Amid Orchestral Waves, the Sound of Cultures Conversing


Eleven members of Steiger Butte Drum sat in a circle around a large elk-hide drum at the front of the stage of Cincinnati’s Music Hall last Thursday. Washes of sound from the orchestra behind them built and receded in grand waves.

The group was the concerto soloist, of a kind, in “Natural History” by Michael Gordon, one of the Bang on a Can composers who infused Minimalism with rough, rebellious energy in the 1980s. A few times over the course of the 25-minute piece, Steiger Butte Drum, a traditional percussion and vocal ensemble of the Klamath Tribes of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, broke out in a ceremonial song, the members beating the drum in fast, dramatic unison as they made a piercing, tangily pitch-bending, wordlessly wailing chant.

They were joined by a full chorus, placed in the first balcony: the men on one side of the hall, the women on the other. Percussion in the upper balcony evoked woodland animals; brasses, also up there, let out joyful, squealing bits of fanfare that seemed to tumble down and join lines coming from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra onstage — eventually rising to a powerful, churning finale, with all these sprawling forces, conducted by Teddy Abrams, going at once.

Unsettled and unsettling, both celebratory and threatening, imposing and ultimately harmonious, this was the sound of a cultural conversation that is still, after centuries, in its nascent stages.

Native American composers and performers are slowly gaining more visibility after having long been largely ignored by institutions associated with the Western classical tradition. Raven Chacon, a Diné composer and visual artist, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2022. In March, the New York Philharmonic premiered an orchestral version of the Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s “Pisachi.”

And yet Native music, kaleidoscopically varied across the country and its many tribes and heritages, remains only rarely heard, and so only vaguely understood and appreciated, by non-Natives. This is hardly surprising, given the country’s more general neglect of a full, sustained reckoning with its history with — and its often stunningly cruel treatment of — Native Americans.

“It’s weird that in America, we’re often the last minority to be thought of,” said Timothy Long, a conductor and pianist of Muscogee Creek and Choctaw descent who is at work on a library of vocal music written by Indigenous composers.

Some of the increased exposure for Native American artists has come through collaborations with non-Native musicians. “Out of these relationships, this music, things can happen,” said Brent Michael Davids, a Mohican and Munsee Lenape composer. “It’s a way we can start to deal with this genocidal history.”

Gordon’s partnership with Steiger Butte Drum on “Natural History” is enshrined on the front page of the score; the group owns half of the piece’s publishing rights, and will participate in — and be paid for — any future performances. But the optics of a white composer working with Native American musical material has made “Natural History” a no go for many orchestras Gordon has approached, at a time when cultural borrowings are being strictly policed.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which performed the piece as part of the May Festival, an annual event focused on choral music, was a happy exception. (It didn’t hurt that Julia Wolfe, another Bang on a Can composer and Gordon’s wife, helped program this year’s festival.)

“The classical people, they look at the piece and they go, ‘This is appropriation,’ or something like that,” Gordon said in an interview the morning after the performance. “They don’t know what appropriation is. Steiger Butte Drum is there; they’re giving authorization. It’s also an opportunity to share not only their culture but their situation, too. People don’t understand that.”

Commissioned by the Britt Music and Arts Festival to celebrate the centennial of the National Park System, “Natural History” had its premiere in 2016 at Crater Lake, a huge caldera in southern Oregon that formed about 8,000 years ago when a volcano collapsed on itself. The site is sacred to the Klamath, who have been connected to the land since before the lake formed; Gordon sought to incorporate Steiger Butte Drum into the piece.

The group, which usually performs in ceremonial settings rather than on concert stages, was initially a little wary. “There’s always somebody asking to do something with the tribe, and do it for free,” Taylor Tupper, one of the members, said over lunch in Cincinnati.

Crater Lake and its conservation by the federal government is a fraught topic for the Klamath, who consider the site to be land that was taken from them. When Gordon approached the tribe, Tupper said, her thought was that “nothing like that should be done without us.” Gordon traveled to Oregon and met with the group, listening to and recording a variety of songs, which he brought back to New York and used to form a work that conjures a sense of both separation and connection between cultures.

“I can’t tell them what to do,” Gordon recalled thinking, mindful of the dynamics of a white composer foisting adjustments on Native performers. “And on the other hand, I can’t just accompany them, because that’s going to be kitschy. The only real solution is, I’m just going to do what I do, and I’m going to have them do what they do.”

In “Natural History,” Steiger Butte Drum’s song is the same as it would be at a tribal ceremony — except for a few moments when there is singing but not drumming, and vice versa. (Neither would ever be without the other in the song’s original context.)

“It’s an honor song,” Tupper said. “You would sing it at a powwow — say there’s a veteran who’s being honored, or somebody being married. So we felt we were honoring Crater Lake, we’re honoring the 100th anniversary.”

The rehearsals for the premiere were a leap of faith that depended on the Klamath group’s trust in Abrams, who also conducted at Crater Lake; many Native performers don’t read music, one of the artistic and logistical challenges of collaborations like this one. Steiger Butte Drum arrived not knowing there would be so many other musicians, let alone a full chorus.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Tupper said, “and I was kind of blown away.”

“Natural History” is the rare, subtly profound work that isn’t didactic but nevertheless feels like it has some real power to inspire deeper and more nuanced attitudes, even on the smallest scale. It’s unclear, though, when or if it will be heard again.

“I would like to share it with more people,” Gordon said, “but I just don’t know.”



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