MUSIC: ‘Indianist’ composers rediscovered by pianist, scholar
Washington, D.C.—Lisa Cheryl Thomas, a pianist and scholar who has made the music of a group of classical composers called Indianists her specialty, performed this summer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and at the Kennedy Center.
Thomas, Cherokee descent, who lives near Dallas, considers the melodies and rhythms of Native American music to be among the most important in the American tradition of classical music. She performs a program of work by the Indianists of the early 20th century and by contemporary Native American composers of today.
“Antonin Dvořák composed music with Czechoslovakian melodies, and he said America needs to have its own music based on Native American music,” said Thomas, who recently completed a doctorate focusing on the topic at the University of North Texas College of Music. “The Indianists composed music with Native American motifs, and even though they weren’t Native American themselves, their compositions were based upon documentation of Native music by ethnomusicologists, and they carried forth fascinating rhythms, scales and pitch systems.”
The Indianist movement, represented in the work of a dozen or so composers, began around 1890 and is considered to have died out by 1930. Even though a contemporary listener might find some of the names and themes to be stereotypical by today’s standards, Thomas contends that within the movement there remain pieces that are relevant to American classical music. Seth Montfort, director of the San Francisco Concerto Orchestra, agrees, comparing the Indianists to George Gershwin. The iconic American composer based many of his compositions on African-American music, and is himself sometimes accused of stereotyping by today’s standards.
“Even though it has Western harmony, when Lisa Cheryl Thomas plays it, she interprets it to be more Native American,” Montfort said. “You can bring out the intent of the music, which is ethereal and hard to capture. I think it is really good music.”
Thomas finds the best Indianist compositions to be intelligent, reflecting the complicated rhythms of the original music. Her opening piece is “The Thunder God and the Rainbow” by Harvey Worthington Loomis (1865-1930), a student of Dvořák. To her it is one of the better Indianist pieces because Loomis keeps the theme of the indigenous music through sounds mimicking the thunder and the flash of lightning.
“Some composers didn’t care what it was they called the piece,” she said. “They just used the melodies because they liked them and didn’t worry about the original concept of the music.”
That’s why she takes time to teach her audiences about the music she is performing. She concludes her program with music by Native composers, including the late Louis Ballard (1931-2007), who was Quapaw and Cherokee. She admires the work of Brent Michael Davids and Jerod Impichchaachaha’ Tate, and hopes to commission a work for piano one day. But she acknowledges that the piano isn’t always the best instrument for ethnographic works.
“There are notes that fall between the cracks of what you can play on the piano,” she said. “If you try to copy the original melody, you can’t do it. It would be easier with a stringed instrument or a Native American flute.”
Today there are a growing number of Native composers working, and in some cases notating Native music for European instruments, said Jewell Arcoren, acting director of the First Nations Composers Initiative.
“I see a lot of proposals for traditional American Indian music being fused with classical notation,” Arcoren said. “It’s like when our oral language was codified. It’s interesting; even if something is lost, something is also gained.”
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service