A Look at Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s “Tracing Mississippi”

A Chickasaw Nation composer (and Northwestern graduate) creates a new-music concerto about the Trail of Tears and his family’s ancestral lands.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate

 

One of the nice things about doing nothing in particular for publications is that I get the marginalia that people with actual beats discard. I miss out on the really sought-after stuff, but it means I find things I’d never have noticed otherwise. During a massive jewel-case purge and CD-filing marathon, I came across one of those bits of promo backlog, which has probably been floating around my apartment since my previous job:

Jerod Tate

I put it on my computer, and it slowly migrated to my phone, and one day I found myself listening to it on the bus. And I realized I really should have listened to it a long time ago—when that was, I’m not sure, since I have no idea how long it took to migrate from the music critic’s desk to the office grab bag, but it came out in 2008.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is an Oklahoma native and Chickasaw Nation citizen, the son of a pianist and dancer/choreographer, who studied piano at Northwestern with the intention of becoming a performer; he only got into composing when his choreographer mother talked him into scoring a ballet. In that early work, Tate used “tunes that were Indian-like”; his artistic mission has developed since then:

Tate decided his music from that point on would incorporate Chickasaw material, similar to the ways that such masters as Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly and Toru Takemitsu adopted indigenous music of their respective countries.

“What I’m doing is working on a sound I want to be identified as Indian,” he said. “I’m working for a nationalistic sound.”

In terms of adapting vernacular American music to a classical idiom, he’s somewhere in between, say, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland: not as aggressively iconoclastic as the former, but more dissonant and angular than the latter. In my favorite of the two works on the album, the concerto Tracing Mississippi, Tate sets the Chickasaw Garfish Dance song against a Choctaw hymm against an original melody by Comanche composer Dr. David Bad Eagle Yeagley, representations of three nations relocated along the Trail of Tears (you can hear it here). The San Francisco Chronicle’s David Wiegand hears both Stravinsky and the soundtrack to Ben Hur, and it is very filmic music—dynamic, spacious, and propulsive. Fitting vernacular music into the classical repertoire can be difficult, because completely foreign styles are so difficult to mesh, even more so as explicitly as Tate does. But it’s seamless, in part because 20th-century classical gives him a broader palette to work with. I don’t quite have the grasp of new-classical for you to take this as the gospel truth, but I haven’t immediately liked a piece like Tracing Mississippi in a long time.

Here’s Tate during the making of the album:

And Tate and others discussing his work:

 

Photograph: Alana Rothstein

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