Indigenous music celebrated in Nebraska Roots concert

Omaha Conservatory of Music to hold cross-cultural event


Indigenous themes take center stage for a March 24 Omaha Conservatory of Music concert that culminates the school’s “Nebraska Roots: Native American Music of the Omaha Indian Tribe” curriculum. Original Native music handed down through the generations will be performed in authentic fashion and juxtaposed with modern interpretations of Native music. The program is also the conservatory’s annual Winter Festival Orchestra showcase.

Various ensembles featuring conservatory students and youth players from  schools near and far will perform along with Omaha Indian tribal elders and students from St. Augustine Mission School on the Winnebago (Neb.) Reservation. Premiering are two pieces for orchestral strings written by OCM faculty member Danny Sarba that he adapted from Native tunes. One is the “Flag Song.” The other is “The Appreciation Song.”

A featured presentation is the all-star student Winter Festival Orchestra performing a movement from the OCM-commissioned and Pulitzer Prize and Grawemeyer Award nominated “La pert de la Terre” by noted composer Maria Newman. A member of a Hollywood dynasty of film composers, she drew on Native peace pipe melodies for her new work.

“She’s a stunning composer and she’s credited a pretty stunning work,” says OCM executive director Ruth Meints.

Guest conductor is David Barg, whom Meints describes as “an internationally known conductor” with “unorthodox methods” for getting the best out of young players.

The 7 p.m. program at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is free and open to the public.

Meints says the diverse concert expresses the nonprofit’s mission to build artistic communities through education and performance. “We’re always trying to do collaborative things that build community,” she says. “It should be a pretty full program. It’s kind of like all worlds are colliding.”

The concert caps the conservatory’s year-long exploration of “the first music of Nebraska.” Tribal elders Calvin Harlan and Pierre Merrick came to the conservatory, located in new digs at the Westside Community Center, to demonstrate the traditional way Omaha Indian music is performed. It’s all part of OCM’s effort to archive the music. A drum circle led by Harlan and Merrick was recorded at the OCM studio and will perform at the concert. The concert will also be professionally recorded. CDs containing the recordings will eventually be produced with a book of the transcribed music.

The idea to study, perform and record indigenous music has its roots in a 1893 book that Meints, a music educator, stumbled upon years ago. A Study of Omaha Indian Music by ethno-musicologist Alice Fletcher is a compilation of Omaha Indian chants and ceremonial music she recorded and transcribed. With Omaha Indian music a largely oral tradition and few Native speakers left, Meints thought the time right to celebrate and perpetuate traditional Native material and make it the focus of cross-cultural exchange.

She says elders have shared with students stories about the meanings behind the songs and students have performed for them selections from the new compositions by Sarba. Sarba spent time on the res and in Omaha recording-transcribing the elders’ music much as Fletcher did more than a century ago.

Conservatory teacher Cody Jorgensen is doing an outreach program with St. Augustine Mission students, including 2nd and 4th graders coming to sing for the concert.

Newman, a guest artist at the OCM summer institute, responded strongly when Meints asked her to conceive a piece echoing Native sounds. Her “La perte de la Terra” premiered at last year’s institute and has since been performed widely across the U.S.. Fletcher’s book became Newman’s inspiration. “I found that absolutely fascinating,” she says. “Just as Bela Bartok did with Romanian and Hungarian folk music and all the vernacular music of those peoples, Alice Fletcher did with Omaha Indian Nation music. Our country has for so many years been obsessed with European music, so I think what she did was really significant.”

Until working on the commission Newman says her exposure to Indian music was “in a cliche manner” informed by her own family’s Hollywood pedigree.

“We here in Hollywood have often been bombarded with real cliches of cowboys and Indians and that sort of thing, and so I was petrified to tell you the truth when I received this commission that I was going to offend somehow with my composition. I had not studied Indian music to the extent that I could understand what was going on with the small variations in tonality, intonation, musical contour. All of those things became so much more apparent when I began to study the Alice Fletcher book.

“I really worked hard to try to figure out how to use the pentatonic or five-note scale used by the Indian nations. I didn’t want to take one of those chants Alice Fletcher had on paper and arrange it. What I wanted to do was write something completely original. I was desperately trying to run away from cliche. I sought to create something that was somehow infused rhythmically and harmonically with the essence of those materials.”

Newman says “La perte de la Terra” translates literally as “A Part of the Earth” but that to French Indians it means “Lost Pieces of the Earth,” which expresses more closely what she means to evoke.

“I have a really great respect for our Native American cultures. A lot of blood was given by the Native American people in the white man taking over this continent. The blood they shed went into what made our country. Things like the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Louisiana Purchase also formed the country. These lost pieces of the earth came together as a puzzle and connected so that we could now hopefully join our nations and become one great nation.”

For more on the conservatory, visit www.omahacm.org.


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