Twin Cities composer Janika Vandervelde is no stranger to world music. She's written a concerto for Chinese lute and music for Bulgarian-style choir. But she doesn't try to create authentic representations of other cultures. For example, in her new work, "Medicine Woman," she merges her music with other voices to express ideas held in common.
Rather than composing, Vandervelde says her role is "more facilitating multiple elements, and my own artistic voice, especially in this piece, is not as prominent as maybe in some other pieces that I've written."
The central voice of Vandervelde's composition is the former poet laureate of Wisconsin, Ellen Kort, who is of Ojibway ancestry. Vandervelde found Kort's poem "Medicine Woman" in an anthology of Wisconsin Native American writing. She didn't set Kort's words to music, but instead uses the poem as narration with the choir elaborating the text with whistles, tongue clicks, wind sounds and chants.
Ellen Kort says Vandervelde's music makes her poem more meaningful: "People hear the words, but they [also] hear the music and they hear the flute and they hear not just my voice, but many, many voices. And so it becomes much, much more powerful--much stronger at a deeper level than if I were to just stand up and read the poem."
The instrumental soloist for World Voices' performance of "Medicine Woman" is Chickasaw and Mississippi Choctaw musician Cochise Anderson. He plays drums and improvises on three different Native American flutes. In his opinion, Vandervelde has created a work that manages to blend Native American traditions and Western classical music.
"It's a unique thing with the choir that they aren't actually going to be singing a lot of words," Anderson says. "It's mostly chants and vocables which is very similar to Native music. It's to fill the melody out and then maybe there might be a phrase and then the meaning of it might be coming from Ellen's words as a poet."
Providing a harmonic glue for Cochise Anderson's flute improvising and the choir is a steady drone, created by what Janika Vandervelde calls "piano bows." The lid of the piano is removed and musicians pull strands of fishing line back and forth through selected piano strings, producing a haunting, resonant sound. Inspired by the idea of the four winds, Vandervelde has four members of the four-part choir play the piano bows. She says, "Native Americans have this concept of Mother Earth/Father Sky and I think I've used the choir more symbolically in this piece than anything else. The choir is sort of the embodiment of nature."
World Voices Artistic Director Karle Erickson says each performance of "Medicine Woman" will be different because Vandervelde's score doesn't have exact notation, making the piece the latest of many challenges World Voices has faced in its ten years.
Erickson says, "It's not like taking up a piece of Mozart and reading it off and preparing it. But it's something that causes us to be flexible. We have to grow. We have to learn. We have to get rid of the stereotypes we might have about music or a particular culture. We have to approach it in a different way."
The piece may pose new challenges to the singers, but Erickson began the project by asking Vandervelde for music that could be performed by better high school and college choirs. He hopes "Medicine Woman" will have a life beyond this weekend's World Voices concerts.