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American Indian traditions come to classical music

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Jason Vieaux
Guitarist Jason Vieaux is the soloist in Chickasaw composer Jerod Tate's new guitar concerto, "Nitoshi' Imali."
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate was born in Norman, Oklahoma and grew up surrounded by classical music. He listened to his father play Bach and Rachmaninoff on the piano. His mother was a professor of dance and a choreographer. He spent evenings and weekends at rehearsals and performances of ballets and musicals. 

Tate studied the piano and had no intention of becoming a composer. But at the rather advanced age of 23, his mother asked him to write an original ballet score based on American Indian stories from the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains.

Jerod Tate
Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate is dedicated to spending his life looking for Indian solutions in classical music composition.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"It was the first time I actually thought of marrying the two very strong identities that I have," Tate says. "One is being a Chickasaw Indian, and the other one is being a classical musician. My mother presented the perfect opportunity for me to express both of those together."

Tate's new guitar concerto is titled "Nitoshi' Imali." It was a commission from the Joyce Foundation, and awarded to Tate and the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum. 

The work includes themes based on traditional love songs, war cries and dances. But with the exception of some special drums and percussion, the music is all played on standard western instruments. 

Tate says his goal is to illustrate American Indian sounds and culture with the classical orchestra.

Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis
Cary John Franklin conducts the Minneapolis Civic Orchestra at Wayzata Community Church.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"I would liken it very much to American Indian painting or other fine arts," he explains.  "American Indians in literature are using English to express Indian stories, even though it's not their native language. Indian artists are using acrylics, canvases and paint brushes, all of which are not aboriginal to this country. But the iconography is still in the painting and you can still really tell it's an Indian painting. There's a vibe to it."

"So by using a non-Indian palette with the orchestra," Tate adds, "I'm trying to express those things and abstracting them through European tools."

Jerod Tate lives in Colorado with his wife, Ursula Running Bear. The concerto is dedicated to her and written for his friend, acclaimed guitar virtuoso Jason Vieaux. 

The composer and guitarist met when they were both graduate students at The Cleveland Institute of Music, where Vieaux is now head of guitar studies. 

To help Vieaux prepare the concerto, Tate shared recordings of the songs on which he based his piece. Vieaux says hearing the tunes sung in their original context was helpful in capturing their nuance and rhythm.

Cary John Franklin
Civic Orchestra conductor Cary John Franklin says Jared Tate's guitar concerto is complex yet still stunningly beautiful.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"There's an inflection in the voice that you typically hear in these songs and melodies," the guitarist says. "Jerod skillfully notated them, and when you play the tunes, you can at least approximate that spirit. There's no question where these melodies come from."

Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis Music Director Cary John Franklin says Tate's concerto is a very layered and stunningly beautiful work.

The community orchestra and Jason Vieaux are premiering Tate's guitar concerto at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, with a second performance at Wayzata Community Church. Franklin says Tate has written a very personal piece.

"The thing about Jerod's music that I find fascinating is the wonderful lyrical nature of the music," the conductor says. "The melodies are combined with very interesting and sometimes complex rhythms."

In using the folk traditions of American Indians as the basis of his music, Jerod Tate is following in the footsteps of Bela Bartok and other classical composers who deconstructed the folk music and dances of their homelands and created new work. 

Whether listeners hear the Indian elements or not, Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate wants them to find his music emotionally appealing. 

"What I'm hoping is that no matter what, the music is just cool," Tate says. "You've got to have a cool factor in your music. I'm saying that in street terms, but I mean it very seriously. It has to be just good music. I'm hoping that people do hear the Indian influence in there, but at the same time I do want the work to survive on its own."

Guitarist Jason Vieaux wants Tate's concerto, "Nitoshi' Imali," to have a life after this weekend's premeire with the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis. He says it's a challenging work, but he'd like to get other conductors and orchestras excited about programming the concerto.