Q & A with Joseph Horowitz

Curt Cacioppo, whose music will be heard at the ACF Classics concerts of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra Feb 7, 8 & 9 (2008) as well as at Chapman University on February 11, is a leading contemporary composer of concert works inspired by Native American influences. He studied at Kent State University in his native Ohio, at New York University (where he earned a Master’s Degree in Musicology), and at Harvard (where his teachers included the eminent American composer Leon Kirchner). Since 1983, he has taught at Haverford College, where in addition to his activities as a Professor of Music he has offered a Native American Studies course since 1992. He also established the Native American Fund at Haverford, which supports campus visits by Native American performers and speakers, as well as research. His music has been performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, and the National Symphony, among other orchestras. His commissions include works for the Emerson String Quartet, American String Quartet, Moscow String Quartet, and the Quartetto di Venezia. In 1997 he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts at Letters, who cited “the rich language which he has fashioned, and the flexibility and range it gives him to express himself musically, emotionally, and spiritually.”

When did you first take an interest in Native America culture?

I grew up in Ohio, in the Cuyahoga Valley – those are both Indian words. Indian vocabulary was all around. Postwar bourgeois utopias that had sprung up everywhere had streets like Cherokee Lane or Comanche Trail, you’d see Pontiacs or an occasional Thunderbird parked in the driveway, the house would have Mohawk carpet and there’d be Oneida silverware on the table. Chippewa Lake was nearby, not to mention Lake Eire, and of course we rooted for the Cleveland Indians. There was history and lore. Right across from where we lived was a little island – Goose Egg Island -- in the Cuyahoga River, where a band of Seneca had camped in the days of Tecumseh. And there were images that fascinated me, especially a bronze plaque that had been mounted on a big boulder at the bottom of the valley by the river crossing. On it was the image of an Indian carrying his canoe over his head, making the overland portage on foot from one point of the crooked river (that’s what Cuyahoga means -- crooked) to another to cut the distance. My grandmother used to take me to that spot so I could contemplate it, and I used to draw it over and over again in my sketchbook. That was when I was maybe eight or nine. So my interest really started as a childhood fascination.

Later I learned of the Indian background of some of my relatives – an aunt who was part Seneca, another aunt who was part Cherokee (these were non-blood relations). I found out too that one of my maternal ancestors who fought with Sherman in the Civil War had married an Indian. The book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee [Dee Brown’s seminal “Indian History of the American West”] made a tremendous impact in 1970. And it three years later that Marlon Brando, refusing to accept an Academy Award because of Hollywood’s way of “degrading the Indian,” sent Sacheen Littlefeather to read his statement at the ceremony. Then there was the second incident at Wounded Knee, the Leonard Peltier conviction, the occupation of the BIA headquarters. All this juxataposed with TV commercials like the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign with teary Iron Eyes Cody, and the Mazola maiden – “you call it corn, we call it maize…”

I first heard authentic Native American music in New York, over the radio, as background to readings by Scott Momaday. It made a deep and lasting impression. At Harvard, in graduate school, I sought out the Wampanoag tribe – the Indians who met the Pilgrims. I became friendly with one of the elders – the Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag Nation and head of the Massachusetts Council of Indian Affairs – and got to know some of the younger people. I joined the spiritual and cultural training council of that tribe. (The Wampanoags, you know, just were granted sovereignty this year by the federal government.) There are still many Indian groups in New England actively engaged in cultural revival. I visited many communities and attended powwows. On some occasions I was permitted to record music that was being sung, and that’s when I began transcribing and analyzing the songs in a serious way. I also arranged a couple of Indian gatherings at Harvard, including a residency by the Quawpaw-Chickasaw composer Louis Ballard. I met David McAllester at Harvard – he of course had studied with Margaret Meade and had gone on to do a vast amount of research on the Navajos and other tribes. He became my mentor. An Apache religion scholar, Inez Talamantez, from the Mescalero reservation, was also at Harvard when I was there, and we shared our work with each other.

What are some of your current projects dealing with Native American music?

Well, I’ve taught my course Native American Music and Belief for 16 years now, at Haverford College. We deal with the intersection of music, culture, and social justice. And I’ve just finished a project with Navajo spiritual leader John Co’íí Cook, preserving and annotating music of the Coyoteway healing ceremony, which is one of the sacred healing ceremonies of the Navajo. Working on the reservation in northern Arizona and back east at my studio at Haverford and a digital editing studio in Connecticut, we’ve restored the old recorded sources of this sacred chant (almost a two week long ritual), carefully documented the material, and organized it into an archival collection of 10 CDs. It will be a great resource for anyone seriously interested in Native American ceremonialism, music, or Navajo/Athapaskan studies.

What would you say accounts for your immersion in Native American life and thought?

As time went on I found myself looking for societal alternatives and for spiritual and artistic direction. I’ve been drawn more and more deeply into a shared Native American philosophy that centers on finding balance and understanding the meaning of your place in the world, on the planet, in relation to nature and to other beings. Do you know the movie Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio? The title he chooses is Hopi, it means “life out of balance.” That pretty much sums up the problem. You know, rushing toward goals which have not been sufficiently thought through, whose value is short term but whose long term impact will be negative. The Iroquois have a way of thinking about things so that as decisions are made, they’re made thinking seven generations ahead. I call it their “Seven Generation Dictum.” Take no action unless you have fully considered its repercussions for those who will be living seven generations hence. Especially in mainstream America, I think we arrive at judgments and make decisions on the basis of short-term benefit – a sort of shoot now and ask questions later mentality. Look at how that has affected the environment, for instance.

How would you situate yourself vis-à-vis the “Indianist” movement in American culture, which we associate with writers like Longfellow and James Fenimore Cooper, and with painters like George Catlin and Frederic Remington, and with composers like Arthur Farwell (whose piano and choral works we sample at our festival)?

Well, this term “Indianism” makes me think of something cosmetic. There are people, like Jack Beeson, who dismiss the Indianist composers as just reaching for exoticism with which to dress up the Western idiom of their time – which admittedly is what most of them did. Farwell was probably the most deeply involved with Native source materials. He spent a lot of time out there in the Tetons, and was genuinely attuned to the landscape and its indigenous populations. I think that in pieces like the Navajo War Dance No. 2 and Pawnee Horses he does a very creditable job of carrying over the basic rhythmic feel and the intervallic content and phrasing of the originals into a Western performance genre. In some of his work he tends only to make an adaption of Native music – harmonizing an Indian tune with chords that aren’t much different from what’s in the Methodist hymnal. But in these pieces, he transcends those examples, and his idiom starts to convert to the Indian mode. In other words, the “Indianism” is not cosmetic, but structural. Busoni in his best moments succeeds in this way too, for instance, the 2nd piece of the Indian Diary. These were the models that appealed to me at first in my own quasi-Indianist efforts like Pawnee Preludes.

I have the impression that interest in Native American sources is resurgent today in American concert music – that there are a number of gifted Native American composers, that significant developments are brewing.

There’s something now called the “First Nations Composer Initiative.” It spans a lot of different styles, including concert music. I think that may determine some kind of substantial movement in the future, creating successful concert works reflecting Native American identity and perspective. In fact, I think it’s already happening. You may have seen a recent episode of “From the Top” that featured a young Navajo composer, Rochelle Chester, who appeared at Carnegie Hall to hear her string quartet premiered. She and other Navajo and Hopi teens are apprenticing with mentors like Raven Chacon and Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate to learn theory, instrumentation, and write for classical ensembles like string quartet, wind quintet, and so on. This is very promising.

Historically, the Indianist movement was an attempt to locate American cultural identity in indigenous sources. It was bedeviled, of course, by the Indian Wars – we nearly wiped out our indigenous population. We can’t really connect with Native peoples and practices the way Mexicans can, or Brazilians.

You’ve raised the topic of the American Holocaust. That’s something that has weighed heavily on me for decades. I don’t want to say I’m without an “American” identity – after all, I’m half Anglo-Saxon, my DAR relations have traced us back to a family on the Mayflower --, but so much of my inquiry has to do with the extent of the damage that European Americans inflicted on Native people and on their land. Considering the treatment of Native Americans since Anglos first came here, and witnessing the pattern of disenfranchisement, the making and breaking of treaties on the part of our government, and the constant petitioning and re-petitioning on the part of Native Americans asking that treaties be upheld – you know, considering all that, and that it’s not just a thing of the past, but is very an issue of the present, I composed Crying for Justice, which the Pacific Symphony is performing. Here you might say my “American” identity is that of a citizen sympathetically trying to frame the feelings of anger, impatience, urgency that Native people have had to and still must live with in the face of wrongs inflicted on them. This emotional state is relieved by glimpses of what the landscape would have been like before European the invasion. The sense of reminiscence and waiting for restitution erupts in an outcry, a seven-fold repetition, that parallels the Seven Laws of the Pipe – the natural law or code of behavior -- of the Lakota people, a kind of proclamation. And those laws are: generosity and sharing; pity and compassion; respect and honor; patience and tolerance; humility; bravery, fortitude and principles; wisdom and understanding.

Native American music eschews harmony and embraces microtones – features that promote a dissonant idiom in your music, or Arthur Farwell’s.

Yes, by and large, traditional Native American music uses no harmony. And it’s primarily vocal, accompanied by percussion sometimes and sometimes not. There’s a huge and imaginative variety of drums and rattles, many of them metaphorical and symbolic in their construction. Dance regalia often contributes to the percussion accompaniment as well. Instrumentally there are traditions of fiddle playing, flute playing – and here you can find a wide variety in construction and range – and double reeds can also be found. There are many different styles of singing. Northern Plains singing does not sound like Southeastern singing, Iroquois singing is easily distinguished from Southwestern style.

I’ve long been fascinated by the absence of harmony in Indian music. In western music, harmony is a principal parameter, but the interest in Indian music is in the pitch bending that links the melody notes together. One thing that’s really interested me has been how to transfer this kind of effect to the piano, for instance. My piano music explores dissonance in a way that intends to simulate the sort of pitch bending that you hear when Indian melodies are sung. That’s not at all unlike dissonant crunches you get in jazz piano playing that’s trying to capture blues vocal inflection…in fact, it goes all the way back to the acciaccatura in the baroque period. Another exciting aspect of Indian music is that the timing of the singing is in an intricately syncopated relationship to the drumbeat. Early on, ethnographers thought of the melody and drum beat being in two different tempos. As things became better understood, the syncopation of the melody could be appreciated. Try yourself to reproduce what Sioux or Ojibway singers do like on a track from one of the recent “Gathering of Nations Powwow” CDs, and you see right away just how intricately involved the syncopation really can be.

How would you describe your stylistic evolution as a composer?

When I was in high school my composition was an outgrowth of my piano playing, so the music that I was writing was influenced by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin. At the same time I was really getting interested in jazz: Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis – all of which I had to keep secret from my strictly classical piano teacher, whose taste even within the classical repertoire was very exclusivist. In college, I was still writing pieces in a late Romantic vein. This was a time, the late 60’s-early ‘70’s, when serialism was still in force – we were expected to compose either twelve-tone music or aleatoric/indeterminate music, or anything as long as it wasn’t tonal. I really didn’t want to speak that party line. I continued to compose, but in the closet. Then in my senior year as a piano major I was asked to perform on the twentieth century music series. Some pieces were suggested, but in rummaging through the stacks in the music library I discovered Leon Kirchner’s Piano Sonata. It spoke to me immediately. It sounded like real music. It was dynamic, dramatic, and rich in detail. It was highly pianistic, technically challenging but a joy to play. I eventually studied with Kirchner at Harvard.

The connection to Kirchner makes sense to me. Like you, he’s a composer/pianist. His music, like yours, is visceral, emotional. And it’s highly dissonant but never serial.

Kirchner is a phenomenal pianist in any repertoire, certainly the best exponent of his own piano music, which as I’ve said is far from easy to play. He has the facility to condense dense streams of notes into mere ornaments, and reveal the underlying logic of the music. I’ve always admired the composer who has achieved virtuosity like this. I really am a believer that a composer must take responsibility for his notes, and that includes being able to play them convincingly. The emotionality of Kirchner’s music was of course another definite point of connection for me. It acted to reinforce the basic thrust of my own music.

A final question: In your compositions, as in Arthur Farwell’s, I find an arid musical landscape, a primal intensity evoking the Indian lands of the southwestern United States. Is this a conscious connection?

Well, yes, I have consciously tried to absorb the imagery and atmosphere of the southwestern landscape. For instance, looking at the Painted Desert in Arizona I ask myself: How can I recreate this in my music? The areas that I’ve spent the most time in are New Mexico and Arizona -- Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Tuba City, Piñon, Tucson. Wyoming and the Tetons, Denver and Boulder, and California – all the West is evocative. And the people that I’ve gotten to meet in these places, Native and non-Native have been inspirational for me. Visiting the pueblos, the reservations, seeing tribal dances and participating in ceremony has been crucial to my artistic and personal life. Reading the poetry of Simon Ortiz, for instance, or looking at the pottery of Maria Martinez or the paintings of Pablita Velarde – these are the kinds of stimulation that I’m avid about. At the same time, some of the finest musical experiences can be had in the West – the Taos and Tucson chamber music festivals, the Santa Fe Opera, the Pacific Symphony. Recently I participated in the annual Composers Symposium at the University of New Mexico, an entire week of concerts and colloquia devoted to music of living composers. The Del Sol Quartet gave an excellent performance there of one in a cycle of quartets of mine based on Navajo legends. A Distant Voice Calling is the title, and it traces creation from the first emanations of light to the appearance of first man and first woman. This geography you asked about, the way the light hits the landscape at different times of day – all of the imagery of the region was in my mind as I was writing it. Actually another person I met out in Albuquerque was Paul Zolbrod. Originally from Pittsburgh and now an emeritus Allegheny College English professor, he resides there and does some teaching at Crownpoint on the Navajo reservation. I’ve used his translation of the Navajo creation story for decades. We spent a lot of time together, talking especially about the Arizona/New Mexico landscape and how it’s so vividly connected to events and personages in the Navajo creation story. Changing Woman is their principal deity, and Monsterslayer is her son. Human habitation was impossible until Monsterslayer rid the earth of the evil creatures, above all, the giant Yeitso. There’s an imposing geological formation with undulating red ridges that flow like huge fingers to the ground that you see along Rt. 40. People today recognize it as the place where Yeitso’s blood was spilt, the place where Monsterslayer killed him. You hear people talking in ordinary conversation about Changing Woman or the Sunbearer, children make poster displays of the sacred mountains or dioramas of Yeibichei dances. The land, its sanctity, the holy people, the music – it’s all there, and very much alive.