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New Music by Native Composers, for Indigenous Peoples' Day

Raven Chacon, a Diné composer recently named a 2023 MacArthur Fellow.
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Raven Chacon, a Diné-American composer recently named a MacArthur Fellow, who also won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a celebration of the people who inhabited the land we now call our country prior to the arrival of European colonists. In classical music, efforts have been made, with varying degrees of respect, to incorporate the music of native peoples — and to elevate the work of indigenous composers. Next month will bring the Naxos release of a historic new album of music by Louis W. Ballard, considered the father of Native American classical music; you’ll hear some of that music at WRTI.

But much of the work by contemporary indigenous composers is more unbound from the European tradition. Here are some recommended picks, spanning a wide range of styles and instrumentation. And while this is an American holiday, and the international Indigenous Peoples’ Day isn’t too well known here (it’s Aug. 9), I’ve included music by Indigenous Canadian and Australian composers alongside the Americans.

Raven Chacon, Voiceless Mass

Earlier this week, the Diné composer Raven Chacon became a MacArthur Fellow — another accolade, on top of the Pulitzer Prize he won last year, for Voiceless Mass. It’s not yet available on a commercial recording, but the premiere performance — on organ and in the space it was written for — is on YouTube, and it’s an incredible, flooring work with a theme to match its intensity. The piece can be for any pipe organ in a large church, among other instruments, and Chacon, who was born within the Navajo Nation, refers to the land the church sits upon. He also states that the work “considers the futility of giving voice to the voiceless, when ceding space is never an option for those in power.”

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, Lowak Shoppala’

Jerod Tate is a Chickasaw composer and one of the best-known indigenous composers today. Last year I reviewed his album Winter Moons, featuring his first composition, a ballet revolving around stories told at the full moon. Lowak Shoppala’, composed about 15 years later and released in 2021, maintains the theme of storytelling, but better represents Tate’s evolved style. The work is subtitled “Fire and Light,” and it expresses his cultural identity through a combination of Chickasaw and western classical art forms.

Timothy Archambault, Chìsake

Born in Willimantic, Conn. and based in Miami, Timothy Archambault is a Hereditary Senator of the Kichesipirini Algonquin First Nation, and a member of the Métis Nation of Quebec. He’s a flutist, and while there is no set type of indigenous flute, it is usually end-blown (like a recorder, as opposed to the concert flute), with a non-tempered tuning. The word Chìsake translates to “chant,” or to conjure or cast a spell. It is an Algonquin rite in which the conjurer enters a shaking tent, depicted by the album’s first track, and has an out-of-body experience. This piece is a musical recreation of that experience on solo indigenous flute — repetitive, meditative, and entrancing.

Joe RaineyNiineta

This next album is the furthest removed from what one would call “classical music,” but there is a key element of tradition here. Joe Rainey, a member of the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, has recorded traditional Pow Wow singing for much of his life. His first commercial release, a collaboration with Minneapolis producer Andrew Broder released last year, adds interesting and powerful electronic accompaniments to Rainey’s voice. He sings in multiple registers to express a range of emotions, but his stated message is consistent: “We’re still here. We were here before you were, and we never left.”

Deantha Edmunds, Connections

Deantha Edmunds is an Inuk soprano and composer based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Part of her inspiration as a performer was her discovery that people in Nunatsiavut, an Inuit territory north of Labrador, had been singing sacred classical works in the Inuktitut language. All but one track on her 2022 album Connections open with traditional Inuit throat singing by Jennie Williams and Ashley Dicker, followed by the composer’s soprano, the Atlantic String Quartet, and spoken word.

T. Patrick Carrabré, Métis Songs

A one-time fellow broadcaster, Métis composer T. Patrick Carrabré once hosted The Signal, a CBC radio show featuring contemporary classical music; he currently is the director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Music. His latest EP, Métis Songs, is perhaps the most traditional-sounding of all of these, featuring three songs centered around Métis identity considering past times, when it was dangerous to live openly among white settlers.

Ensemble Offspring, To Listen, To Sing

Named for the program Ngarra-Burria (the album’s title in the Dharug language), which helps develop Indigenous Australian composers’ voices, this album features 12 different alumni, all telling musical stories of their own countries and people. The music is accessible, even poppy, especially considering the ensemble’s dedication to new music. Definitely one that can be an introductory point to indigenous composers, though from the other side of the world.

John T.K. Scherch (JohnTK@wrti.org) shares the morning’s musical and other offerings weekdays on WRTI 90.1. Previously, he was the first new host on WBJC in Baltimore in nearly 20 years, hosting the evening, Sunday afternoon, and request programs, and he is also an alumnus of U92, the college radio station of West Virginia University and a consecutive national Station of the Year winner.