Photo by Kerri Cottle
Adelaina Othole, from Santa Clara Pueblo, in front of “Remnant” by Sonya Kelliher-Combs.

Native Teens Debut Experimental Classical Compositions

Frances Madeson

The Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project, with the help of composer-in-residence Raven Chacon, recently worked with five teenagers from the Santa Fe Indian School. After an intense week-long course, five new compositions have been created.

 A public concert was held October 6 in connection with SITE Santa Fe’s biennial exhibition: much wider than a line, where the pieces were presented to an enthusiastic audience of approximately 100 music lovers.

The compositions were performed by The Huntress Quartet—Chacon’s musician friends and bandmates—who came together to form a quartet to perform the students’ works.

Introducing the evening, he explained that during his time with the apprentices he primarily shared his respect for the instruments as tools, which he termed “tools of creativity, weapons of expression.”

The compositions were short, just three-minutes long, and taken as a whole, were expressive of their creators’ bliss at being selected for the apprenticeship.

“I’d love to do it again, I’d love to write more pieces,” said 14-year-old ninth grader Isaiah Chinana from Jemez Pueblo. “I had no idea about the dynamics of the violin and cello, I’d never played them. Now I really want to play every instrument—a guitar, a violin.”

His composition Lavender Willow Trees was notable for its beautiful writing for the cello, romantic and surging with exciting moments. The music evoked tall grasses, soft winds, sun rays peeking from behind clouds. He created a sense of growing, and blooming.

In five one-hour classes, Chacon instructed the students, some of whom had no prior musical training, in the workings of the instruments themselves. He demonstrated techniques such as glissandos, trills, and heavy wide slow vibratos, all of which were used by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert as they developed the form to dazzle each other, and expand the possibilities of classical music.

The young Native composers experimented with all of these, and invented their own.

“One student used a very interesting technique, one he stumbled upon on his own, but one I use often in my own work,” explained Chacon. “He has the players drag their bows with the lightest of pressure across the strings, all while tracing ‘shapes’ across the full area between the bridge and the player’s fingers. Each player has their own shape.”

“He let us run our creativity,” Isaiah said. “Bach and those guys really weren’t involved.”

“What’s important for me is to have these students have a chance to work in a medium that isn’t usually accessible,” Chacon explained. “If there was more time, there would be discussion about the people who use the instruments. We’re not trying to avoid those discussions, but it’s not a priority to teach the Western tradition. It’s a different approach.”

An approach that’s being taken seriously as art.

“Previous compositions from the Native American Composers Apprentice Project are presented as scores and audio within the much wider than a line exhibition,” explained Joanne Lefrak, SITE’s Director of Education and Outreach. “The Santa Fe Indian School student compositions will be added to the exhibition after the performance.”

The Festive Dance was composed by Larry Rosetta, a 17-year-old senior from Kewa Pueblo.

“I grew up living in my pueblo, listening to the different songs, going into the kiva, feeling the beat of the drum,” Larry explained. “The music from home has made me love making music. It is my passion, and in this piece I want to create a mood of happiness, fun and joy.”

The Festive Dance began with all four instruments playing at once, with one violin almost metronomic, and lots of bowing all around. There were restful moments of long sustains, and then the violins would seesaw and swing. At first it proceeded tentatively with soft footfalls and then surprised with the violinist slapping her thigh.

“It was completely unexpected,” a glowing audience member said about The Festive Dance after the concert. “It wasn’t a packaged idea of sound.”

Anthony Glascock, 15, from Zuni Pueblo wrote Heart Strings as a paean to his friendship with a few special friends he can connect with “on a mental level.” He translated their tears and giggles (the “high pitches” he says) into the music.

“Our inhaling, our exhaling, everything we know came together for that piece of music,” he said.

There’s a steady methodical feel to Heart Strings, no anxiety. The music is untroubled, everything is copacetic.

Adelaina Othole, 17, from Santa Clara Pueblo was unfamiliar with music notation, so Chacon provided an ingenious alternative method. “Raven told me to draw out on the score sheet what the music would look like,” she explained.

For Othole, writing the chorus was exhilarating. “You play a song just to hear that part, that ‘flying’ part.”

Her piece is distinctive for its three different rhythm signatures, and the music had a circular feel, a gentle gathering of sounds, but with an energetic insistence. Repercussions exuded confidence, like it was going places, to some lovely natural setting—without shoes.

Dominick MorningDove, a 16-year-old junior from San Felipe Pueblo, wrote Deep in Thought, which was written in response to a contemplative moment.

“I was laying down at this grassy area and it came over me that some people will never be able to do this,” he said. “I am so lucky to be able to still do this, that nothing has happened that would take that away.”

The cello took the lead, and soon there were resonances of Philip Glass’ labyrinthian patterning in which one’s mind wanders freely. Ultimately it led to a final serene bass note.

“I felt like I could end with peace, that the act of composition itself makes space for that,” MorningDove said.

The Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project was founded in 2001 as part of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, and in 2011 was presented with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award by First Lady Michelle Obama. Since 2004, Chacon has worked with more than 300 apprentices.

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