MUSIC: Nakai expands the language of Native American music
R. Carlos Nakai’s new album “Dancing into Silence,” (with William Eaton and Will Clipman) features one hour of continuous music, making it a meditation from one of Native America’s best loved musicians. “Dancing Into Silence” is a 2011 nominee for Best New Age Album making this Nakai’s ninth Grammy nomination.
Nakai, who is Diné and 64-years-old, released his first album, “Changes” on Canyon Records in 1983. His second album “Cycles” was used by American choreographer Martha Graham for her “Night Chant.” He has released more than 35 albums, bringing the timeless traditions and tonalities of the Native American cedar flute in the 21st century.
He has collaborated with seemingly everyone from composer Philip Glass to two-time Grammy-winning arranger/producer Billy Williams to Hawaiian slack-key guitar virtuoso Keola Beamer to Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David. Last summer during the Santa Fe Indian Market, Nakai premiered “À Bec Quintet” a classical composition for flute, the Native American flute, clarinet, bassoon and bass clarinet that Nakai commissioned from Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate.
It was Nakai’s deep intellect and provocative perspective on where Native American music, including the flute, is headed in concert halls, jazz and classical venues, and beyond that caused American Indian News Service Editor Kara Briggs to ask him for an interview. In 2008, Nakai sat down at his computer to write and e-mail answers to her questions.
Briggs: Is classical music relevant for Native Americans, and how do you see it evolving as more Native artists and composers engage in it?
Nakai: The ambiguous, non-specific Eurocentric term “classical” refers to music that conforms to certain established standards of form, complexity and musical literacy as exemplified in the Western European discipline of theory and practice. Since the 1700s, the dissolution and dislocation of traditional tribal communities by colonial expansionism and federal policies enforced the disruption and loss of many forms of traditionally accepted material culture, social integration, rites-of-passage and the continuance of the long shadow of our mythic histories, traditions, and philosophies. Through the “reservation and boarding school period,” the mid-1970s emergent social programs, (Native Americans) sought to revitalize the traditions of indigenous American Indian culture. Consequently, the “classical native” movement is a first attempt by Native Americans to revitalize what remains of the old culture and to distinguish the extant cultural voice of ancestral traditions and the influences of contemporary music within the purview of a Native composer.
Briggs: How do you experience the Native voice or Native tradition in classical music?
Nakai: The inclusive ingenuity of a composer or arranger who applies the usual practices of theory and practice while acknowledging the traditional context of ceremonial, social, spiritual or personal tribal vocal music expression is in keeping with present-day literacy of living in a contemporary multicultural world. The influence of societal change agents will enlarge upon and encourage opportunities in expression of newly inspired and contemporary innovations by Native musicians to speak with their own voice in all ventures of contemporary music.
Briggs: You’ve performed in symphonies, which makes me wonder how do you as a performer playing a traditional instrument bridge with a symphony, and all its European musical traditions?
Nakai: Simply in performing pieces composed for the Native American flute that successfully melds an understanding of disparate music traditions, while accommodating the technical and physical demands and limitations of both.
Briggs: Are we seeing an expansion of the definition of what is Native American music now, notably with Native musicians who are engaged in classical music?
Nakai: Yes, active positive participation by Natives engaged in “classical” music, be it derived from one’s own extensive historical traditional resources, or that obtained by study and experience within the modus of the European discipline of theory and practice, is inevitable in the future-oriented mobility of any culture and its traditions. In an ever-changing world with the influence of others through comparative and exemplary intercultural communication, philosophies and education, a Native composer will learn to integrate him or herself into the world as it exists and to use the varied mélange of influences to aspire and build their own singular life experience into the future, notably in the language of music.
American Indian News Service