. DAWN AVERY (Cellist; Composer): I'm really surprised by how much people have liked it.

CONTRERAS: Mohawk cellist and composer Dawn Avery has studied with John Cage and played classical pop music and jazz.

Ms. AVERY: One of the reasons is because there's a great appreciation for the sounds of the instruments, but also to hear our traditional music being represented in this way, I think people understand that there's an importance to that.

CONTRERAS: For Avery, it was the work of American Indian musical elder Louis Ballard, as well as a rediscovery of her heritage, that inspired her to compose with Indian themes.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: But as she's become more intimate with her culture, she's also felt what she called an emotional tug-of-war by honoring her ancestors through a culture largely responsible for their subjugation.

Ms. AVERY: It is tricky because I wonder if I'll be able to always play cello. The more I get back to my roots, I don't know if it's going to feel OK, honestly. I don't know. I've gotten farther away from the typically classical music. As much as it's beautiful music, it doesn't move me the same way. It's a little bittersweet, you know. It's also very exciting, though, because I have all these other sounds in my head now that just vibrate with me better.

(Soundbite of cello music)

CONTRERAS: Back at the Smithsonian Museum of American Indian concert hall, Mescalero Apache composer Steven Alvarez hopes the classical native movement will offer American Indians a new musical voice in much the same way that reggae and hip-hop have for their cultures.

Mr. STEVEN ALVAREZ (Composer): I would really like to see Native America find that fusion that's going to create its own genre. I'm hoping, I'm hoping, maybe before I die, you know.

CONTRERAS: Steven Alvarez and many American Indian composers say the new music they're creating offers a tool to dispel more than 200 years of stereotypes. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

RAZ: And you can hear more of that new music at

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